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Making it in a tough business

Al Greco, the 78-year-old co-owner of Apsco Appliance, a Largo mom and pop store that sells about 18 percent of all major appliances in Pinellas County. The key to 37 years in this tough trade? Servicing everything the stores sell with their own people.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Al Greco, the 78-year-old co-owner of Apsco Appliance, a Largo mom and pop store that sells about 18 percent of all major appliances in Pinellas County. The key to 37 years in this tough trade? Servicing everything the stores sell with their own people.

Sears sells more major appliances in Pinellas County than anyone. Lowe's is second, but it's closely followed by a three-store mom and pop. Apsco Appliance Centers last year sold 18 percent of the major appliances — refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers and washer/dryers — in Pinellas. Shoppers at the flagship of this homespun retailer are met by a 12-year-old black chow named Daisy. Kids are treated to free toys, and customers are seated with salespeople next to a colorful stained glass window with modernist images of appliances (the artwork of company treasurer/wife of the president Myrna Greco). At 78, Boston-bred Al Greco remains firmly in charge after watching 103 rival stores (from Hall's to Montgomery Ward to Circuit City) come and go in Pinellas over Apsco's 37 years. A survivor in a brutally competitive business, he doubts anybody today could start from scratch and prosper like he and semiretired partner Darrell Hoag.

What's been the secret?

Competing on price is no problem. We're in a national buying co-op with 2,000 independent dealers. The difference is we service everything we sell with our own people. So each sale is a continuous process. The chain stores all palm off service to contractors. To them the sale ends the process. For us it means 60 percent of our customers are repeat business. Plus our salespeople work salary plus commission, and we've been in most every condo and housing development in Pinellas County. So they really know the products and how to fit them.

How did you get in this business?

As a kid, I wanted to be a tradesman. I didn't like carpentry. Plumbing was okay, but it was a killer lugging bathtubs up and down three flights of stairs. Then a buddy from the Navy, Darrell, and I bought a failing appliance repair school in Boston. While figuring out how to get the school on its feet, I sat in the classrooms and picked up appliance repair. I'd see students asleep when they taught all the technical stuff, so I told the teachers to make it more involving. Make them take apart an appliance while they teach the technical stuff. Then make them get it back to together before they can go home. That worked.

How did Apsco land in Largo?

We liked Florida and wanted to start a service business in a growing market. What sold us was Tampa International Airport. Nobody had anything like it. It told you this area was taking off. Construction was everywhere. In 1972 we rented space on E Bay Drive when it was still two lanes. I chose Largo because St. Petersburg was a toll call from Clearwater. But you call both ends of Pinellas toll-free from Largo. We got in retail after service customers kept saying repair cost so much they would buy new. Now that's 75 percent of our business.

What's your typical day like?

I'm here at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week. I go over the service schedules, then yesterday's sales, talk with the sales staff and sign checks, then the office manager and I mop the sales floor. That saves us $168 a week we paid somebody. I leave by 3 p.m., then call in from home. I'm slowing down. I used to be here until 8 p.m. Never took a vacation other than an extended weekend to New York to see a play or something.

How's business?

Everybody is down. The remodeling business — where people would replace an entire kitchen —- is gone. Our sales dropped from $22 million in 2007 to $16 million last year, although I've seen some positive signs the last month. We had to cut everything, even the payroll from 72 to 54 people.

How have appliance buying habits changed?

Today you can still buy a basic range for $400, a basic refrigerator for $499. But people are getting used to extra features — there is minimal trading down even in this economy. Only one in 200 refrigerators we sell today are basic model. It's like finding a car without automatic windows. Nobody goes back.

Could somebody get in this business today as easily as you and Darrell did?

You couldn't get financing for a small business like us today. Nobody's teaching appliance repair — not even the vo-tech schools. It's hard to find applicants.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Making it in a tough business 07/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 7:03am]
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