Small businesses can have a big impact. Each month, the City of Arnold features its small businesses that have grown substantially due to their roots in our community and their commitment to providing excellent service.
Medart Engine & Marine
Medart Engine & Marine in Arnold Prospers with Golden Rule of Customer Service
106-Year-Old Engine Parts Distribution Company Survived Great Depression, World War II & Employs 135 Today
J.R. Medart was the youngest of four children when their father died in 1910. He became an engine buff and, at age 14, J.R. began to earn money to help support the Medart family by repairing auto parts such as magnetos, starters, and carburetors. Skilled and smart, young J.R. nurtured customers among doctors who needed reliable transportation for house calls near Saint Louis University in the city’s midtown area.
Called “Jimmy” by family, friends, and customers, young J.R. rode a big Indian motorcycle that was bigger than he was. Fitted with leather saddlebags and loaded with engine parts, the motorcycle was J.R.’s regular “ride” to and from the doctors’ offices that he served.
Before long, J.R. was hired by S. G. Hoffman Magneto Co. The owner, Sam Hoffman, paid Jimmy four dollars a week in 1913 to pick up, fix, and deliver engine components after they were repaired.
Jimmy Medart was a go-getter. By 1925, he had saved enough to buy Hoffman’s company. At age 27 he started his own enterprise. He joined the Rotary Club and applied the Club’s four-way test of service above self – “Golden Rule Service” – to his new company, and followed Club guidelines for dealing with manufacturers, customers, and employees (associates):
- Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Will it build goodwill and friendship?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
“My grandfather J.R. was fastidious about his business and careful about saving money,” his grandson J.M. “Mike” Medart, company CEO and President, says today from the company’s headquarters in Arnold at 124 Manufacturers Drive.
“He was a tough, hard-working man, and he cared a great deal about people. We have preserved and respected those guidelines at our company for nearly a century as a value statement for our business and as a tribute to him,” Mike Medart asserts.
In the mid-1920s, J.R. Medart was in the right place at the right time in America’s booming auto industry. He expanded his company service line, hired new employees, and gained new customers.
Then came the Great Depression of 1929. In 1930 he reorganized and renamed his enterprise the Medart Auto Electric Co., Inc.
“It was a very difficult time,” Mike Medart says today. “It was a time when people repaired things rather than buy new things. The company got by with repair work, but I won’t say it flourished.”
“Years later I remember my grandfather telling me that he wanted to keep everybody on the repair staff during the Depression, but that there were some weeks that he could only pay people enough to put food on their table.”
“It was then that the company began the tradition of giving every associate – we call our employees associates – a turkey for Christmas so people would have food on the table. It is a tradition that we continue today.”
When World War II displaced the Great Depression in 1941, J.R. Medart’s company again encountered tough times. “There were shortages of just about everything, and it was a lean time because of workforce depletion – most working men joined the service to fight overseas,” Mike Medart says.
“Although we always have had women associates in our workforce in customer service roles, we introduced more women into our company at that time.”
As the tide of World War II turned in 1944, J.R. Medart introduced the forerunner of a profit-sharing plan for his company associates, an innovation at the time.
“One reason my grandfather cared so much about people is because his own father had died when he was 11 years old, and he knew how difficult it was to keep a family together. So the company bought an annuity contract for every associate. That was a wonderful thing for him to do, and it established a premise for introducing a company profit-sharing plan in the 1950s when Congress authorized those types of plans.”
“We believed then and we believe now that profit-sharing plans empower every associate to think like a company stakeholder,” says Mike Medart.
Medart Engine pioneered development of service training for dealers and customers in the post-War era, conducting seminars and programs so industry representatives and buyers could understand all components of equipment and parts distributed by the company.
Electric Auto-Lite was Medart’s first product line that required distribution and education. At the time, Electric Auto-Lite manufactured more than 400 types of parts, including generators, headlamps, horns, hubcaps, and seat adjustment devices, and was the auto industry’s biggest maker of electrical equipment. Medart conducted education and training sessions for Electric Auto-Lite routinely for many years.
Such in-house innovations were supplemented over the years by instruction from Original Equipment Manufacturers that the company represented, such as Kohler, Oregon, Carlisle, and others. Medart continues to conduct numerous educational programs.
