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June 30, 2014

Jim Rankin builds family business old-fashioned way

Family Photo
James A. and Shirley P. Rankin, married 60 years, flanked by daughters Alice Knicely and Beverley Alspaugh and sons J. Alvin Rankin Jr. and Glenn Rankin.
The Warrenton hardware store opened 1965; three others would follow — in Winchester, Colonial Beach and King George.
Kent Rankin, Mike Kniceley and Glenn Rankin, all related, keep things running smoothly at Rankin's True Value Hardware in Warrenton Village Shopping Center.
Shelves of flowers and garden plants run almost the full length of the hardware storefront.
“He was like a brother to me. I really miss him,” Mr. Rankin says of the late Roland Tapscott (right), at a Veterans Day prayer breakfast last November.
He’s a fellow who’s been very successful in business, but is very modest. He believes he has received so much so he can help others.
— Pastor Tim Monn of the Midland Church of the Brethren
The Rankin File
The family
James A. Rankin, son of Clay P. and Naomi Smith Rankin of Midland, married to Shirley Payne Rankin for 60 years. Four children, J. Alvin Rankin Jr., Glenn Rankin, Beverley Alspaugh and Alice Knicley. Eight grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

The businesses
Rankin’s Furniture, Waterloo Station Shopping Center, Warrenton. James A. Rankin, owner. Second cousin Ann Jenkins “pays the bills” for furniture and hardware stores in Warrenton. Granddaughter Jessica Bradshaw, sales associate. Daughter Alice Knicely, part-time sales associate.

Rankin’s True Value Hardware, Warrenton Village Shopping Center. Glenn Rankin, general manager. Kent Rankin, nephew, manager. Mike Kniceley, son-in-law, manager of sporting goods.

Rankin’s True Value Hardware, King George. J. Alvin Rankin Jr., general manager.

Rankin’s True Value Hardware, Rankin’s Appliance and Furniture and Peddlers Market, all in Colonial Beach Shopping Center. Managed by Lloyd and Beverly Alspaugh.

Rankin’s Hardware in Winchester was sold in 1990. Rankin’s Sporting Goods site at Waterloo Station was taken over by furniture store in 1992. Hardware store absorbed sporting goods sales.

The military
James Alvin Rankin, U.S. Army paratrooper, 1951-54. Fought in Korea for two years, earning two Bronze Stars, plus several more service medals and badges.

His father, Clay Preston Rankin of Midland served in U.S. Army infantry during World War I, earning the Silver Star and Italian War Cross.

A grandson, Todd Alspaugh, U.S. Army paratrooper with 82nd Airborne, stationed in Hawaii. Has served one tour in South Korea and three in Afghanistan.

Veterans organizations
Life member and past commander American Legion Post 72 in Warrenton. Life member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1178, a life member of 187th Airborne Association of the U.S. Army, charter member and donor of the Veterans Memorial on Hospital Hill in Warrenton and a member of the Fauquier County Armory Board.

Church affiliation
Midland Church of the Brethren, lifelong member. Board of directors. Fourth-general member in father’s family; fifth generation in mother’s family. Son Alvin also a member.

Civic and business organizations
Warrenton Rotary Club member for 41 years. Recipient of the Paul Harris Award from Rotary International. Member of Fauquier Chamber of Commerce, founding member of the Warrenton/Culpeper Elks, past member of Warrenton-Fauquier Jaycees and past member of State Bank of Remington board of directors.

Public office
Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, Center District elected representative, 1984-91. Appointed in 1997 to fill one-year unexpired term of James Brumfield, who died suddenly.

Tradition, commitment, family and faith form the center of Warrenton entrepreneur James A. “Jimmy” Rankin’s world.

Five generations of Rankins have belonged to the same church. Three generations of Rankin men have seen combat in the U.S. Army.

Jimmy Rankin has been a loyal member of local business, civic and veterans organizations for decades. He’s been married for 60 years to the former Shirley Payne. Rankin’s True Value Hardware, launched 48 years ago in Fauquier County’s first shopping center, still thrives and has spawned more businesses bearing the family name.

The man who started it all shows no signs of slowing down at age 83.

Humble beginnings

Mr. Rankin spent his early years on a farm near Opal, where the family raised hay and grain cops and milked eight to 10 cows in a “50-50 arrangement” with the owner.

His family sold cream from fresh milk to generate a meager income. A vegetable garden provided fresh produce in the summer months, plus more for canning to get the family of seven through the winter.

“I don’t know of anyone who could have been poorer than we were,” Mr. Rankin recalls. “Mama said we may not have much, but we’d always have clean clothes and plenty to eat.”

Farm life made it difficult to get an education.

“We didn’t start going to school until January,” he recalls. “We worked on the farm, didn’t go to school until all the crops were in.”

After stints at schools in Calverton and Bealeton, Mr. Rankin quit at the end of the seventh grade. (Later, as an adult, he earned a diploma by taking correspondence courses and night classes at Fauquier High School in Warrenton.)

