By Patricia S. Guthrie
For The Bellingham Business Journal
If you’re ever looking for the owners of Everett’s homegrown appliance store, Judd & Black, try the freight room. Or the repair shop.
Or the aisles of their five stores now spread up and down the I-5 corridor in five counties.
Because that’s where Bob and Cory Long often can be found doing what comes naturally to the brothers carrying on the legacy of their grandfather’s business, now in its 75th year.
Company president, Bob Long III, 48, says his employees are often shocked to find him doing not-so-white-collar work.
They ask, “‘Bob, why are you up in the warehouse putting away freight or running a hand truck?’ It’s because I work, this is my job,” says the matter-of-fact boss of some 100 employees. “This is what I do.”
Work hard, take care of customers, treat employees like family, give back to the community and don’t buy it if you can’t afford it.
And for goodness sake, provide repair service for the refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, dryers, dish washers, and other major appliances that go out the door.
Such business axiom has been passed down from founder Bob Long Sr., to his sons, Bob Long Jr. and Bill Long, then to the sons of Bob Long Jr., Bob Long III and Cory Long, 46. It’s now being instilled in the fourth generation, Taylor Long, Bob’s 24-year-old son.
Working their way up — and buying out the business from the previous generation — is also a Long tradition. Bob III started doing deliveries in 1983, took out trash and worked in the warehouse. Cory started in the late 1980s while still in high school. Taylor also began learning the ropes — or wires and electronics — at a young age. But he didn’t have to, he stresses.
“It wasn’t required. I decided I wanted to do it,” he says walking past rows of spanking new stoves, refrigerators, dryers, grills and dish washers. “I started at age 16 with the delivery department, then service and parts and now I’m on the sales floor. Yeah, I’ll probably be a lifer like the others.”
It’s also not unusual to find sons and daughters of long-time employees at Judd & Black’s five stores in Everett, Bellingham, Lynnwood, Marysville and Mount Vernon. One reason is the reasonable hours, steady shifts and getting major holidays off when stores are closed.
Unlike large retail stores, Judd & Black businesses are open only from 9 to 5:30 every day.
Why? Because the original Bob Long wanted to be home for dinner every night and spend time with his family.
“We care about our employees as much as we care about our customers,” says his namesake grandson, Bob Long lll. “We’re not open until 9 o’clock tonight. We’re not trying to kill anybody. That’s why our hours are where they’re at. You have a whole other part of your life. You have children, you have family, you have church.”
But where are Judd and Black?
They’ve told the story countless times but seem happy to provide the history lesson one more time.
Way back when, in 1940, when microwaves were science fiction and wood-fired wasn’t a cooking fad but a necessity (OK maybe not that far back) a man named Wayne Judd opened his own small electric shop selling and repairing new-fangled items. Think cake mixers and toasters. Don Black joined a few years later.
In 1945, a young enterprising man named Bob Long who knew his way around wires started working for them. At the end of World War II, when rations on metal and other material came to an end, along came a new way to wash clothes using electricity.
Washing machines — no hands-on wringer required — soon became the envy of every American household. So Judd & Black got into the washing machine sales business. And Bob Long really got into the suds, soak and rinse cycles.
“He thought the washing machine was a pretty cool invention and it took off,” said Rachel Sylte, marketing director for Judd & Black, who recently gathered materials for the company’s 75th anniversary celebration. “In 1976, Bob Long, Sr. purchased the business and turned it into an appliance store.” He decided to keep the name Judd & Black. As did his sons, and his son’s sons.
“These are the guys who founded it. They’re the ones who worked their butts off,” says the current Bob Long. (His father, Robert Forbes Long, died in 2011.) “They’re the ones who made it. I don’t think any of us put a lot into the name. We’re branded this way. I have too much respect for what this company has done for the last 75 years to go change the name.”
Bob Jr. bought the company in 1986; his sons, in turn, took over the family enterprise in 2005, three years before the economy went boom, boom, bleak.
From 2008 through 2010, the company struggled.
“In hindsight we were a little bit naive,” Bob Long lll, admits.” You don’t know how to play the game until you’ve played hurt. We only knew how to play successful up to that point. We were riding on our parents coattails.”
Give back, don’t go in debt
Once a fixture in only Snohomish County, the past four years have presented opportunities the Long brothers couldn’t pass up. They took over two appliance stores, Anderson Appliance in Mount Vernon and Lehmann Appliance in Bellingham, and also merged with Anaco Appliance in Anacortes. This means the name Judd & Black bellows from yellow and blue trademark signs up and down the I-5 corridor from Lynnwood to the Canadian border, covering Skagit , Snohomish, Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties.
But the brothers say they won’t be expanding anymore anytime soon. They are careful not to overextend themselves or their company.
Bob Long says his grandfather taught him “if you can’t pay for it, don’t buy it.”
“Never borrow any money. Don’t ever pay interest. We don’t buy trucks or tools or office equipment if we have to finance. If you have to buy a truck, it hurts swallowing $75,000 to buy a new delivery truck. But it’s what you’ve got to have to do the job.”
With hub stores in Everett and Mount Vernon, the business also has a large parts department, a large crew to install appliances and union-represented service technicians.
Bob and Cory Long’s father and grandfather were both skilled electricians so they grew up learning the importance of skilled trades and manual labor.
“Repairing appliances is kind of a dying art. If you go to school, you’re going to learn how to repair computers or something like that. You’re not going to learn to repair a washing machine,” said the current Bob Long. “When you buy something at Lowes or Home Depot, they don’t have repair service. So we pick up a lot of their service calls.”
Judd & Black also makes sure their sales staff know their stuff, the selling points of brands like Whirlpool, Maytag, Kitchen-Aid, Gen-Air, Wolf and Viking.
“We have a lot of knowledge that you can’t get in big box stores,” Sylte said. “We send our sales people all over the country to learn about the latest products.” Community service is also a Judd & Black tradition. Recently retired long-time general manager, Rick Kvangnes, was known for his leadership of Christmas House, which collects and distributes presents for low-income families. The company also supports the Boys and Girls Club, the annual Charity Golf Tournament, and many other service, art, and sports organizations. Employees are also encouraged to volunteer their time. “We’re a family company and we’re a hometown company so we help support the communities we live and work in,” said Sylte, vice president of the Skagit Tulip Festival board.
The brothers can also be pretty low-key about their charitable donations, often requesting anonymity.
“My brother and I were taught a long time ago by our grandparents that you know when you give, you give to give, you don’t give to get. There’s marketing promotions and there’s community donations.”