We turned 100 this year. A milestone most family businesses never reach.
I never quite appreciated the significance of it until recently.
When you read the history of the Great Depression (1929–1941), the Great Recession (2007-2009), and other past economic downfalls you wonder how we are still around.
Our story is about bad timing, hard work, and some incredibly good people.
This story is not about a founder, a family, or a few people.
Sixty-five people have worked at Yale for over ten years. This story is mostly about them and three generations of customers in an ever-changing city.
I knew this was coming.
The steady flow of people asking me what we will do for our 100th anniversary.
“Nothing,” I replied.
We are and will be in a recession was my consistent answer.
"You don't start a campfire in a forest fire," I added.
It is no time to celebrate. It's time to work hard and creatively to protect our people and customers.
But they don't stop.
In the end, many people persuaded me, my sisters, key staff, and vendors.
Many people deserve credit for our survival against good competition like superstores, box stores, well-funded internet appliance stores, and other independent appliance dealers.
Yale is far from a one-person show.
You have 60 places to buy appliances in the Boston area. We are incredibly fortunate to be one of the survivors.
Below is a history of how it all happened.
The Yale Story
My uncle told me that my grandfather did not start at Yale. I spent much time with my uncle in his last few years.
Three guys all named Charlie started Yale 100 years ago: Charlie Jacobs, Charlie Hurley, and Charlie Weinreb (the great-grandfather of my best friend Rob) were the original owners.
Anyway, the Roaring Twenties was a great time to start a business. They named it Yale. Why, might you ask?
Prestigious educational institutions like Yale became common names for credibility, or maybe they thought it was funny.
I don't know when my grandfather started at Yale. He arrived in the US around that time from Poland.
I only know he was motivated to work. His motivation was to bring his six brothers and sister to this country.
He and his older brother Al worked to bring the third. The three worked to pay for the fourth until everyone was safe in the US.
Then they all worked to put the last brother Jack through medical school.
The plan was good until...
The Great Depression ended the “roar” of the Roaring Twenties. An unemployment rate of 33% is still unprecedented even today.
For all those financial experts who predict a two-year recession in 2023, the Great Depression lasted until 1941 in the U.S.
Sam Sheinkopf buys Yale in 1932.
My grandfather bought Yale with his life savings of $3,500. In today's money, that’s $76,800. It’s a good deal unless you commit your life savings in the middle of such economic peril.
He also didn't know the recession would last another nine years.
The country is out of the Depression, and World War II is over, but Boston is not doing well as a city.
The 50s and 60s weren't very good for Boston for various reasons.
One of my neighbors in the South End told me people just walked away from their brownstones.
Their mortgages were more than the value of their houses. Now those brownstones are $1,000 a foot.
Boston's turnaround happened much later in 1972 with the development of the Faneuil Hall marketplace.
The South End started development much later on Washington Street in 1998.
In the late 1950s, Yale was on Portland Street along with every other electrical distributor in Boston.
Unfortunately, they were all evicted by eminent domain for the new City Hall.
Yale moved to 98 Canal Street, a few blocks from the Boston Garden.
Yale moves to Canal Street several blocks from the Boston Garden (1958).
I can only describe Canal Street as the place where businesses go to die. Nothing survives there. Bars, banks, fast food, casual dining, or breweries did not make it on Canal Street.
Yet, we called Canal Street our home for the next 26 years.
Warren and Bob Sheinkopf
My dad and uncle took over from my grandfather. I wonder how they did it. My grandfather loved to work at Yale and especially loved his customers.
Bob and Warren were opposites. Dad is more cerebral, while Warren is more hard charging.
They made great business partners.
During the Oil Crisis of 1973, gas prices soared by at least 40%.
It started with the Oil Crisis of 1973 and continued throughout the decade of stagnant growth with rampant inflation.
Want to buy a house?
The average mortgage rate was 9.64% in 1978 and 16.63% in 1981.
We were evicted again.
When we moved to Canal Street in 1958, we were tenants at will. In 1984, the landlord informed us we were evicted and had to move by the end of the year.
Looking dilapidated on the Southeast Expressway was our new home in Dorchester.
The abandoned building that would become the Dorchester store.
You needed a map to find it even off the exit, and Dorchester wasn't the best place to sell high-end appliances back then.
I remember measuring that building on the coldest day in December 1984, thinking my dad had lost his mind.
I wasn't the only one.
The beginning of construction for Yale Appliance in Dorchester.
Bob Sheinkopf during the early stages of construction for Yale Appliance's new home.
But he did well for a guy with zero construction experience. Yale is the same way he left it, but with more updated displays.
Yale opens in Dorchester.
I have always loved Dorchester. The neighbors were always nice to us. They probably appreciated the transformation of the building.
Lambert's Rainbow Market has a good sandwich and salad bar around the corner from our showroom.
That's all I need.
Back then, it was a bit dicey.
One of my favorite recollections was Happy Paul’s, the gas station across the street.
“Happy” Paul was anything but happy, always chewing a cigar. He did not attempt to conceal his gun.
He wore it right in front where everyone could see it.
Today Dorchester is alive and hip. My 25-year-old niece wants to live here, like many adults her age.
I started working full-time at Yale, ready to make my mark, and why not? I had endured 13 years of part-time sweeping, cleaning, and putting away boxes.
When I was seven years old, I used to work for devil dogs.
It was not my best negotiation, but they had the perfect combination of chocolate cake, icings, and vanilla filled treats.
I had dreams. Yale would be the best appliance store in the country, operating out of only one location.
I didn't know about traffic patterns back then.
I wanted a family with three kids and retire in my 40’s to teach history.
Maybe my friends would join me.
None of that happened.
Anyone who knows me is probably laughing about it now.
