How a mild-mannered hardware store proprietor joined a new breed of savvy, small business activists.
The following is a list of things Bill Nourse is not: a business wizard, devastatingly handsome, a high-tech genius preppy hilariously funny, a brilliant intellectual, a good ol' boy, a political radical, rich.
On the other hand, in virtually everything he does, Nourse is where most of us would like to be -- somewhere on the high side of average. He and his wife run the family business, a moderately successful West Nashville hardware store. Their five kids all do well enough in school and earn most of their own tuition money. At 43, he is the businessman most businessmen would be happy to be. "He is," gushes a colleague, "the all-American small business guy. It warms your heart just to talk to him."
Nourse's eight-year-old Brookmeade Hardware & Supply Co. will gross $900,000 this year, 80% of it in sales to contractors and residential property management concerns. Poor location limits Brookmeade's retail volume, but Nourse has built his wholesale trade by becoming a one-stop shop for the maintenance managers of Nashville's apartment complexes.
Creative buying lets him price below much of his competition but still keep his margins healthy. Take the paint, for example. Brand-name paint prices include the manufacturer's national marketing and advertising costs. Brookmeade's wholesale accounts are interested in product performance, not label. So Nourse buys from a small independent paint-maker that can match the chemistry of the big-name companies and beat their price. And, because he is his paint supplier's largest buyer, Nourse can make demands. The supplier inventories Brookmeade's stock and ships virtually on demand. Brookmeade's private-label light bulbs also come from a small independent manufacturer.
Nourse has pushed the sale of bulbs and lightweight electrical parts to apartment complexes as far west as Little Rock, east to Jacksonville, and north into Illinois. He finds potential buyers in the Yellow Pages, mails a flier listing prices, and follows up with a telephone call. United Parcel Service makes the deliveries, usually within two days.
Next year Nourse expects Brookmeade sales to break $1 million. "If it weren't for this recession," he says, "we'd already be there."
There is something in Nourse, says a friend, that appeals to everyone who is in small business for the life-style rather than the money. "His strength," says another, "is in his typicality."
Thus no one is more surprised than Nourse himself that over the past three years he has become something more than the head of a growing family business -- and that his ambitions run even higher.
Now, besides running the store and raising kids, he commutes frequently between Nashville and Washington, D.C. He talks to senators and members of Congress, and, more important, he talks to their staff aides. He has met with Presidents and is no stranger around the governor's office. Newspaper reporters seek him out. He sells paint to customers who saw him interviewed on TV the night before. He is a key man in a senatorial reelection campaign. He is asked to speak around the country. And, like the President, Nourse has acquired his own kitchen cabinet of trusted advisers. "I'm not satisfied being a small businessman," says Nourse. "I'm not contributing to society at my highest potential."
What happened to Nourse -- his politicization -- has happened to other small businesspeople. Jimmy Carter was a businessman before he was a governor. Rep. Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa) is still better known in some circles as a merchandiser of fishing tackle (Berkley & Co.) than as a congressman. Those, however, were isolated conversions, part of no discernible pattern, while Nourse is part of a group, one among many who had their political eyes opened by their participation in the January 1980 White House Conference on Small Business.
Out of the nearly 2,000 delegates to that four-day Washington gathering -- and the more than 30,000 people who attended preliminary sessions in major cities around the country -- has come a crop of previously apolitical entrepreneurs and proprietors who, despite their predisposition to stubborn independence, got a bite of collective power and liked the taste.
To be elected a delegate to the January conference, an individual had to campaign at one of the scores of state and regional meetings before the main event. Successful candidates were usually those who had put together a coalition of supporters and who had developed an identifiable position on an issue.
With no previous experience and motivated only by an "urge to get involved," in his words, Nourse composed a position paper, got himself elected a delegate, and jumped into public life along with several thousand others with similar backgrounds and motives.
The recommendations that conference delegates eventually made to President Carter and Congress on small business issues -- taxes, regulation, economic policy -- all began with gripes and proposals first made at these preliminary sessions. Coalitions were formed around specific tax reforms, for example. Compromises were made, deals were cut, parliamentary strategies were worked out.
The conference was a political training ground. Nourse had never run for office, never tried to organize support for a piece of legislation, never tried to maneuver an idea through a democratic forum. He had, in other words, never before competed in a political -- as distinct from a business -- environment. The White House Conference gave Nourse and others like him not just the unanticipated opportunity to enter the political world, but also on-the-job training in how to survive, and possibly thrive, there.
In the two years since the White House conference, these mostly middle-aged neophytes have organized small business conferences in their own states, gotten themselves appointed to advisory commissions and committees. They have created new small business associations, taken leadership positions in old-line business associations, worked to defeat or support candidates for political office, and otherwise started wielding their individual and collective influence. Nourse has been more active than most:
* Nearly two years ago he worked to get a Tennessee banker appointed to the top job at the U.S. Small Business Administration. (If he had listened to Nourse, Reagan wouldn't have had to fire the managerially incompetent Michael Cardenas after his first year.)
* Last year Nourse persuaded Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to convene a state small business conference.
* This year Nourse initiated a resolution, eventually passed by the U.S. Senate, urging Reagan to fill the next empty slot on the Federal Reserve Board with someone with a background in small business or farming.
* In January he showed up next to Reagan at a meeting the President held with small businesspeople the day before delivering his State of the Union address.
* Currently Nourse is organizing an independent political action committee to put some cash behind small business issues on Capitol Hill, sitting on the Senate Small Business Committee's advisory panel, serving on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's small business council, and campaigning across Tennessee for Democratic senator Jim Sasser.