Over the next few years, the teenager held a variety of jobs — at Sanders Quarry, the A&P grocery at Quantico and as a carpenter’s helper. In 1949, he started working in Edwin Trenis’s department store in Catlett. His budding career in retail would have to be put on hold, however.

Off to war

In 1950, war divided the Korean peninsula with communist China supporting the north and the United States backing the south. Although only 17, Mr. Rankin joined the U.S. Army. Soon after he completed basic training, authorities discovered that neither parent had given written permission for him to enlist as a minor.

“No one had signed for me, so I was sent home,” he says.

A few months after his 18th birthday, he again enlisted, eventually becoming a paratrooper with the 187th Airborne, Regimental Combat Team. Off to Korea he went in 1951, seeing action “all over the peninsula” and enduring temperatures “40 to 50 degrees below zero up in the mountains.”

His experience at Koje-do, a massive prisoner-of-war camp near Pusan, remains seared in Mr. Rankin’s memory. U.S. forces could contain the 150,000 prisoners, but lacked manpower to control rioting between pro-communist and anti-communist factions within the compounds. Conditions in Compounds 77 and 76, which held 70,000 captives, grew especially violent. Communist prisoners armed with improvised weapons repeatedly attacked non-communist Koreans and U.S. troops.

In June 1952, Mr. Rankin and fellow paratroopers got deployed to Koje-do to quell the riots and restore order to the prison.

“It was bad,” he says. “The communist prisoners would execute anti-communist prisoners then burn the bodies. We could smell flesh burning just about every night. The bodies would be carried out in honey buckets (containers of latrine waste) the next morning.”

After about three months at Koje-Do, Staff Sgt. Rankin returned to the front lines of battle. The young soldier, eager to resume civilian life, came home in 1953 with two Bronze Stars and several combat badges.

On the path to success

The veteran returned to Trenis Department Store in Catlett, where he worked the next seven years.

In March 1954, Mr. Rankin married Shirley Payne, who would become the mother of their two sons and two daughters.

In 1960, Mr. Trenis opened an appliance and hardware store in the Northern Virginia Shopping Center (now Warrenton Village) at Broadview Avenue and Route 17. Mr. Rankin worked there until a new opportunity came knocking five years later.

Shopping center owner Aaron Gerber and manager Robert Gilliam approached Mr. Rankin about opening a new hardware store.

“I hocked my home for $19,000 and borrowed $3,000 more from the bank” to launch the business in 1965, he says.

“I started with a little of this and a little of that, gradually built a good inventory and went from there,” Mr. Rankin recalls.

At the time, Warrenton competitors included Blue Ridge Hardware, Warrenton Supply Co. and Risdon’s Hardware. All have since closed.

The success of Rankin’s True Value Hardware in Warrenton spawned stores with the same name in Winchester (1980), Colonial Beach (1991) and King George (2003). The family sold the Winchester store in 1990.

More stores bearing the family name have appeared on the retail scene: Rankin’s Sporting Goods, now incorporated into the Warrenton hardware store; Rankin’s Furniture in Waterloo Station Shopping Center, Rankin’s Appliance and Furniture in the family-owned Colonial Beach Shopping Center. Family members run all of the stores.

When Mr. Rankin opened his first store, he had two employees, the late Randy Moore and Steve Hanback. Today, his stores provide livelihoods for roughly 60 employees, including 10 family members. Several have been with him for decades: Ann Jenkins, 44 years; Sandra Jeffries, 36 years; and Barbara Edwards, 24 years.

“Over the years, I gained the knowledge and experience to push ahead, to build a family business,” says Mr. Rankin.

“When you first start out, work hard to build your business,” he says, summarizing his advice to young entrepreneurs. “Don’t run out and spend your money. Serve your customers as you would want to be treated. If you put in the time, you can make it.”

Sharing rewards of success

Soft-spoken and modest, Mr. Rankin is known to be generous with organizations and individuals in financial straits. Friends and relatives recount specific instances of his largesse with one caveat: the details are off the record.

“He’s a fellow who’s been very successful in business, but is very modest,” says Pastor Tim Monn of the Midland Church of the Brethren, where Mr. Rankin is a life-long member. “He believes he has received so much so he can help others.”

Pastor Monn cites instances of Mr. Rankin reaching out to employees in times of illness and financial stress, of providing jobs to the unemployed and counseling people with legal difficulties.

“He helps people in trouble find strength,” the pastor says. “He sets a very high standard for himself, but does not pull away from people who fall short of those standards. He draws them closer.

“He has been triumphant over every adversity he has experienced. He credits his mother and the church. He’s very fervent about his faith.”

“I’m proud of my mother and I’m proud that I listened to her,” Mr. Rankin says of the character-shaping influence of the strong and loving woman. “She was a good Christian.”

Mr. Rankin remains a dedicated supporter of business and civic groups, plus veterans organizations. He also served as Center District supervisor for nine years.

