The Plain-Spoken Miz Jody
It’s forthright, hard-working folks like Jody Barr at Hickman Advertising who have shaped this industry and keep it colorful.
Johnnie B. Howell was looking for a way to make a mark in his hometown of Coleman, Texas, just like his Daddy did years before. His family’s movie theater business was thriving, yet he was itching to do something that would best serve his creative talents. His vision became a reality in 1953 when he opened a little company called John B. Howell Advertising Products Company. He made his office in the Coleman County State Bank Building.
Howell was the consummate salesman and dedicated to his new craft in advertising specialties. He began calling on all types of small-town businesses that needed pens, calendars or anything else to market their businesses. Howell prided himself on helping these businesses create clever slogans and creatively photographed calendars. Eager to network with other industry professionals, he joined the Advertising Specialty Guild [which later merged with Specialty Advertising National Association to form what is now PPAI] and later attended their events at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago.
Back in Howell’s office, Virginia McHorse and Jane Hickman handled his sales and bookkeeping. Hickman was also building her own sales business. Alas, while Howell was a very successful salesman, his business sense was less than stellar. He didn’t like to deal with the suppliers and the paperwork surrounding his new career, so the two women worked diligently to keep his dream company running smoothly. Unfortunately, in 1966, after one contentious call with a supplier over a calendar order, an enraged Howell left his office and headed home. There, while reading the Abilene Reporter, he slumped over and died of a heart attack.
After Howell’s death, Hickman purchased the business and, within a year or two, renamed it Hickman Advertising. She moved the office to 121 W. Pecan Street and the business flourished under new ownership. Nearly 20 years later, in late 1984, a young woman named Jody Barr went to work for the company. By May 1985, Barr had more than doubled the business at Hickman Advertising.
Hickman’s husband, Charles, had already retired as president of the Federal Land Bank. At 65 years old, Hickman was looking to do the same. She was ready to sell the business, but not just to anybody. She had her eye on Barr to buy the business, and offered to sell it to her. Barr was reluctant to take the plunge and told her boss she had to go to the bank to apply for a loan. Hickman said she would carry the note at a very low interest rate and Barr jumped at the opportunity. After the contracts were signed, Hickman picked up her purse, looked at Barr and said, “I’ve had fun here and I have loved this business, but I’m tired and I want to go home.” Hickman Advertising officially belonged to Barr.
Charles Hickman taught Barr the bookkeeping skills she needed to run her business. In 1985, annual sales at Hickman Advertising were more than $400,000, and half of those sales were Barr’s. The long-standing funeral home and bank business was nice, but the new business owner focused her sales efforts on the burgeoning telephone and electric co-ops located around the country.
Since her husband, James, worked in the electric co-op industry, she acquired lists and mailed ‘Instant Impact’ and ‘Idea Showcase’ catalogs to 500 telephone co-ops and 1,000 electric co-ops four times per year. In fact, the company still sells imprinted foam cups and napkins to one of those longstanding co-ops in Nevada. By 1986, Barr had almost tripled her sales volume to more than $1.2 million. Over the years, she continued to exhibit in many electric/telephone co-op association trade shows as well as serving on several of boards to give back to the industry that contributed to her success. In 1986, Barr bought a house in town and converted it to an office. Later, she bought the company’s current office at 116 Concho St.
Barr, known to her friends as simply Miz Jody, no longer sells but still runs the back-office operations at Hickman Advertising. Her son, Jody (yes, they share the same name), went to work for his mom in 1995 after also working in the electric co-op industry. He is now the primary salesperson for the company. “He just fell in line easily,” she says. “He’s very creative, just like Johnnie Howell.”
She says she frequently tries to impart some of her hard-won wisdom to her son, such as, “Profit is not a four-letter word at Hickman.” She reminds him to “just say no” to a client who tries to lowball them. “Nine out of 10 times, that client will call you back and want to buy from you because, inevitably, they trust you,” she says. She also tells him to never get worked up over a supplier dispute. “It isn’t worth dying over like Johnnie!”
Over the years, they have narrowed down their client base to a small group of “very, very loyal customers” and the business has changed through attrition: mergers, buyer changes and company closures. Barr is also proud to note: “We always pay our bills; not one past-due invoice to this day,” she says, adding that the company has never had to write off a bad debt. When asked about the business’s biggest challenges today, Barr answers quickly, “internet competition.” She also notes that they really enjoyed the business until wearables companies entered the industry.
Why? “Jane Hickman never sold a cap or a t-shirt. She only sold hard goods.” Early wearables companies demanded cash up front. While capital was not an issue for Hickman Advertising, Barr felt if the wearables supplier made any errors on an order, they had limited recourse for restitution. Today, Barr has her eye on retirement. She has warned her son, Jody, that she “… won’t be doing this much longer,” as her husband, James, has been retired for about 12 years now. “I want to go out like Jane,” she says. “I’ve had fun here and have loved this business, but I’m tired and I want to go home.”
Kim Reinecker, MAS, is regional manager, southwest for supplier Starline. A budding writer, she has called Hickman Advertising her client for more than 30 years. She lives in Houston with her husband, Patrick Reinecker, president of industry rep firm Reinecker Marketing Associates.