Once a respected legend, few today may know the name Jesse Cox or his companies, Aero Drapery and J.H. Cox Mfg Co. Yet, Jesse Cox was a pioneer in our industry, innovating the shop-at-home concept and carrying it to a level unequalled yet today.
Jesse died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Carmel, IN, May 12 at the age of 90.
Cox had given over $75 million to Indiana University for scholarships and buildings and grounds improvements. His generosity established the Jesse H. and Beulah Chanley Cox Scholars program providing scholarships for working students on IU's Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, campuses, and the pavilion in the arboretum at IU Bloomington also bears the Coxes’ name.
What makes Jesse important to me, and our industry, was his breakthrough approach to window coverings pioneered in the 1950s that ultimately made him a multi-millionaire in our industry by the time he sold his business in the mid 1980s. If you will be kind about my possible technical inaccuracies in names and dates, I will share a small part of his story as I heard it from him at various times over the past 40 years. I think you will find an interesting story and some valuable insights.
INNOVATED SHOP AT HOME
About 1945 Jesse saw the huge pent-up demand for housing after World War II. As a recent graduate of Indiana University, and having worked in manufacturing for a U.S. tire and rubber plant during the war, Cox convinced a metal supplier in Chicago to give him venetian blind stock that was still in short supply after wartime rationing. He started his business in Indianapolis knocking on doors and closing sales during the day, then returning to build the orders at night.
It brings a smile to my face when I realize that to this day, with all the advances, innovations, technology and improved communications in America, and after two-thirds of a century in this wonderful window coverings business, there is still no better, faster, cheaper way to get started in business than to go out knocking on doors!
By the early 1950s Cox moved into draperies as the venetian blinds era drew to a close. Within 10 years the advent of air conditioning, flight to the suburbs, picture windows that first appeared in California, and the emergence of man-made fibers woven into beautiful, silk-like antique satin, would close the door on blinds. By 1960, when I entered the industry, it was all draperies and continued that way for the next 15 years until Levolor innovated mini-blinds as a fashionable new look in the mid 1970s.
BEST CUSTOM DRAPERIES FOR
THE LOWEST COST
At a time when only the super-rich could afford exquisitely tailored draperies, luxurious fullness and lavish top dressings, Jesse was one of the first in America to mechanize a fully custom drapery workroom. His production reached 23 widths a day per person, more than double most workrooms then or now. Through buying direct from the mills, owning his own plants that he bought for cash, and operating the most efficient custom workroom in America, Aero Drapery sold the finest quality product at about one-third less than Sears Roebuck, the major national supplier of custom draperies at the time.
Draperies from Aero were considered such premium quality, pre-owned draperies were frequently offered for sale in classified sections of the dominant newspaper, Indianapolis Star.
When Jess Cox opened a new market in Louisville, KY; Columbus, OH; Kansas City, KS; or Minneapolis, MN; he used the same proven formula: Sunday newspaper advertising, three columns by 24 inches high so the ad would be above the fold. Budget then was about $1,000 a week. With a $50,000 budget, Aero Drapery would achieve sales in the $250,000 range the first year—making advertising about a 20 percent of sales.
Few today have the courage to do that. Yet, within a few years, Aero Drapery sales increased first to $500,000, then to $1 million and eventually to $1.5 million to $2 million in each store. By keeping the advertising dollars steady at about $50,000 per year, cost ultimately fell to under four percent. The balance went into bottom line net profit. For perspective, multiply Aero’s sales numbers by at least three times to equal today’s dollars.
FRANCHISING AERO DRAPERY
Thanks to Jesse Cox and Aero Drapery, I found a successful formula to franchise draperies. I met Cox in the early 1960s at the New York drapery market on an elevator in the Prince George Hotel on 28th street. I was on a buying trip for Westport Fabrics, owned by me and partner, Harvey Nudelman. Harvey had been president of Fabricut for about 30 years and is now semi-retired.
It was 1969 when I persuaded Jesse to let me use his name to franchise in Southeastern states. The Aero Drapery franchise was possibly the first to franchise a skilled service, rather than food, retailing or a cleaning business. That’s a story in itself I will tell in a future article. This one is about Jesse Cox.
LIFE AFTER AERO
Jesse sold J.H. Cox Mfg. Co. and Aero Drapery, the retail stores, in the mid 1980s to the owner of Minnesota Mills. Sales were about $25 million, roughly half retail and half wholesale. The selling price was about $16 million, he told me during a visit to his home.
With his farmland and investments, Jesse already was a millionaire when he sold Aero, but after paying off his managers and all the bills and taxes, he had about $5 million to invest in the stock market, running it up to $200 million over the next 15 to 20 years. (Ahh, had I only given him a few thousand to invest back then!)
With no children, Jesse and Buelah Cox donated generously to his beloved Indiana University at Bloomington, IN. The university will receive even more from his estate—but, let’s put that off for awhile.
Jesse also contributed to the community in the Indianapolis area. His home is an authentic reproduction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, VA, and will be donated to the city. In 1999, Jesse and his late wife, Beulah, donated 126 acres and three homes to the Hamilton County Parks Department to create Coxhall Gardens (www.coxhallgardens.com) in Carmel, IN.
Jesse Cox was a giant in our industry. I know all his friends join me in expressing our deepest sympathies in his passing.
This article is based on Steven C. Bursten’s actual experience with sales and financial information working with hundreds of window coverings businesses. Whether you are a sole manager who aspires to higher sales, or you manage 50 window fashion decorators in a multi-million dollar business, this series will help you manage sales better and increase your profitability. Bursten is the retired founder of Decorating Den Interiors and author of a how-to book on new business start up, “Bootstrap Entrepreneur,” and is a leading expert in window coverings marketing, sales systems and sales management through his company, custEmers.com. Questions and comments welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (888) 333-8981.