“Small businesses are the ones who support most community activities, they really are,” he says.

Over the years, Mr. Rankin formed a deep friendship with the late Roland Tapscott, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II and community civil rights pioneer. Mr. Tapscott, who died in January, worked diligently to integrate Fauquier County public schools. He also helped found the Fauquier Housing Coalition, which helps low-income families buy homes.

“We got to know each other through community projects we worked on together and through veterans groups,” says Mr. Rankin, who as a supervisor appointed Mr. Tapscott to the county planning commission. The two often stood shoulder-to-shoulder at local ceremonies honoring veterans.

“He was like a brother to me. I really miss him,” says Mr. Rankin.

Still going strong

Thanks to the success of his businesses, plus some savvy real estate investments over the years, Mr. Rankin has financially security, yet the 83-year-old can be found minding the furniture store at least five days a week.

He credits his good health, in part, to his work. Keeping a vow to his mother to never drink or smoke again after a night of post-war celebration in 1954, coupled with having “a good cook at home” in his 60-year marriage, contribute to his heartiness.

“I’ve been working with the public all my life. I have no desire to quit,” says the owner of Warrenton hardware and furniture stores that bear his name. “I don’t want to sit home and do nothing, just getting ready to die. I want to live a little longer.”

• • •

“Retail changes every year”

In search of mothballs and a pull chain for a light fixture, Ken Adams strolls into Rankin’s True Value Hardware.

Out front, his wife checks plants that fill row after row of shelving. The Adamses, residents of Bethel Academy just north of town, have been regular shoppers at the Warrenton hardware store for about 10 years.

“I usually find what I’m looking for,” Mr. Adams says. “The staff always is very courteous and helpful.”

James A. Rankin 48 years ago founded the thriving store, which three members of his family operate, in the Warrenton Village Shopping Center. His son Glenn Rankin serves as the general manager, with nephew Kent Rankin as the manager and son-in-law Mike Kniceley in charge of sporting goods.

“We’re just a regular hardware store. We’re not into building materials,” says Glenn Rankin, who has worked at the store for 39 years. “We’re customer-oriented; that’s set us apart so far.”

The store’s inventory ranges from lawn and gardening supplies to painting, electrical and plumbing needs, household appliances, fasteners, hand and power tools, ladders and much, much more. Duplicate keys get made throughout the day. Big Green Egg charcoal grills have become popular with local backyard chefs, who like to smoke meats, poultry and fish.

If store doesn’t stock an item, it can be ordered online through the retailer’s website, Glenn Rankin notes.

“Competition changes every year. Retail changes every year,” he says. “You need to keep up with changes. Experience helps.”

True Value is a cooperative of more than 5,000 independently-owned hardware stores worldwide, not a franchise, he explains. The cooperative invited Rankin’s store to become a member a year after it opened.

“When Dad started the store, he didn’t forget his roots” Glenn Rankin says of the store’s early success. “Anybody who didn’t have money, he’d help them any way he could. He’s always trusted people.”

Kent Rankin credits to store’s success to “hard work, putting in long hours” and maintaining ties to the community it serves. “We’re not just a business, we’re part of the community.”

Sporting goods

In 1985, the senior Rankin decided to open a sporting goods store across town in the Waterloo Station Shopping Center. Seven years later, he launched Rankin’s Furniture at that location. The sporting goods business got absorbed by the hardware store.

Mr. Knicely for 30 years has overseen rows of items for ball sports, hunting and fishing, target shooting, camping and more.

“The number and variety of sports in the county have increased tremendously,” he says. “I think it’s good for the community. It gives kids a chance to find out what they’re good at.”

To compete with online retailers, Mr. Knicely says he works with local clubs to determine their needs and orders supplies in large quantities.

“If you want (an athletic) field, we can get it built,” he says. “We’re not limited in what we can do. We try to do it all.”

The furniture store

The senior Rankin spends his days at his furniture store, greeting customers and working the phone at his centrally located desk, surrounded by relatives. Second cousin Ann Jenkins, bookkeeper for the hardware and furniture stores in Warrenton, has been at his side for 44 years. Daughter Alice Knicely works part-time in sales. Granddaughter Jessica Bradshaw became a full-time sales associate a year ago.

The store offers upholstered furniture by Jackson, Catnapper, England and Flexsteel, plus futons, dining room, bedroom and office furniture, lamps, tables, clocks and accessories.

“We carry quality furniture,” says Mr. Rankin. “Ironically, the majority of our customers come from outside the county.”

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Tell It Like It Is · July 3, 2014 at 12:56 pm
Good job Jimmy!

Folks don't just buy local though. Buy from and support locally owned and operated businesses. Like the fine job that Rankin's done there are several other long standing locally owned and operated businesses that have stood the test of time and continue to offer great customer service and exceptional consumer value.
Again kudo's to Jimmy Rankin and the fine community man he is!
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