A Cool Place to Work

Martin Industrial Supply enters its 80th year by creating a new corporate home for itself, with a $3.5 million renovation of the old Rogers Department Store building in downtown Florence.

Louis Martin started the company in 1934 to provide basic industrial supplies and repair parts to the Alabama market during the Great Depression. Today, the company has operations in seven states under its corporate umbrella, MSCO Inc. The business handles industrial supplies, fasteners, safety, plant services, hardware and security.

Martin’s three grandsons, Gordon, Doug and David Ruggles, have managed the company since the retirement of their father, Don Ruggles, who still serves as chairman of the board. Until a few months ago, the Ruggles brothers ran the company out of the Sheffield distribution facility that’s been in operation since 1967.

“In 1986, when I came back from college, we were at $3.5 million in total annual revenue and had 21 employees, ” Doug recalls. “We passed the $100 million mark in revenue last year, and we have 260 employees.”

To keep up with the growth and expansion, Doug says adding management is crucial.

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“Our father was very good about teaching us that we’re not the smartest people in the room most of the time, and that keeps us humble. We realize we need to bring in new ideas and find the best practices out there, ” Doug says. “We knew we were outgrowing our offices in the distribution center. We had added offices inside as we could and stacked things on top of each other. But it was not conducive to the corporate environment we were trying to create.”

But where would they go?

Brothers David, Gordon and Doug Ruggles created a new HQ for their company, MSCO Inc., and saved a Florence landmark.

About five years ago, Doug and his brothers started talking about a new corporate headquarters as part of the company’s strategic planning process.

“We looked at the growth potential for the business and what kind of space we needed, ” Doug says. “One important factor in the equation was that we want to be able to attract top talent.”

Did they want to stay in the Shoals or look at a bigger city like Dallas,
Atlanta or Nashville? Their great-grandfather, William Henry Martin, founder of Martin Industries, another Shoals-area business, was from Atlanta.

“But this is our home, ” Doug says, “and Florence has become one of the most vibrant downtown areas in the entire state.”

When Doug pitched the possibility of the Rogers building to his brothers, they laughed.

“They said I was out of my tree, that I was crazy, ” Doug recalls. “But I kept in touch with the developer who owned it. I loved this building. And on a side note, my wife was working here as a buyer on the second floor when we started dating.”

When the previous developer landed Jos. A. Bank menswear as an anchor tenant for the first floor, Doug says his brothers became more interested.

“We started putting the numbers together and decided it was something we could do, ” Doug says. “Our business was continuing to grow, and then the real decision factor came when two more tenants were interested.”

The Ruggles brothers made an offer on the building and took over development and restoration of the first floor. They also made plans to convert the second floor into their new corporate headquarters.

By this time, his brothers were in Doug’s tree, much like when they were kids sharing a tri-level treehouse. The local business community was glad to see it.

“That corner is important because it is the center of the downtown area, ” says Andy Mann, president of Downtown Florence Unlimited. “The building sat empty for several years, but when the Ruggles brothers bought it, that was just a huge win for downtown Florence.”

Chef Paul Visuthikosol, a founding partner in Phuket restaurant in Huntsville, liked what he saw in downtown Florence. He was one of the new first-floor tenants who opened YUMM, Thai Sushi and Beyond. The Ruggles brothers were impressed with Visuthikosol’s architect, Cherri Pitts, owner of Studio C Architecture Interiors in Birmingham.

“We liked what we heard from her, her vision and her style with what we were trying to do, ” Doug says. “We didn’t want just plain vanilla, because this building is too nice.”

Striking the right design balance was crucial.

“It was a big project, a profound project because the Rogers building has so much history, ” Pitts says. “Everyone was watching to see what we were doing.”

The old Rogers Department Store

The Rogers Era

The Rogers family and its store have a solid place in the history of the Shoals.

It all started in 1894, according to “A Walk Thru the Past, People and Places of Florence and Lauderdale County, ” by William Lindsey McDonald, a former city historian. That year, Benjamin Armstead Rogers, a 58-year-old retired lawyer, left his home in middle Tennessee to start a new chapter of his life in Florence.

With his two sons, Benjamin Jr. and Thomas, the elder Rogers established a store on Court Street in the center of Florence’s emerging commercial district. The Rogers family operated that business on that site for more than 100 years.

The business was first called the Surprise Store. In 1902, Thomas Rogers took over. By 1910, the store became known as Rogers Department Store. That was also the year when a fire destroyed the original space. Thomas Rogers then oversaw the construction of a 27, 000-square-foot establishment, featuring a basement, first floor, mezzanine level, second floor and mahogany-paneled elevators. Another major renovation in 1948 added the now-familiar art deco exterior and the third floor.

The Rogers building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage.

The Ruggles Era Begins

The building’s historic character figured in the Ruggles brothers’ financial picture. Doug says the restoration qualified for federal and state tax credits of 10 percent each, and that meant leaving much of the building’s existing architectural elements intact.

“That was our launching pad, ” Pitts says. “The space felt amazing just as a raw space.”

For the first floor, Pitts worked on YUMM, and created the open space that has since been occupied by Alabama Outdoors on the first floor. To maintain the building’s historical elements, Pitts kept the curved lines of the mezzanine throughout the first floor.

The City of Florence joined the project, building a $65, 000 covered walkway from the city’s parking deck to the mezzanine level.

“To have the building occupied by Martin is really another shot in the arm to our downtown area, ” Florence Mayor Mickey Haddock says. “People can park in the parking deck, use the covered walkway to go to work, use the building, and go down to the street through a well-secured building, so it was really a good investment on our part, and then the investment they’ve made is just beautiful.”

The renovation became more challenging as they moved to the second-floor space that would be occupied by MSCO Inc. Pitts says that working with three brothers — each with a distinct personality and strong preferences — was as important in defining the space as was the industry they represent.

MSCO Inc. moved into its new corporate office space in September.

Doug, Gordon and David couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome, including the decorating touches added by Doug’s wife, Lisa.

When you step off the original mahogany-paneled elevator into the second floor, the atmosphere is modern, yet welcoming, with backlit support columns lining the hallways.
Who got the corner office? No one.

“Because of the windows, there was no way to divide the space, and it was too big for one office, ” Doug says of the room that’s now designated as a family meeting and conference room.

The third floor is still an empty shell, but the brothers are exploring the possibilities.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey, ” Doug says. “I feel it is a premier structure in the Shoals, and I’m glad we can be a small part in revitalizing downtown Florence by owning it and bringing it back to life. Plus, it’s just a cool place to work.”

Wendy Reeves is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

text and photos by Wendy Reeves

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