There are lots of reasons why Port Huron, Mich., is absolutely buggy over Kimball Appliance.
By Alan Wolf
The company, which started in 1927 as a feed store, was the first in the county to carry major appliances, and its customer base goes back four generations. In fact, Kimball’s boasts that there isn’t a house in town that it hasn’t delivered to at one time or another.
In addition, it has stayed true to its consumer electronics roots, which go back to the first tube radios and continue today with the latest flat-panel TVs and new and vintage audio.
A one-stop shop, Kimball’s also services everything it sells, and helps finish area homes with its wide selection of furniture, mattresses and home fashions.
Want more? There’s owner Nick Bondarek, a former Kimball’s manager who bought the business in 1998. Bondarek was a 23-year-old on his way to a teaching degree when he joined the company and wound up acquiring it three years later. He went on to earn an MBA in marketing and leveraged that know-how for traffic-driving social media and in-store events, while still remaining true to Kimball’s customer-first philosophy with seven-day-a-week service and around-the-clock monitoring.
It was also Bondarek who brought Kimball’s into the BrandSource family. After attending a regional meeting where he connected with current CEO Jim Ristow, he threw his lot in with the group, attracted by its strong consumer electronics programs and its not-for-profit nature.
“BrandSource helps me compete with my big-box competitors,” Bondarek said. “And as the programs get more competitive, I can become the competitor!”
But perhaps the greatest individual asset in Kimball’s quiver, and the real reason customers go buggy, is one Vern Norton, Jr., better known to friends, family, and all of St. Clair County as “Junebug.” Nicknamed by his dad for the month he was born and to differentiate father and son, Junebug began working for Kimball’s feed store 67 years ago. Now, at the ripe young age of 80, he still delivers, installs, repairs and occasionally sells appliances for the business five days a week, after recently cutting back from six.
Over the course of his long tenure, Junebug, a.k.a. Junior Norton, has become a fixture of Port Huron and the surrounding communities, both through his ubiquitous home deliveries and his central role in Kimball’s marketing and advertising, which often features the tagline, “Nobody Beats the Bug.”
“I always saw him as a dynamic personality and started popping him in our ads,” Bondarek recalled. “It created a buzz, and people started asking for his autograph.”
But Junebug is so much more to Bondarek than just a booster of the brand. “I can’t say enough about this guy,” he said. “He’s unlike anybody I ever met. He’ll sell, deliver, install, refurbish and repair. Some customers only ask for him. Yet he’s really down to earth and has no qualms about hopping onto a truck. Service and delivery are the backbone of the business, and I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Norton began his career with Kimball’s at the age of 13, driving a delivery truck among other chores. When he got nicked by the state police for underage driving, owner Harvey Kimball pulled some strings and arranged for a special driver’s permit so that he could continue making deliveries. Over the years he also worked as a foreman at a Kimball-held foundry, served in the U.S. Army and National Guard, and owned or co-owned a firewood business and a CB radio store.
But his real love, besides his family and his custom 1951 Ford, is appliances, and the customers that buy them from Kimball’s. “I just love it,” Junebug said of his job. “My boss, the environment, the people … I just love it,” he said.
Indeed, the admiration between Norton and Bondarek is mutual. “When Kimball’s was sold Nick took care of me better than anybody,” Junebug said. And when Junebug turned 80 this past June, Bondarek held a storewide celebration that drew large crowds – including the mayor, a county commissioner and former owner Darwin Kimball – and was heralded by the local news and Chamber of Commerce.
“It made me feel really good,” Norton said.
Not surprisingly, Junebug has no plans to retire, only to continue making his rounds with his delivery partner of 40 years, Bill Hauver. “I don’t plan on changing,” he said. “I’m just going to keep on keeping on.” Which is just fine with Bondarek.
Any words of advice for BrandSource members, based on his 67 years of service? “Just take care of your employees,” Junebug said. “Treat them like family.”
YSN is published by BrandSource parent company AVB Inc.