Feb. 20, 2013

Spinx Founder Looks Back at Building His Business

“Luck is a very important thing in life,” says Spinks, chatting in the living room of his downtown condo. “Some people say that I’m a whole lot luckier than I am smart.”

Luck or not, Spinks has built a business and made a point of giving back to the community. In return, the city of Greenville has declared Nov. 14 Stewart Spinks Day, in recognition of the company’s philanthropic and community service endeavors that include scholarship funds and the Spinx Charity Classic golf tournament.

Born into a working class family in Augusta, Spinks was accepted into the Army Reserves as a student at University of Tennessee during the height of the Vietnam War. He served six months of active duty and then took a job with the Shell Oil Co. in Atlanta.

He was still in training when Shell made him part of its Loaned Executive Program, putting him to work on a fund-raising campaign for the United Way.

“Shell Oil Co. loaned me as a loaned executive to the United Way drive in 1969. They gave me a company car and an expense account, and said, ‘Go do good work for the community,’ as a 22-year-old kid right out of college,” he recalls.

After the United Way drive was over, Spinks was named Outstanding Loaned Executive, then transferred to Columbia, and shortly after, to Greenville.

It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened, Spinks says.

“What a blessing. You talk about being lucky. I was lucky I got into the Army Reserves. I was lucky I got a good job with Shell, lucky I got assigned to the United Way, and then lucky I got out of Columbia,” he says.

Moving to Greenville, Spinks and his wife, Martha, lived frugally on his $10,000 a year salary. Within 31/2 years, they had paid off their car and saved $4,000 so that Spinks could start his own business.

“That’s what I had to go into business with, $4,000,” he says.

In 1972, the week before his 26th birthday, Spinks took the plunge, buying his first service station at the corner of East Washington and Laurens Road.

When he was working for Shell, “this particular asset was put on the disposable list because it was such a poor-performing service station for Shell. But what I knew and what the capital budgeting people didn’t know was that this service station was extremely profitable for the operator, but it just didn’t pump a lot of gas. ... The dealer had been there for 30 years, and he was cantankerous to everybody but his customers.”

The dealer, Francis Neal, sold the dealership to Spinks and, three years later, Shell sold him the land.

From the beginning, Spinks had a plan to turn things around.

“It seems like it was yesterday. I did extend the hours of operation, I opened on Sunday, I opened it til 10 o’clock at night, and I worked hard at taking care of Francis’ customers and Shell’s customers and made them our customers. I hired another mechanic. And we never stopped. I managed the books, I managed the inventory. I had the only key to the door,” he says.

Soon, Spinks began looking to expand, buying the heating oil company Foster Oil with help from his mother, who signed over the note to her house to her son. It was a big investment for Spinks, who agreed to pay $50,000 at $833 per month for 60 months. And then he borrowed another $15,000 to buy the inventory and trucks.

Martha worked in the company, and they built a loft in the warehouse where their sons could hang out after school.

“I was hocked up to here. When you owe a lot of money, you hit the ground running every morning,” he says.

They survived, and even thrived, through the toughest years of the energy crisis, even during the oil embargo. These days, his son Steve is president of the company, and two of his other three sons work there as well.

This is the second year Greenville has honored Spinks, and he is appreciative of the recognition.

“It’s an acknowledgment of just hanging in there for 40 years and growing a business and a family and a community that’s very supportive of business.”