Farewell, Ron Martin

Late last year, homebuilding legend R.D. Wade announced he was closing the construction side of his 42-year-old business in the face of the housing market slump. Now there's another high-profile victim of the market downturn: Ron Martin Appliance.

In a letter sent to the store's creditors (including the Hook), Ron Martin's new owner David McKenney explains the decision. "The home building business has all but disappeared," he writes, "and consumer spending has dropped dramatically, thus creating a significant decline in our cash flow that has not allowed us to get out from under our significant operating losses."

McKenney did not return calls to his West End Richmond home, but the letter suggests the business failure has been personally devastating as well: he has also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. His Richmond-based attorney, David Spiro, did not return the Hook's call. (Full disclosure: McKenney's bankruptcy puts the Hook in the hole more than $6,000.)

For a business that once seemed the local appliance leader, the decision to close marks the final chapter in a tumultuous six years. After the 2002 death of Ron Martin, who founded the store in 1973, his son Logan Martin took the reins. A hoped-for sale to Ferguson Enterprises fell through in 2004, forcing Martin to trade his ground level space at the corner of Seminole Trail and Woodbrook Road for room on the second floor of the building Martin owned. The business continued to struggle, and Martin– who said at the time he longed for a less stressful career– leapt at the chance to sell.

McKenney, a longtime rep for Frigidaire, was enthusiastic when he announced the purchase of the business in late 2006, and at least one Ron Martin employee was excited about his new boss. "They plan on rebuilding it by being honest, trustworthy, and part of the community," said Fred Childress, who could not be reached for comment this week.

Those plans, apparently, were no match for what some fear is the beginning of a recession, and Ron Martin isn't the only local appliance business feeling the sting.

"The appliance business is low margin and high cost to serve," says John Maddux, general manager of Ferguson. Maddux says Ferguson is somewhat protected by the other products they sell– everything from lighting to plumbing supplies– but he says the tanking housing market is making it difficult.

"I've never seen a downturn quite this severe," says Maddux, citing 5.4 million homes currently for sale in the U.S. and looming foreclosures. He predicts the number of houses for sale will grow to 6.8 million. "How many years it takes to absorb that, I don't know," he says, "but it's later rather than sooner."

Maddux admits Ferguson has cut its workforce at each of its six locations– two in Charlottesville, two in Harrisonburg, one each in Culpeper and Fishersville– and is seeking ways to keep costs down.

"It affects morale because if you don't handle it right," he says, "people walk around wondering if they're next.

Adding to the woes of a tanking market is the 2003 arrival of Best Buy, which joined Sears and Lowe's in the local big-box market. Although in 2003 Maddux and Logan Martin both predicted that the service and care provided by local businesses would trump the low prices at such behemoths, the market today is far different than it was five years ago.

Such large stores offer "extremely attractive financing," says Maddux, "which makes it even more difficult to compete."

One local appliance business, however, says it's still going strong, but not thanks to sales. Davis Appliance on High Street has been selling and servicing appliances for 40 years, says manager Betty Carlson, and while sales may have dipped slightly, the service side of the business is making up the difference.

"I don't foresee any problems," says Carlson, calling the personal service Davis offers "vastly different from Sears and other big boxes."

Once upon a time, Ron Martin Appliance could have said the same thing. But, as the store's closing proves, times have changed.

"It's sad to see," says former owner Logan Martin. "It reflects the competitive environment."

16 comments

Ron Martin belonged to an era when we purchased expecting that we'd keep an appliance well past the first time it needed a repair. Service was critical, as was knowing the competency of the service repair person. Now, we just throw away things that break, relying on a cheap replacement product instead of a neighbor in the community who works for a business like Ron Martin to take care of our needs. And these goods are made in China not in America. And the skill to repair them is nowhere to be found. And our economy is weakening... seems to me we've created a lot of this problem for ourselves by being 'hyper consumers' instead of living modestly. Unfortunately, this hard lesson may now only be learned through a recession, associated job loss and ensuing suffering.

$120 per hour is still less than a lawyer.

Taking a page out of Charlottesville history...Ron Martin was well known for his honesty, trustworthiness, and very much being an active member of this community. Because of this reputation and from subsequent performance that bore this out for us we bought several major applicances from Ron Martin over the years until his untimely death. His Service Department was First Rate as well. I offer this insight due to the question in the question posed above by "progeorgebush."

I'm in the market to upgrade fixtures in the three bathrooms of our 20 year old home. Now is probably a good time to provide employment for home improvement contractors and appliance salespersons. Who would be the best (workmanship, quality) to provide the appliances and do the work?

Dave,

Ron Martin ran ads in our paper.

Best,

Courteney Stuart

they prob had an ad contract, which will now go unpaid

¢Ã¢â??¬Ã?â??They plan on rebuilding it by being honest, trustworthy, and part of the community,¢Ã¢â??¬ said Fred Childress, who could not be reached for comment this week.

Does this mean that they were not honest, trustworthy, and part of the community before Ron Martin died?

As a former employee, I can personally attest to RMA being one of the best employers in town. I worked for Ron Martin years ago and was amazed at how patient and compassionate he was toward many customers who fell on hard times and could not pay their bills on time. I also worked for David McKenney and was impressed with his determination to save a struggling company. His dedication to his employees kept him plugging away alot longer than he probably should have. He is an average middle-class guy with a wife and two small children. There is nothing dishonest about him. Ron Martin Appliance was in serious trouble long before David came along. If anyone was deceived, it was definitely not intentional. He kept hoping the situation would turn around and Ron Martin Appliance would take off once again.

For those of you with your negative comments, think about it when you are at Lowes and can't get a salesperson to acknowledge your presence. And see if you will leave that store without first paying for your purchase. RMA appreciated its wonderful customers over the years, but there are always a few in every bunch who would take advantage of a good thing and abuse it.

RMA was more than a job to me. It was a second home - it was like family.

One more thing...there is absolutely no exaggeration in the statement that I just made above. Think what you want to think, but it's the truth.

The cost of low end aplliances has stayed constant over the last 12 years while the cost of repair has more than tripled. It is actually cheaper to buy an new washer or dryer from lowes with free delivery (every other week just about) than to pay for a service call at 120 an hour. Especially since ;ots of repair companies tend to gouge anyway.

Good riddance to them, I got screwed on a refrigerator I bought from them a few years ago. I could have got it from Lowe's across the street for about 200 dollars cheaper. They guaranteed that they were the lowest price in town. Stupid me..... I will never buy anything from a local mom and pop's store again.

Sounds like a large sum to be credited for advertising I assume they were full page ads probably a grand a piece. However the hook will write this amount off come tax time and live to publish another day. Maybe you should start taking deposits or payment in full from your clients? This trend is just beginning.

dag, their scratch and dent sale/department was the best...

sorry to see them go

Just out of curiosity, how/why is The Hook a Ron Martin creditor?

Ah, makes sense. Thank you for the clarification.

As a former employee of Ron Martin just a few years ago, I can personally attest to the dishonesty & untrustworthiness of all the owner & managers in the store. Customers were routinely lied to & cheated out of appliances & their money. Promises were made to the employees that were never kept. Ron Martin Appliance wasn't always like this (when Ron Sr. was still running it); but since Jr. took over everything too many poor decisions ruined it for everyone. I feel sorry for the long time employees that have been affected by this recent closing & wish the best to them.