Purchase photos

Family finds success

6/6/2014

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net

There's an evolution of sorts that needs to happen for businesses to grow and remain successful.

But even when a business is evolving, there still needs to be a constant. For S&W Supply, that constant comes in the form of a family atmosphere from generation to generation -- and is a big reason why it's celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

"When we started, guys that called on us sold buggy whips and bumpers," said Don Bickle Sr., who has devoted more than 60 years of his life to the company.

"We don't have any of them any more,"  one son, Tim Bickle, laughed.

The Bickles and S&W Supply have evolved through the years. Now, Tim and Don Bickle Jr. are partners in the ownership of the business. The company began in 1934 in Hays, but traces its start to Claude Sutter and his wife, Helen Bickle. When the business grew, it moved to Hays, and Don Wells and his wife, Lyle Bickle, joined forces -- hence the name S&W.

"It's been phenomenal,"  Don Bickle Sr. said about the success of the business. "Mrs. Wells gets a lot of credit for what it is today because she stayed with it all through the years. Back in those days, we had a lady president. You didn't have that back then. People thought Lyle Wells was a man. She always just signed Lyle Wells. Those that didn't know her were surprised when they met her."

There's no surprise now with the success S&W has seen. The business formerly was west of Main on 10th Street, then moved to Eighth and Ninth streets. Since 1954, the Hays location is in the 300 block of East Eighth. It's been added onto several times, including the recent 7,500-square-foot addition south across the alleyway that features 27-foot sidewalls. The first addition to the east formed Warehouse Inc. There's also seven other S&W shops in smaller towns: Colby, Hill City, Plainville, La Crosse, Osborne, Ness City and Russell.

When the business first came to Hays, it leased a building built by Dr. Murray Eddy because S&W didn't have money to put up for a building.

Things have changed since that first location 80 years ago.

"What they used to do, with how small the store was, if you came in and bought say a water pump, they would give you the water pump but ask if they could keep the box to put it back on the shelf so it looked like we had more inventory," said Tim, whose son, Jacob, now helps in the store.

"That was important, because you truly couldn't depend on the books and things like that," Don Bickle Sr. said. "You had to compare all the major changes to what it was back then. Now days, you can hardly get a catalog because everything is on computer. From an inventory standpoint, we used to do all the counting all by hand and the like. It was just the way of doing business."

One of the ways the family business has evolved is by hitching its wagons to Federated Auto Parts and Independent Distributors Cooperative USA.

"On of biggest changes was in '84 or '85 when we joined Federated Auto Parts," said Ryan Bickle, the company's vice president of sales and the son of Don Bickle Jr. who began working at the store during his eighth-grade summer 22 years ago. "That's allowed us to compete with the big guys."

Eight years ago, S&W joined IDCUSA as well. The business offers parts and supplies for many platforms, including automotive, industrial, oilfield and agricultural markets.

"Biggest thing was hitching our wagons to both Federated and IDC,"  Don Bickle Jr. said. "It's a bunch of independent distributors who are all pooled together, which allows us to have the purchasing and marketing power the big chains have. Without those two things, I'm not saying we wouldn't be here right now, but we wouldn't be as strong as we are."

"And we might not be here," Don Bickle Sr. said.

"That's true," Don Bickle Jr. said. "Anyone that's not part of a national market like that has struggled."

There's no question S&W has survived and succeeded along the way. The Bickles credit that also to a strong family bond -- not only between themselves, but also with employers.

"We try to tend to people more as family and not as employees,"  said Don Bickle Jr., who has been with the business 40 years. "I think that's been our key to retaining those people. Anybody can rent a building and fill it full of parts, put the shelving in. And that guy can have three times as much inventory as another guy. But if that one guy has the people, that's where the business is going to go. Our business is still a people business. Our customers need to know you have educated, trained people they can trust."

"And we have some of the best," said Tim, who's been in the business 31 years.

"And I'd put any of our guys up against the best," Don Bickle Jr. said. "They're truly professionals."

On most Mondays through Fridays, vans delivering products to the other seven S&W stores and multiple sites flying the Federated flag can travel approximately 3,700 miles per night. On a monthly basis, they tend to nearly 120 stores.

"We do things differently," Ryan said. "It still is about customer service, which in turn, our inventory is different. We have a lot of items you wouldn't have in those Denver, Dallas areas."

On Saturday, S&W Supply will bring NASCAR legend Kenny Schrader to town to compete in modified racing at RPM Speedway in Hays. Schrader is a spokesperson for Federated, and a longtime friend of the Bickle family.

"That's going to be a lot of fun, especially when Federated is helping S&W celebrate 80 years,"  Schrader said. "It's great to help promote the tracks and the local racers."

That giving-back attitude is something that has propelled the Bickles to success. From the start of company, the behind the scenes work of Lyle Wells making things go to providing college tuition help for children of employees, S&W has been growing and prospering along the way.

"We've kind of been involved as we've evolved along the way," Don Bickle Jr. said about the realization of just how successful S&W has become through the years. "If that question was asked back then, no. We just didn't go, 'Boom.' We've made small steps along the way. Whatever we've done, we've tried to grow sensibly along the way. ... We've tried to do it well and take care of our customers before we move on the way."