John Horst at 80: For This Famous Tater, Retirement Can Wait ’til Later

John Horst and his wife of 51 years Marilyn

By Andy Kriege, YSN

One only has to talk to BrandSource member John Horst for a couple of minutes before you realize that even as he turns 80, there lies as much road before him as behind him. Given what the man has accomplished in his first 80 years, you had better buckle up and pack a sandwich if you’re coming along for the ride!

Horst is the man who put the “Famous” in Florida’s Famous Tate. He grew the appliance juggernaut from a not-sofamous one-man roadside appliance stand called Tate Electric into an 11-store powerhouse that dominates the Tampa Bay marketplace with annual sales in excess of $100 million.

Secret to Success – Surround Yourself With Great People

It is very hard to get John to talk about himself and what his leadership has meant to the phenomenal success of Famous Tate. Instead, Horst politely deflects and gives credit to the people that have been with him throughout his storied journey. Some have retired and some have moved on to other things, but most have stayed on and enjoyed the ride.

One of the many who have been along for the epic ride is General Manager Claude Ward, who said this about the milestone 80th birthday: “His age is truly irrelevant. John is a man that deserves three of four lifetimes to accomplish what he is capable of.”

 “To this day,” Ward added, “I draw my inspiration from him. He has never lost one bit of his enthusiasm. It is the same today as it would have been 50 years ago when this journey began.”

This Famous Story Begins

John Horst was growing road weary after logging many successful years and miles as a traveling sales rep for Stanley tools. Determined to find a career that allowed him to sleep in his own bed, he hatched a plan.

The year was 1973 when he decided to run an ad in the local paper looking to buy an existing business. He received less-than-credible leads. He then made a list of 20 different business he might potentially buy and called on each one in person. “Most kicked me out before I could even spit out what I had to say,” Horst recalled. He then stumbled into the last one on his list, Tate Electric, and met a man named Clarence Tate.

Horst had to maneuver through a labyrinth of haphazardly scattered appliances to find Mr. Tate, who was surrounded by several old unshaven characters including a one-legged man named Charlie Brown. All were sitting atop washing machines.

“The place was a dump and smelled like a dog pound,” Horst said. “I sheepishly approached Tate with my proposal, trying to be as discreet as possible, and asked, ‘Can I talk to you about buying this business?’”

Horst recalled Tate’s response vividly. “He announced it loudly to his cronies saying ‘Did you hear that, this man wants to buy my business!’ They all started pounding in unison on the machines they were sitting on in a loud drum like beat coupled with hysterical laughter.” After calming down, Tate told him he had no interest in selling. Horst left his phone number, put his tail between his legs, and exited briskly without looking back.

John Horst in Front of Tate Electric in the mid ‘70s and shown rocking a beard while glad-handing in the early 90’s

The Call that Changed His Fate

Six months later the phone rang. It was Clarence Tate. Horst recalls that the conversation went something like this: “‘This is Tate. You better get out here, I’m going to sell you my business. You’re going to buy it by December.’ I asked if I could come out and see the books and he said, ‘If you have to see the books, the deal is off!’”

It took three more visits with Tate before Horst had the courage to broach the topic of a selling price. Eventually they agreed upon $8,500, with Tate carrying a portion of the purchase price and the balance at 7 percent interest.

The namesake “Famous State Appliance” storefront in Nashville circa 1979

Putting the Famous in Tate

“Tate Electric Co. was not famous, but now we are Famous,” Horst proclaimed.  The story of how Tate’s became Famous Tate dates more than 40 years to his wife’s college reunion.  Joining her for the event in Nashville, Horst found himself bored and anxious and asked his spouse if he could leave the gathering to peruse the local retail stores. Wandering around the neighborhood, he stumbled into a shop called Famous State Appliances. After spending some time with the owner, and enamored with the sound of the name, Horst asked permission to use a variation of the store’s appellation for his own business in Florida. The owner obliged, and Tate Electric was suddenly Famous.

A Bottomless Bucket List Awaits

Forty-seven years and 11 stores later, Horst still has “a million things” he’d like to do, including continuing his research on a father he never knew. Raised by his mother and grandmother, he is just beginning to uncover the amazing story of his dad and his epic life. Barely escaping East Prussia ahead of the Nazis, he immigrated to the U.S. at 17, became a commercial pilot, and later flew bombing missions against the same Germans who seized his family business and drove him from his homeland. The incredible story of his father is one Horst is determined to document.

Asked about future plans for the business, Horst said he would like to see Famous Tate’s footprint expand with at least three or four more stores. But “That can wait until the time is right,” he said.

Horst’s son Jason, who joined the family business straight out of college, reflected on his father’s leadership. “While his conservative nature has helped us endure some difficult times over the past 47 years, it is his innate ability to take risks at the right time that has allowed us to grow and succeed. He is an amazing man” he said.

Manifest Destiny? Not so Much

Horst still isn’t quite sure how he has managed to achieve so much success. “I had every chance and reason to fail,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about this business. For whatever reason, I didn’t get sick, killed or sued along the way.”

“I have a great family who supported me through all the crazy years,” he added, “and we managed to find an awful lot of wonderful employees. I feel extremely blessed to have the good fortune to do all this and still be standing at 80.”

Standing famously we might add.

YSN and the greater BrandSource family wish you a happy 80th birthday John Horst, and we look forward to reporting on the next leg of your epic journey.

See: Today is the day to Wish the Most Famous Tater a Happy Birthday!

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