Businesses have personalities, just as people do, and these personalities take shape in different ways. Certain businesses develop through their products, others are known for their leaders, and still others are formed out of the circumstances of a place. Busbee’s Trucks and Parts belongs to the latter group, and its connection to the town of Wagener, South Carolina is a deep and abiding one which owes much to its owner, Doug Busbee.
The town of Wagener, South Carolina is a small town with a population that generally hovers around 800. Its first organization as a settlement dates back to 1887 when it was known as Pinder Town. Later, it became Guntersville, and then, eventually, Wagener, from the last name of George Wagener, an important Charleston citizen who had helped bring the railroad through. The family of Doug Busbee can trace its roots in South Carolina all the way back to Charleston in the 1780’s. They have been in Wagener from the beginning and are an essential part of the town.
When he first opened in 1987, Busbee had a two-bay body shop which then grew into a slightly larger paint/body shop as well as a small auto salvage yard. The town was sufficiently prosperous for him to rely on local traffic for business, and Busbee’s experienced a steady growth. At that time, Wagener, like so many other places in the South, was dependent on the textile business for its survival. The cotton business had come to South Carolina in the late nineteenth century, its factories and mills dominating much of the state’s manufacturing. For Wagener, it was during the 1920’s that cotton became an important part of the town’s economy, and the town website states that “huge bales lined the streets awaiting departure via train. The children of Wagener frolicked among the hay bales during their games of hide-n-seek.” (http://www.wagenersc.com/content/wageners-history).
In 1949, the Wagener Manufacturing Corporation came into existence, starting out with the manufacturing of shirts. Over the years, it added other items to its product mix, including robes, sleepwear and swimwear. At its peak in the mid-1980’s, it had about 450 employees, including many local Wagener residents and others from communities close by. In 1999, bowing to the economic pressure of lower-cost overseas manufacturing, the company closed its doors. The effect this closure had on Wagener was significant, and many people suffered.
For Busbee, this meant that his once reliable local market shrunk considerably. Between the years of 1998 to 2004, there was a struggle to stay afloat. Those were lean years, he says, and there were moments when making payroll was difficult. The body shop eventually closed, and the scrap yard became the main source of income. In 2006, he entered the Medium Duty Truck market, specializing in Mitsubishi FUSOs, Isuzu, and UD trucks. He decided to slowly phase out the car salvage portion of his business, and eventually, the yard became just trucks. Now, in 2017, Busbee has over 2000 parts trucks available for customers, and his business is solid. This growth and stability, however, haven’t come just from deciding to focus on medium duty truck parts alone. There was another factor that came into play, starting in 2004, that really changed everything. And, just like switching to medium duty trucks was a risk, this second factor also involved risk, as well as seeing the need to change and adapt to new conditions.
In 2004, Busbee was introduced to the idea of putting his salvage inventory onto a website for advertising, and this first appearance on the internet was the beginning of a mighty transformation. Almost overnight, his customer base was different. Gone were the days of a local shop existing within the local economy. Now, the majority of his new customers were from out-of-town and out-of-state, and his business began to grow again. Then, more decisively, in 2008 he listened to the advice of a good friend and built his own website. Suddenly, his business was international, and he hasn’t looked back since. Today, in 2017, he no longer has customers in Wagener itself, and the closest one is 30 miles away. International sales are a main feature of his business, and he even has several Spanish-speaking employees in order to serve that market better. His ability to recognize the need to do something differently, as well as to adapt to a new way of doing things, is what allowed the strength of the internet to flourish in his company and provide a market he could not have imagined possible.
But how does this expansion into out-of-town and foreign markets fit into the image of a company that is firmly of its place and its people? First, this foray into other markets was partly prompted by the state of the local economy, and was a response to it. Secondly, employment. When I asked Busbee what the main motivator was for him now as a business owner, he said simply, “Poverty.” After the loss of the textile business, Busbee saw a deep decline in Wagener as many people lost their livelihoods and families struggled to get by. His business was one of the few in town that managed to keep its head above water and provide some employment, but as we have seen, he suffered as well. After 2004 however, with the growth provided by the new American markets, Busbee needed more people, and today he has 20 full-time employees and 3 part-time. His company is one of the main employers in town, and his expansion has benefitted not just him, but the people around him. He has also shared his experience with other businesses in Wagener, and the town has seen a growth based on opening up to other markets online. For somebody so fully from a place, this positive influence is a fine accomplishment indeed.
Finally, Doug Busbee is not just a businessman, he is a family man, and his business practices reflect this. Before every major holiday, there is a dinner at work. There are weekly devotionals where everyone can take a turn delivering the message. He encourages his employees to spend time with their families, and turnover in his shop is low because people feel connected and necessary. Busbee has also employed students part-time over the years, mentoring them inside and outside of working hours, taking them camping, fishing, etc. Some have become full-time employees since graduation, remaining with the company. Doug Busbee’s main product might be truck parts, but one could say that what his company actually produces is the best of what one can find in a place, and in a family: belonging, stability, and purpose. His integration of work, family and town is no surprise given his connection to Wagener: who better than someone with deep roots to respond thoughtfully and organically to the needs of the town? Busbee’s Trucks and Parts is not just a business, it’s an integral part of the town of Wagener, adapting to changes and helping to create a better future.
Busbee’s Trucks and Parts: http://www.busbeetruckparts.com/
Town of Wagener, South Carolina: http://www.wagenersc.com/