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How does a business live for 100 years?
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How does a business live for 100 years?

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Photo Gallery: Find out which businesses have survived at least 100 years in Tulsa


The doors to Miss Jackson’s shut this week. Thus ended 105 years of style.

Miss Jackson’s said goodbye its own way, dignified and elegant in a three-minute video on its website called, fittingly, The Late Shopper. A shortened version of the video was its final advertisement — a 30-second farewell full of swinging hips that played ahead of a YouTube video or a news spot.

The video played on the medium that, ironically, helped hasten the end of more than a century of business.

The Internet.

Darkness fell on the store’s carpeted floors next to a parking lot full of cars replete with navigation systems and more powerful than dozens of horses. When the store first opened, the horse, navigated by experience and dead reckoning, was the most common method of transportation. Oklahoma had only been a state for three years. Tulsa’s population was a little over 18,000, according to the Census Bureau.

Businesses, like the people who own and shop at them, die. They don’t die of old age, but instead because the marketplace — that capitalistic jungle — no longer has a place for them. Businesses more than a century old are a rarity, something that happens once in a blue moon.

The stock market backs that up. Only 12 percent of the companies on the S&P 500 in 1955 were still there in 2014. Companies mature, consumer needs change and innovation begins to pass them by.

Yale Professor Richard Foster told the BBC in 2012 that the average age of an S&P 500 company has declined by more than 50 years since the 1920s. Then the average age was 67 years. Now it’s 15 years.

“All companies would like to think that they’re going to be the Methuselah, but they’re not,” Foster said to the BBC.

Miss Jackson’s was born at a time when most, if not all, retailers operated like them — a personalized shopping experience. It endured as roads and the automobile brought about the suburbs and the department store.

“The marketplace has changed a lot,” general manager Judy White said. “This is the whole business cycle.”

She believes life comes in seasons, and this is winter for Miss Jackson’s.

The video, The Late Shopper, wasn’t supposed to be about the end of Miss Jackson’s at all, White and employee Rachel Kern-Everett said. At first, Kern-Everett said, the video was supposed to be an advertisement aimed at getting people in the store for the holiday season.

The staff wanted to show people the beauty that was inside because they felt people knew about the store, but didn’t always come in because they didn’t think it was right for them, Kern-Everett said.

It was a sign of adaptation, but it came a little late. There were options to stay in business, but White believes there’s beauty in a graceful exit.

“We have chosen to leave the market gracefully ... There are a slew of different possibilities, but I think that this is the more appropriate one,” White said, tears in her eyes, sitting down amidst the boxes of the soon-to-be vacant office.

“I think that this is the right thing. I really do. And that will give opportunity for our birds to fly and find new places. It’s going to be difficult, but you know, change is not always bad.”

Change happens

The office space at Southern Sheet Metal smells like the three pots of coffee brewing in one room off to the side, the smell as assaulting to the nostrils as the humming and clanging of machinery heard through the doors is to the ears.

David Tidwell sat back at his cluttered desk, serene, not at all startled when there was a particularly loud bang or crash.

Tools and machinery dotted each corner of the room. Glamour, it’s safe to say, is not part of his job.

He’s the fourth generation in his family to run the company, located at 1225 E. Second St. It was founded by his great-grandfather in 1904 — three years before Oklahoma became a state.

He didn’t think he would be in the family business, Tidwell said. He worked in marketing and then he saw “what the real world was like” — how tough it was in the marketplace. The marketplace for metal fabricators, companies that bend steel, manufacture small metal parts, equipment for oil fields and handle HVAC work isn’t that easy, either.

The company’s fortunes are tied directly to the economy — oil prices, steel prices and home-building. Over a century, it’s had to change what it’s good at and react quickly to economic headwinds and downturns.

Right outside the office doors are its latest adaptation: storm shelters, those small steel boxes that run between $3,500 and $4,500 depending on size.

Tidwell said the foray into storm shelters marks the company’s first time as retailer, selling directly to the public and not their usual clients.

“It’s more retail, certainly,” he said. “You can make the best product in the world, but if no one knows about it, what good is it?”

Spring — tornado season — is the busiest time for them, when they make four to five storm shelters a week — it comes out to about 120 a year. It’s about 20 to 25 percent of his business now and he hopes it can grow, he said.

The company has changed its main business several times. It started off doing cornice work on buildings downtown, moved into making parts for oil fields, went into commercial ventilation and now the storm shelter businesses.

All but the cornice work remain a part of the business.

“You really have to diversify what you do,” he said.

Decades make a difference

“If I ran the business the same way I did in 1992, we would be gone,” said Mary Wilkins owner of the 112-year-old Blossom Shoppe.

Why?

“Because of the Internet, because of social media, because of credit cards, because of a lot of things,” she said.

Wilkins and her husband, Jim, bought the business in 1992 and have worked hard to keep it afloat.

One of the ways they do that is making sure they differentiate themselves on the Internet. Most florists that are a part of FTD have an FTD-made site, and the Wilkinses do. They’ve just tried to make sure theirs is different and engaging.

The Internet has been helpful from a supply standpoint. Now, it’s easier for them to find specialty items from wholesalers nationwide while continuing to rely on their local wholesalers.

Customers’ buying habits haven’t changed, but their buying methods have. The same customers now just order over the Internet and expect more, Wilkins said.

The Blossom Shoppe, 5565 E. 41st St., is very concerned about customer reviews online. Problems with orders are mini-attempts at crisis-mitigation.

Before, complaints were passed on by word of mouth. Now, they’re on the Internet for all to see.

Wilkins said she encourages people with compliments to post and the people with complaints to call.

The Internet, despite its reputation, isn’t always the best about providing information. Businesses that are closed often seem open on a Google search.

That, a little bit of luck, and a dash of generosity, has helped Blossom Shoppe a good deal in recent years. Wilkins said they got lucky when a florist closed in Broken Arrow and offered them their phone number.

Most of their business came with it, but she still has to explain they’re at 41st and Yale and not in Broken Arrow.

Samuel Hardiman 918-581-8466

sam.hardiman@tulsaworld.com

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