Portrait of a Family Business

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When the life of a business and the life of a family run along the same course, the mile markers of each begin to merge. Family memories and the lessons learned from business become intricately woven together.

In 1966, Lee Paint Center officially opened in Eastgate Shopping Center, Chattanooga’s first mall, long before the renaissance of the riverfront and downtown.

Lee and Margaret Martin bought shares in the store, while the Benjamin Moore Paint Company held the majority of the stock. This initial co-ownership gave the couple time to build their business expertise and expand the customer base.

From left to right Margaret Martin (seated), Janie Duke, Alex Duke, Kit Martin and Lee Martin celebrate 45 years of retail business.

From left to right Margaret Martin (seated), Janie Duke, Alex Duke, Kit Martin and Lee Martin celebrate 45 years of retail business.

The company provided invaluable legal, accounting and merchandising advice at the same time. Lee Martin had started his career as a branch manager for Sherwin-Williams, working nearly a dozen years for the company. He knew the paint industry and the proper way to manage a paint store, but the act of forming a corporation, getting licenses, procuring insurance and preparing for taxes were pieces of the commercial puzzle he had not encountered. And, Benjamin Moore Paints were strong in other parts of the country, but not as familiar to Chattanoogans. However, Lee Martin had the right qualities, he was principled, hard-working, excited about the opportunity and eager to please his customers.

“I like the retail business, I always liked meeting people,” says
Lee. “And I still enjoy the painting industry.”

From the beginning it was a family affair with Lee’s father building store shelves and display gondolas. He and an assortment of family members and friends helped get the store stocked, furnished and ready to run. Aside from a robust collection of wallpaper, paints and varnishes, it was the first store on the east side of town to carry art supplies. In the early days, Margaret would leave her morning job as a kindergarten teacher and come to the store to help, so Lee could make deliveries. The couple’s three children, Janie, Kit and Lyn gradually became involved in the business, and the patterns, textures and colors that decorated the homes and offices of the 1960s and 70s colored their world as well.

The Martins were creative in their development of new customers, offering in-store classes on how to use products, decorating the windows for seasonal promotions and getting the word out to art teachers about materials for their students to use. Lee contacted many painting contractors directly and slowly built relationships that have lasted a lifetime. Early patrons were Milton Larcom and Bill Payne. Payne was actually referred to the store by eldest daughter Janie in her first job as an American National Bank teller. Newer customers include mural painters and craftmen specializing in finishes, like Bob Morris. “Artisans and specialists can find everything they need here from unique paints to unusual brushes,” says Morris. “The coffee is good, too,” he adds with a grin.

Frequent customer and mural painter Bob Morris queries Alex Duke about a line of paints.

Frequent customer and mural painter Bob Morris queries Alex Duke about a line of paints.

Yet, the real draw is personal service, say the Martins. “That’s really what the backbone of our business is, it’s what makes you different from Lowes,” says Margaret Martin. The Martins have always been available to go out to a job with painting contractors who were interested in product advice or to a residence when a customer had a problem with bubbling paint or some other difficulty.

Gradually, family members became more deeply involved with the business. After attending the University of Chattanooga for a time, Kit decided he would work in the business under his father. Over the years he has acquired a similar business philosophy and straight forward dedication to customer service. Janie Duke joined the company in 1982, at first in a part-time capacity. Today Janie co-manages the store with Kit. Her son Alex is now involved and helping the company grow by developing a paint sprayer service and repair division. The youngest child, Lyn, became a children’s book illustrator and continues to work from her Chattanooga home.

Impediments and Setbacks
In the early 70s several events altered the course of the company. A record-breaking flood ravaged Eastgate, destroying much of the stock and wallpaper sample books. Suppliers were supportive in helping the store recover from the setback.

In 1974, Margaret and Lee’s third child, 19-year-old Lance Martin, was killed in a train accident. The incident had a stunning effect on the family and the business. Later, that year Janie’s husband Tony joined the company and the Highland Plaza store opened, cultivating a market north of the river.

LeePaintOld_New

Lee Paint Center is located, coincidentally, on Lee Highway.

Not surprisingly when the store’s lease at Eastgate was up, the rent went up, too. The renewal of the lease would reflect an increase in rent, insurance and taxes, as well as paying for the addition of sprinklers. And above all that, Eastgate management wanted to take five percent of the store’s sales. The family began looking for a new location.

“It was really a big favor they did us,” adds Margaret. The Martins quickly began looking around and found a commercial lot further to the east. No one could predict the growth of East Brainerd at that time, but it was on the threshold of radical change.

The Martins began construction on the Lee Highway property with the help of builder T.C. Sherrill, although one of the walls was blown down during a storm. The facility they built housed their own store and another commercial storefront which they would rent. A hairstylist occupied it almost immediately and the same two businesses are still there today.

Over the years as frame shops and art supply stores began to pop up, the paint center discontinued its line of art supplies and focused on strengthening its paint lines, wallpaper and artisan finishes. Although the Martins have seen styles in home décor come and go, they say the paint business is quite stable and they would do it all over again. And, while computers have increased efficiency in record keeping, providing distinctive personal service is much the same as it has always been. They have served preservationists as consultants on historic color restorations and advised homeowners on the problem of peeling paint and hundreds of other décor dilemmas. Working cooperatively, this family business nurtures relationships with customers and employees in a traditional neighborhood retail model and is authentically American.

This article was originally published in the 2011 August/September Issue. 

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