Sweat, determination and treating people right
“There really is no ‘secret’ to success,” according to Keith Bridges, founder and owner of Safford Equipment and its sister store, Safford Trading. “It really is about hard work, not giving up when people doubt you and treating your customers right.”
Safford is an unincorporated community in central Alabama about 25 miles west of Selma. Mostly fields of cotton, soybean and cattle dot the landscape. The most notable landmark is the cell tower that’s sole presence makes up the Safford skyline.
“Growing up here there was a convenience store and a post office,” Bridges said, “That was it. If you needed something— a nut, a bolt, a gallon of milk, you had to drive 25 miles to Selma.”
Today, the tiny remote community has been put on the map so to speak, with Safford’s two stores attracting customers via the world wide web, and in person, from as far away as central Florida and Texas. But it has taken more than 17 years to get to this point, and it was a very different story in the early days.
“There were days when I struggled—when I didn’t know if I was going to make it financially or physically, but I damn sure was going to give it all I had. I felt this was my one chance and so I just continued to work hard despite what felt like incredible odds stacked against me.”
When he opened the store in its original incarnation, Safford Tire & Hardware, in 2000, Bridges had three things seemingly against him. The first was that he had no money. The second was that he faced a skeptical community who perhaps thought the young kid didn’t know the first thing about running a tire and hardware store. The third thing was that they were right. He didn’t.
I was so young I couldn’t buy the beer I was selling to my customers.
But the one thing you will quickly learn about Bridges is that if you bet against him, it’s like fuel for his determination to prove you wrong.
But it wasn’t exactly easy.
“My only experience up until that point was running a convenience store up in Marion,” Bridges said. “I was right out of high school working 110 hours a week—that’s 15 hours a day not including the half hour of driving I had to do to get to the store and back. I was so young I couldn’t buy the beer I was selling to my customers.”
By the time he was able to borrow the money to buy the old A.L. Fuller Gulf Service Station in his native Safford and start his own tire and hardware store, he had put in more work hours than most people ten years his senior. But convincing suppliers to give him the credit needed to stock tires, tools and feed was an uphill battle.
So was earning the trust of the community, which was critical if he wanted to keep the store open.
“It wasn’t instant success by any means,” Bridges said. “Many of the farmers and businesses around here already had long-standing relationships with merchants in Marion, Thomaston and Selma and they looked at me like ‘who is this kid?’. It was years before my own neighbor even came into the store. I am not exaggerating when I say those first couple of years were incredibly tough days.”
But like all the struggles in Bridges life, when it didn’t kill him, it definitely made him stronger.
As the years went by, Bridges left the no-nothing kid image in the dust and one sale at a time began to earn the reputation of a trusted businessman willing to work hard to win the loyalty of his customers and Safford Tire became a trusted business in the area. But Keith wasn’t out of the woods just yet.
“We were outgrowing the old service station building so, against the advice of my friends, I purchased the property across the street and built a much larger store, and shortly after expanding it to offer sporting goods and things like clothing and hunting and fishing supplies,” Bridges said.
“This was happening as the economic disaster of 2008 was going on and my friends and family thought I was absolutely crazy and that I couldn’t have picked a worse time to get into more debt to expand a store in the middle of nowhere,” Bridges said. “Looking back, I guess it was a little crazy but I believed it was now or never, I either had to go forward with expanding or get out.”
Thus, Safford Sporting Goods was born in 2010 and soon an online store followed. The online store proved to be lucrative and has helped Bridges expand his customer base well beyond the nearby communities into places as far as central Florida and Missouri.
Bridges attributes his success to following two simple rules that his parents help distill in him at an early age.
“My approach to life in general, not just to business, is one, to honor my word, and two, treat people like I want to be treated,” Bridges said. “It’s that simple. Do those two things and work hard and I believe those are the not-so-secrets to success.”
“I love my customers. The ones that come in here I know by name. They know if they need something the staff here is going to help them get exactly what they came in for. We are not about the sale, we’re about relationships. We know that if a customer doesn’t have a good experience, whether in our store, or online, we may never see them again.”
Old school customer service is the driving force behind Safford’s business mission, and one he says is lacking in many business models today.
“Paying attention to customers’ needs was so lacking in our modern world that someone somewhere had to come up with a name for it and customer service became a marketing buzz word,” Bridges said. “We just call it coming to work. You don’t really need to name it anything when you are constantly doing it.”
When asked if there was one thing Bridges would like to say to all those doubters along the way, he had a not-so-surprising answer (if you know Keith).
“I would say thanks,” Bridges said. “You truly inspired me to work harder.”