Alex and Karina Cole: Retailing is in their DNA

Alex Cole and his sister Karina in a Cole’s Appliance kitchen vignette.

By Alan Wolf, YSN

Succession and market share are arguably two of the greatest challenges facing independent dealers.

But Cole’s Appliance & Home Furnishings of Lincoln, MI, has managed to tackle both issues in one fell swoop. Actually, make that two.

Owner Brad Cole’s aces in the hole are his twenty-something children, Alex and Karina, who, following college and a stint in the outside world, decided to cast their lots with the family business.

But rather than assume the same sales and backroom duties they shouldered part-time during school (Karina even taught herself LINQ), the siblings took on a bigger task: opening and operating the first new Cole’s location since the company was founded in 1962.

It wasn’t always a clear path. Older brother Alex grew up in the business, at first cutting up boxes in the warehouse to earn some spending money during summer breaks and later as a teenager making deliveries, followed by his first forays into sales.

The part-time hours continued into college, when Alex would make the two-hour drive home from Saginaw Valley State University to work Thursdays through Saturdays at the store. But after graduating with a degree in marketing and a minor in entrepreneurship and mathematics, he took a headquarters position with a Lansing, MI, insurance company to be near Michigan State University, where his wife was studying to be a veterinary technician.

Three years later the couple decided to move closer to their families in Northern Michigan, where Alex would join Cole’s Appliance full time.

“It was a tough decision,” recalled Alex, now 26. “I had a really good job, my wife had a lot of offers, and Cole’s was doing really well. But they were very short-handed, and I felt that together with my sister we could really take it to the next level.”

For Karina Cole, too, career options were plentiful. She pursued her passion for basketball, which afforded her a college scholarship in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.  The mathematics major had even considered answering a calling in medicine. But ultimately, she missed working in the store, where she started at the age of 10 cleaning used washers, assembling grills and unpacking inventory, and later delivering and installing appliances with her dad.

She eventually graduated to sales, and even while away at school handled the paperwork for return merchandise and the scratch-and-dent business.

“How would I leave this?” she asked herself, and after three years in Canada, returned to her true first love – Cole’s Appliance, the company founded 57 years ago by her grandfather Jack, now 90.

Back under the Cole’s Appliance roof, Alex resumed his sales duties and took on the marketing function, while Karina plunged headfirst into the scratch-and-dent operation. “It became my baby,” said the now 23-year-old, who didn’t miss a beat after college. “I left school on a Friday and I started that Monday,” she recounted. “I love working; I work six days a week and would work seven if they let me.”

Soon thereafter an opportunity presented itself that could supercharge the business and test the mettle of the third-generation Cole’s Appliance kids. A former Sears Hometown store was up for grabs less than an hour away in Tawas City, MI, and their dad (Brad Cole), who also does double duty as Region President and Regional Manager of BrandSource’s Michigan territory, knew just the management duo to head the project.

But the siblings, both members of BrandSource’s under-40 Young Professionals group, had to work fast: The storefront was obtained in mid-May and a soft opening was planned for July 1.

“There was a lot more to it than I expected,” Karina acknowledged. “We wanted it to be perfect, and there were so many things that were easy to overlook.”

But brother and sister, who were raised to be independent, were more than up to the task. With help from dad and an assist from BrandSource, the pair moved quickly to make the old Sears space a new Cole’s store.

“We got a lot of input from BrandSource on the best model mixes from all the brands,” Alex said. “That was really helpful, along with some input on how to lay out the store. They also have a lot of ideas on interior signage that they’ve shared, although we haven’t finalized all our signage yet.”

For Alex, one of the most daunting aspects of the launch was finding the right people to staff the store. “They had to fit our company’s core values of honesty, integrity and taking care of the customer,” he said. “We have a very low-pressure sales approach; we’ll tell people to think it over rather than hard-sell them, and the majority do come back.”

Tawas City itself tends to draw a higher-end demographic than Cole’s original market of Lincoln, owing in part to the larger number of beach homes and seasonal customers. Accordingly, the new store’s assortment features more step-up lines, Alex said, and will focus on appliances and TVs, where the Lincoln store sells mattresses, furniture, and flooring.

After a successful soft launch, the company held a formal grand opening on July 19, complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony, refreshments and a putting contest giveaway with over $4,000 in prizes including a Speed Queen washer and dryer, KitchenAid mixers and $100 gift cards. “We had a big turnout,” said Alex, who leveraged his marketing degree and primed the pump with radio and newspapers ads and created “a huge buzz” with social media.

Dad Brad is understandably proud of his children’s success but has learned to expect nothing less from the brother and sister team. “I am very pleased at how Alex and Karina work together,” he told YourSource. “I am not surprised though. They grew up in a close-knit, faith-based family and have used those strengths to excel. They both know their roles and work hard at advancing our two stores. Their passion is just as strong as ours.”

Today, Karina still visits the Tawas City store daily, and Alex continues to hone his digital media skills, working with AVB Marketing on Google and Facebook efforts. He also spends about two hours a week shooting and posting videos that share the Cole family’s values, rather than push a particular sales promotion. “That’s what we’ve found to be successful,” he said.

And when it comes to success, Alex and Karina are clearly following in the Cole Family’s footsteps.

YSN is published by BrandSource parent company AVB Inc.