As noted in a historic account of Medart Engine, the company “also operated a large drive-in tune-up and repair shop. At that time it was one of the finest drive-in repair garages in the Midwest. America had over a hundred car companies, but only a few electrical and carburetion companies, so the need for repair was great. All car dealerships with carburetion and electrical needs came to Medart or one of our authorized dealers in southern Illinois and eastern Missouri.”
“In the 1950s and 60s, the company developed into an automotive warehouse distribution business, renamed Medart Automotive Warehouse. We thrived as a company during these times…During the 1970s competition in the auto industry greatly intensified and a family decision was reached to sell our automotive legacy business, but not our roots. It turned out to be a great long-term decision to focus in the engine and marine industries.”
James Speed Medart
The Modern Era
Today, Medart, Inc. is a large regional wholesale distributor representing more than 60 different manufacturers – it handles more than 10,000 parts for virtually all types of gas and diesel engines from its headquarters in Arnold and warehouses in Kansas City and Memphis; the company also has operations in Mobile, Alabama, that only support marine parts. The Medart Marine division is a supply operation for boating, marine, and boat yard industries.
More than 135 full-time Medart associates work to provide equipment, parts, and shipping service solutions for the turf and garden industry; construction and industrial contractors; forestry; small tools and equipment; rental; and marine. Medart Marine has a separate, dedicated sales staff.
“Many of our full-time associates have worked at our company for 20 or 30 years,” says Mike Medart. “We are proud of our associates and their track records. Fifty-five of our 135 full-time Medart associates work in or with our Arnold facilities. The company also employs seasonal temporary employees.“
Speed Medart led the company into the modern era. James Speed Medart was the name that Speed’s father, J.R. Medart, gave him at birth in 1930. Speed “hit the ground running” when he started with the company after college as a young man in progressively responsible jobs. He was named President in 1968 when J.R. Medart became Chairman of the Board.
“My father Speed was very much a ‘people person,’ a very good father, and a great guy who was well-liked within the company, as well as in the industry” says Mike Medart. “He was very outgoing, and we had a ton of fun together.”
Speed’s involvement with industry and trade associations helped him lead the company into new directions and opened new opportunities. He was a member and officer with the Automotive Electric Association, the Engine Service Association, and the National Marine Distributors Association.
As President of his family company, Speed helped develop and expand new office/warehouse facilities for Medart in states outside Missouri, and he established many new distribution relationships with OEMs, including with many well-known product brands.
In 1995, after battling cancer for a number of years, Speed Medart died of leukemia at age 64. Mike Medart was named company CEO and President the year before Speed passed away. “My father Speed died too young,” he says. Speed Medart was beloved by many. Like his father J.R. who founded the company, he had anonymously helped many people who had fallen on hard times.
Mike Medart had worked part-time at the company during his high school and college years. After he earned an MBA at Saint Louis University in 1982 he joined the firm full time, based in the information technology department where he helped modernize some of the company IT operations.
In 1985 he was promoted to Sales Manager at Medart Engine and was named President in 1994 at age 38. “I felt strongly at the time that I had a responsibility to preserve and advance the company’s legacy and traditions,” Mike Medart says.
“I still do today.”
In addition to serving on the boards of several industry associations as both a director and as an officer, Mike Medart serves on the board of the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business at Saint Louis University.
It was Mike Medart’s decision to move the company’s headquarters to Arnold, beginning with a land purchase in 1997 and then completing two facilities totaling 121,000 square feet in 1999.
“Being located in Arnold has been a positive for our company,” Mike Medart says. “A number of capable and skilled people who live in the area have joined our workforce over the years. The community is a good place to live and work. The fire and police departments have taken good care of us.”
“Our company stands by our motto ‘Real People, Real Service.’ Our most important goal is customer satisfaction, and we believe that commitment is one reason why we have become an industry leader over 106 years in business.”
“I am proud to be the family’s third generation at Medart, Inc., and also to work here with my son Griffin, who is our purchasing manager and represents the fourth generation.”
“Our commitment to providing Golden Rule Service is very much intact.”
Story by Jeff Dunlap