"The government doesn't understand what it unleashed with the White House Conference," says Nourse. "It created a reason and a vehicle for a whole new class of people to move into the political process. . . I'm continually surprised that a guy who owns a hardware store in West Nashville can seriously sit down and talk with a U.S. senator about a candidate for the Federal Reserve Board."
People who have worked with Nourse say he is no rube as a political operative. "He can take a plan that is half-baked, put it together, take it to the right people, and get it done," says Jesse Hunter, a Nashville businessman, pointing to Nourse's role in effecting a change in the federal income tax law. That change, part of last year's tax cut, permits businesses to treat the first $5,000 spent each year on capital equipment as a direct expense. That limit will rise to $10,000 in 1986. Direct expensing was not Nourse's idea, but if he hadn't pushed it persistently it might never have become law.
"We don't have to drive tractors around on the Mall to get our points across," Nourse says. He is very big on working through the system. When Nourse first approached the Tennessee governor's office about a state small business conference, says Hunter, their initial reaction was to ask him who he thought he was. "But he kept chipping away at it and won their respect."
"No other country on earth will let a guy with two or three employees affect the system the way I can," Nourse says.
"The man has charisma," says Andy Centerbury, a state government official. "Sometimes we think he gets more interviews than the Governor."
He has something. He has attracted a group in Nashville and in Washington of nearly a dozen men and women who serve as his kitchen cabinet. One is a partner in a Big Eight accounting firm; another heads an advertising agency; two are lawyers; several own their own companies. Some are older than Nourse, and most of them make more money than he. All of them have more formal education. (Nourse left college after three years.) But Nourse clearly heads the group. They provide the advice, counsel, and assistance. "In high school," says one of his adviser/friends who has known him that long, "Bill would be the behind-the-scenes organizer. Now he'd be the guest of honor."
There is a cadre of people like himself, graduates of the White House conference, in every state, Nourse says. "If I want to bring a point of view to the attention of [Senator] Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), I only have to make one phone call. Another one to North Carolina, and I can be sure that [Senator] Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) will hear about it."
Nourse is no ideologue. In nearly five days of conversation, telephone calls, and addresses to groups on Sasser's behalf, he was never detected falling back on the sort of rhetorical cliches that politicians often resort to when reasoned logic fails them. Nourse usually had a reason for saying what he said that was stronger than a prejudice.
"Congress," he says, "has taken it for granted that the corner store is always going to be there. They can't make that assumption any longer. . .
"It's not right that the banking industry is getting rich at the expense of everyone else. What's happening is a transfer of wealth from producers to bankers through interest rates. . .
"You give big business all kinds of [tax] credit for buying machinery, but you don't give small business any credit for creating jobs. Why not have a new-jobs tax credit? It's cheaper than paying unemployment. Ronald Reagan agreed that it made sense to him. . .
"Social Security is going to be the next major battle. Next year they're going to want to raise the tax rate by 1%. We're saying, 'Wait a minute. That's cutting into my operating revenue.' It'll be just ruinous for people like me. . .
"People abuse unemployment compensation. The law should be changed so that the second time you draw unemployment you have to pay half of it back. The third time you draw you should have to pay it all back. There are carpenters in my own family who draw unemployment every winter. I tell them, 'Don't you understand that you're destroying the United States? You're not entitled to a damn thing'. . .
"City services should be contracted out. That would give city council members real power. Now they have to worry about 'our poor employees.' If grass-cutting were contracted out and the grass didn't get cut, they could just tear up the contract and find someone else. I'm a firm believer that government should not be in business. . .
"Industrial revenue bonds are abused now by the large chain stores. When the taxpayer subsidizes these new stores, it doesn't create new jobs. It just reshuffles community spending habits and hastens destruction of the small business infrastructure, which is usually the source of community political leadership. The blunt truth is that small business's track record of job creation and community leadership cannot continue if we don't restore small business's capital base. It's all part of the concentration of resources that's taking place in this country."
Nourse is not firmly in either party's political camp. Several years ago he attended a Republican weekend retreat for grassroots leaders. "Afterwards," he says, "it was just assumed that I was a Republican and probably I was."
Now that he is actively working for reelection of a Democrat, though, he would consider a switch. "I feel more comfortable with Democrats than with Republicans," he says. "Republicans have an arrogance about them. They always seem to be asking, 'What do you want from me? I'm a busy man.' Well, I may work with my hands and wear blue jeans, but I'm just as good as they are."
So far Nourse's short public life has evolved issue by issue with no clear, long-range goals. But his behavior is beginning to suggest that he is or soon will be running for something. "I wouldn't mind serving in Congress," he says, "but I can't honestly say I will. . . I want to affect the environment in which small business operates.
His kitchen cabinet persuaded him not to run for the Tennessee legislature. "They felt I'd be bored," he says.
The term "small business movement" recurs in conversation, but Nourse can't define it. There are, as he points out, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people like himself giving more than just lip service to resolving issues affecting the small business environment, but there is no structure to that community, no glue holding them together, no vehicle for their common action.
"I see this huge vacuum out there, and I wonder who's going to fill it. The longer it's there," says Nourse, "the more I want to step in."
No one accuses Nourse of being a dreamy-eyed idealist. If he sees a movement by small businesspeople, it's probably there. And whether it is leadership of that movement or public office he eventually seeks, he already knows how he is going to get small businesspeople's support. "That hardware store is my log cabin," he says. "I'm one of them."