I had roughly three months of those dreams before Fretter, Highland Superstores, Circuit City, and later Best Buy would usher in what I like to call “the Superstore Era."
Before then, Boston businesses were a bunch of mom-and-pops stores like Yale.
Of course, Lechmere was the most well-known regional company, and Sears was the most well-known retailer of all time.
These companies turned the industry on its ear with massive advertising campaigns with full pages in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.
Without being assaulted by their commercials, I couldn't listen to my favorite radio stations, WBCN, WFNX, and WAAF.
It was crazy and changed my thinking forever.
We couldn't compete on such a massive scale of advertising.
We would have to be different and rely on a better customer focus and execution.
My sister, Marilyn, graduates college and joins the fun. Maybe it was the strain of long hours she found appealing.
My sister is more talented than I am. She helped hugely back then and left to raise two exceptional kids.
She heads the Yale Foundation now.
Home Depot opens in Quincy.
Home Depot opens in Quincy, two exits from Dorchester.
I remember all the local merchants were livid and tried blocking Home Depot from opening.
It was undoubtedly a challenge, but the local economy was much worse.
1990-1994: The Early 1990s Recession
Many people forget this downtick in the local economy. I won't forget it.
Real estate speculation wiped out most of the banks in the area, even big banks like the Bank of Boston and the Bank of New England.
It was four years of hard sledding.
Highland and Fretter are bankrupt.
Circuit City scared me as a competitor after reading “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't,” but they never recovered.
All those electrical distributors I mentioned earlier were either bought out or went bankrupt after being crippled by the recession.
Somerville Lumber, Grossman's, Lechmere, and Highland Superstores go out of business.
Lechmere, the most respected New England appliance and electronics store, closed in 1997.
Venerable New England retailers, like Grossman’s and Somerville Lumber, also closed in 1997.
Sears was never the same after once accounting for half the appliances sold in the US.
Yale is the only one to survive.
Then again, we had new competitors like Home Depot, Best Buy, and Lowe’s.
9/11: I remember sitting in a synagogue behind a man who lost his son. I couldn't imagine the pain that man endured.
No customers entered our store for almost six weeks, ending a challenging year for everyone.
It would not be the last time we experienced no customers in our stores.
2003: Yale Electric and Yale Appliance Split
We were always known as Yale Electric. My cousins ran the electrical supply and commercial part. Dad and I ran the appliance part.
They moved to Canton and still run Yale Electric. We rebranded it as Yale Appliance.
I can't say when I started running Yale Appliance any more than when Dad and Uncle Warren started in the 1970s.
We are not good at handoffs.
2007-2009: The Great Recession
This one hurt. Once again, real estate speculation and tampering caused these nasty two years.
It was more of a national problem, whereas the recession of 1990 was more of a regional one.
We turned a profit in 2009 for the first time in over a decade after heavy losses starting in 2006-2008.
This recession woke us up to obsess more about our customers and people.
Yale Appliance opens a new showroom in Framingham.
My favorite year was 2015.
I broke my promise of being the best single appliance store by adding another store in Framingham.
Boston traffic starts in Framingham. I had to stop pretending that people would drive three hours to shop for appliances.
Needham is my hometown. We used to hang out in Framingham as teenagers at the mall and movie cinema.
Then again, nothing is easy. The ideal building was the old Salvation Army building.
I remember the red tile floors and the super high-end toilets.
The toilets were designed so people couldn't flush clothes and wear the new ones outside of the store.
We even passed a nine-month IRS audit. The agent was named Jimmy. I am not supposed to say this, but I liked him.
Most importantly, my daughter, Sophia, was born on September 28th.
My daughter, Sophia
I never had that family and the three kids, but she more than made up for that.
We bought ApplianceOne in Hanover for our third store.
This one was a challenge as well. It required way more work than anticipated, including ripping the facade off.
Hanover is south of Boston and allows residents not to endure the brutal traffic to Dorchester as Framingham did for MetroWest.
I remember Hanover as a town we drove through to visit my grandfather at Nantasket Beach.
Yale Appliance opens a new showroom in Hanover.
2020 should have been the crowning moment of my career.
Our showroom in Hanover is our largest store to date.
It is a beautiful store, designed and built in-house by sales, facilities, and our installers.
On January 4th, we invited 189 people to the Grand Opening, and 179 showed up.
It was a great night.
Yet almost two months later, that store was effectively closed with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with supply chain shortages and a looming unknown pandemic, we are spared the radical problems in other industries like the travel and tourism industry.
Most of my friends, family, and business associates mainly were unaffected by the coronavirus.
That's the most important part.
Still, remote work, new suppliers, and staff communication are all new management issues.
Most product shortages are rectified, but we are facing the most well-orchestrated recession in 100 years.
We are building a warehouse in Norton just in time for that market to crater.
Our timing is never right for just about anything.
I look at our history and wonder how a small regional company lasted 100 years.
My dad always used to say, "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."
We are incredibly lucky to be in the Boston area. We grew as the city did from the 1950s.
I feel lucky to work with some dedicated, talented people.
There are always ups and downs in business or life, but great people will sustain you during those rough times.
You can't deliver great customer service without a solid core of experienced people.
Hopefully, the next generations will be lucky enough to write a similar story for the next 100 years.
Maybe you do start a campfire in a forest fire. It's a heck of a way to roast more marshmallows.
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Steve is the third-generation CEO of Yale and a lifelong Bostonian. He currently resides in Boston, one mile from where he was born. Despite being one of the worst goalies of all time, he is a huge hockey fan of college hockey and the Boston Bruins. The love of his life is his daughter Sophie.
Steve has also been featured in numerous publications such as the New York Times, Consumer Reports, The Boston Globe, Bloomberg Radio, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur, for his knowledge of how to buy appliances and appliance repair.
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