Southeast Steel Celebrates 80 Years and Has Yet to Cool Down

The warehouse-style building has no heat or central air, making for chilly winters and warm summers in the showroom.

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Southeast Steel Appliance Warehouse is commemorating its 80th year in business this fall, and while the Florida business has always peddled steel of some sort, it wasn’t always appliances.

A 1968 agreement with Jenn-Air for promotional consideration signed by Bubba Lippton.

The store is operated by Stuart “Stu” Kimball and his son Spencer, whose granddad, Irving “Bubba” Lippton, started the business in 1940. Bubba was a purchasing agent for the government during the war, and later used his connections to create a supply hub for steel production equipment that he would eventually ship worldwide, which gave the company its unique name.

Irving “Bubba” Lippton meets the loneliest guy in the world in 1996 – the Maytag repair man.

Southeast Steel has been a fixture in downtown Orlando ever since — and still gets an occasional call for a No. 5 re-bar. “We have to tell them that we sold the last ones in the 1950s,” Spencer joked. That’s when the business pivoted to retail sales of steel casement windows, followed by home appliance shortly thereafter.

Stu and his wife Joan left the Boston area in 1978 to join the family business started by Bubba, Joan’s father. While Stu is still actively involved in the day-to-day, it is Spencer who has become the face of Southeast Steel, for which he has worked full time since 1992.

Second- and third-generation owners Stu (right) and Spencer Kimball of Southeast Steel

The company moved to its current location in the mid-1970s and to this day has no air conditioning in its Central Florida showroom. “We have ceiling fans and cold bottles of Costco water,” Spencer jested. As a result, he said, “We sport one of the fastest sales floors in the whole country. I would challenge anyone who says otherwise. People don’t dotter around in the summer.”

There are also a few days each winter when the temps dip down into the 30s, bringing the showroom down to the 40s. (That’s right, no heat either!) Those are the times Kimball says he comes to work sporting his thermals. “This place is a warehouse,” he said. “Once the meat locker gets chilled, it stays chilled for a while.”

Indeed, the wood beam, warehouse-style construction of the building dictates that there is no practical option for putting in a central heating and air conditioning system, so Kimball is resigned to work with what he has.

Kimball believes the BrandSource member is in a good, competitive position as he looks to the future, citing its tradition of selling a wide variety of products. At one point, he boasted, the business carried 90 different lines from entry-level to high-end goods.

Although they are surrounded by the usual big-box suspects, they enjoy the unique advantage of being one of the area’s few independents left standing. “We have strong roots and loyal customers,” Kimball said. “We have a good location and have a great niche in our area. We get a lot of second- and third-generation customers who knew my grandfather and appreciate the level of service we provide.”

Despite reaching an eight-decade milestone, there will be no over-the-top, in-house anniversary celebrations this year, Kimball said, although “We may do a little more promoting to try to captivate customers ahead of Black November.” Also vexing is the future of the business, as there are no other family members involved in or interested in joining Southeast Steel at this time.

But rather than worry about where the business might be in another 80 years, “I’m more concerned about where I am going to get my next fridge,” Kimball laughed.

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers.