Poor Joe the plumber, plucked from obscurity and thrust into the national limelight, his life has now become an open book. After all, all he did was ask a question about tax policy. Little did he know the McCain campaign and Fox News would seize upon him and try to make him an icon.
I wondered about Joe even before the stories started to come out about the tax lien against him or his lack of plumbing license. For years I worked for a man that made well over $250,000 a year and he was a heck of a lot sharper than Joe the Plumber.
Mr. Ben had started in the 1940’s with one auto parts house and by the late 1970’s Mr. Ben owned over 120 auto parts stores with three auto parts warehouses located across three states. When I was promoted to manager I began to have meetings with Mr. Ben once a week. Right after Ronald Reagan was elected I asked Mr. Ben, "Is Ronny going to cut your taxes?"
"Probably" he answered, "but I voted for Carter. You can’t build a business on tax cuts. The Democrats build roads and bridges and every mile of highway is money in my pocket. I don’t want to pay one nickel more than I have to, but taxes are just the cost of doing business. Our vendors raise prices and no one cries 'you’re going to bankrupt us!' The city passes a sales tax and you just pay it and go on; it’s the same for everyone. I wouldn’t own all these stores if the state and federal government hadn’t built all those roads, and taxes paid for every foot of them."
Mr. Ben once explained, "It's not about who has the best hand, it's about how you play it." He also owned a realty company and when he planned to open a new parts store they would build a strip shopping center. The parts store would be the anchor store and the other businesses would subsidize the rent. If the parts store did well Mr. Ben raised the rent until they just barely made money. That way the construction loan could be paid off faster while paying fewer taxes in the parts business. If the store did poorly he would lower the rent, but either way he made money.
Mr. Ben traveled the highways extensively to keep an eye on his holdings. He had been pricing a new Buick Roadmaster, finally telling a local dealer, "I’m going to send a man over there with a cashier’s check for $30,000 and you either give him the car or turn him around."
I shook my head at his directness and tenacity when Mr. Ben asked, "You think I’m rich, don’t you?"
I answered, "I think you’re doing all right, a lot better than I am at least."
"I’m not rich," he said smiling. "I’m almost seventy years old and I don’t even own a car. The company owns that car," he said with a wink. "The company owns my wife’s Cadillac, too. The company pays for the gas and the insurance and for the tires and the oil. You see, it’s not what the company pays you, it’s what the company gives you. The company pays for our health insurance and the Realty Company pays for our vacation home down on Alligator Point in Florida. You see, we don’t own it, we lease it. I don’t have to make much money; my needs are meet and my nest egg is in this business."
He was sharp, the company owned his 72-foot yacht as well. It was for entertaining customers, of course. The wholesale parts warehouses would cut us deals and pass along savings to us in the retail parts stores. For three years the parts houses did very well and the warehouses lost money. Then the tide was reversed; the warehouses were charging company stores higher prices than our competitors. The warehouses made huge profits and the retail stores lost money, all because Mr. Ben was playing out his tax hand. Two of his three businesses were making money and one was always losing money.
The money, of course, all belonged to the same person, Mr. Ben. Because of this I always had to check with Mr. Ben on my purchases. "If you can sell it," he said, "then put it on the shelf. I make 3% on my money in the bank and I make 20% on the money on the shelf." Mr. Ben used to insist that we take advantage of the discounts offered for prompt payment. "If they’ll give you a 2% discount for paying in ten days, what’s that equal in a year?"
I think Ben liked to share his knowledge with us because it was rejected by his idiot son, Ben Jr., who went by the name Bubba. Bubba had the title of manager in the smallest of Ben’s three warehouses. Bubba’s office had golf clubs in one corner and fishing tackle in the other. The walls were decorated with football memorabilia from Auburn University where Bubba once attended for one semester before flunking out. On his desk was a model of the Coast Guard cutter Bubba had served on after leaving school. Mr. Ben had pulled some strings to get Bubba into the Coast Guard and out of Vietnam.
Bubba was a rabid Republican and a strong believer in tax cuts. During the presidential campaign Bubba bought tickets to meet Bush 41 and was very impressed. Mr. Ben explained "that the boy didn’t know which side his bread was buttered on. I make my own tax cuts! I don’t need politicians to do that for me."
Mr. Ben always read the "Dodge Reports," a trade paper that tracks construction and road projects and one day I asked, "Do you read that for your realty company?"
"I go where the roads go," he answered. "Where the roads go, growth goes. Where growth goes, prosperity goes. Years ago in Dothan the city leaders and business merchants had a bitter fight over traffic congestion in downtown. The answer was a by-pass, and by the time it was finished most of the downtown merchants were broke. The traffic followed the road and took the money with it. The by-pass brought new jobs and industry and new cars lots sprang up. That’s what I like to see is new car lots, because every new car sold is a new customer for us."
He explained that they were trying to find a site for a new store and it had come down to a location in a major shopping center or another location on a newly-widened highway. Mr. Ben said, "The choice is clear, the shopping center is at its peak today! The widened highway will see growing traffic for years; it’s the chicken and the egg. The chicken is all it can ever be but the egg is just beginning."