An effective leader
When Eric M. Johnson sat down to write about the history of the company he worked for, he thought he’d just write a short article for an online resource.
Johnson wrote the book “You Build A Business With People” about the history of Arnold Motor Supply and its founder E.P. Arnold from the Great Depression through the 1970s. Marshall was home of the first branch location back in 1931. Johnson works in information technologies with the Arnold Group of Companies based in Spencer, Iowa.
Johnson said he never set out to write a book on Arnold, and his original intent was to write a 600-word article for Wikipedia.
“I thought I would have it done that afternoon,” Johnson said. “Ten months and 30,000 words later, I had a book. The story was much more interesting than I anticipated. Once I started researching, I kept finding more and more.”
Johnson’s three primary resources for the book were interviews, company archives and newspapers. He said the most amazing interview was with 101-year-old Florence Rusch who started working for Arnold in 1929.
“Multiple interviews with Florence gave me a valuable insight into the beginning of the company,” Johnson said. “I also had multiple conversations with Joyce Wagner, who went to work for Mr. Arnold in 1950 and stayed until 2007. Between these two ladies, I had basically the entire history of the company.” He said he spoke with many other people who knew Arnold and got some great information from local experts on the history of the town.
Arnold Motor Supply also had a nice amount of archived information within the company up through the 1970s, which helped tremendously in researching the first half of the company’s existence, Johnson said.
“Fortunately, many of the newspapers have been digitized and are searchable, which was a huge asset in finding specific items from our past,” Johnson said.
Back in the 1920s, the local economy was pretty stagnant, Johnson said, and even though the Great Depression hadn’t technically started, things were pretty tight for most people in 1927 when Arnold, and his business partner, B.J. Lewis, went into business in Spencer.
“They were able to get the business running pretty well within the first couple of years, and both partners opened a store of their own,” Johnson said. “E.P. opened Arnold Motor Supply in Marshall in April of 1931. By June, the partners decided to go their separate ways.” Arnold bought out Lewis’ half of the Spencer store only to have the entire store burn to the ground the next day in the Spencer fire.
Arnold resolved to keep going and was able to rebuild the Spencer location.
“When he decided to expand again, bankers were pessimistic and felt he should pay off debt before going forward,” Johnson said. “Despite this, he opened his third store in Sheldon, Iowa in 1934. The next day, the Sheldon bank was declared insolvent. He kept going and had five profitable stores by the end of the decade.”
In the book, Johnson identified four specific traits that made Arnold the effective leader he was.
“Vision, perseverance, character and attitude were the things that stood out throughout his life,” Johnson said. “The themes of these four run throughout the entire book, and then I devote a chapter to them near the end because I believe he is a fantastic case study on effective leadership. There are some fantastic lessons that are just as applicable to us today as they were back then.” He said the story has been particularly popular with people interested in entrepreneurship because it really lays out some practical things that contributed so much to the success of the venture.
The 1960s was also an interesting time in history, Johnson said, and in many ways a reflection of the turmoil in the nation.
“We had anti-trust issues, lawsuits, union negotiations and a split within the leadership of the company,” Johnson said. “There was a lot going on in a short period of time that we still see the effects of today. Through everything, Mr. Arnold was so focused on people, thus the title of the book.”
Writing the book gave him a much greater appreciation for the company and the culture of the company, Johnson said.
“It is still based on Mr. Arnold and the character and traits he exemplified,” Johnson said. “Here we are, 36 years after he’s been gone, and we still do things his way. That is a testament to the power of his leadership and vision.”
The book is available at Arnold Motor Supply in Marshall and through Amazon.com.