'Carthage Icon': Cole Retires From Farm Supply Business
Benny Cole has always enjoyed math, but not to the exclusion of people.
From his first full-time job as an accountant with Pinehurst Inc., Cole turned increasingly to retail business and day-to-day contact with people.
Cole retired Dec. 23 as general manager of Carthage Farm Supply, where, in a span of 17 years, he steered the business from a 90 percent farm operation to an all-purpose business that sells everything from fertilizer to wind chimes.
"When I came to the Carthage store, it was primarily a farm store," he says. "We knew every customer by name."
In those days, Carthage Farm Supply had one cash register, and clerks wrote up sales tickets on slips of paper. A year later it was obvious that the business must modernize and make the transition to computers.
"That was quite a challenge," he says.
Challenge is nothing new to George Benjamin Cole Jr., whom store owner Brad Mallow refers to as "a Carthage icon."
Cole was born and grew up on Carthage-Glendon Road, "just around the corner" from his present home. The homeplace was surrounded by farmers, but his father, G.B. Cole, ran a sawmill, rather than a farm.
Tragedy struck early. His sister, Alma, died of leukemia at age 15, and he was a small boy. His father died when he was 15, and his mother, Nealie Simmons Cole, died of breast cancer when he had just turned 21. His mother had been ill with cancer for two or three years.
"I had to work," he says.
Financial conditions ruled out a four-year college and this was before the statewide system of community colleges was established. A 1961 graduate of Carthage High School, he turned to Sanford Business College, which was close enough for him to commute, work and still live at home.
"I always enjoyed math and felt it was something I'd be comfortable with," he says.
After earning his associate degree in accounting, Cole accepted his first full-time job as an accountant with Pinehurst Inc. This was back in the days when the Tufts family owned and administered the resort properties.
Cole worked there for nine years. During that time, the Tufts family sold the resort to Diamondhead Corp.
Then he found himself trapped in a 9-by-9-foot office with little contact with human beings.
"It got to the place that I didn't enjoy it any more," he says. "I've always been a people person, and I didn't want to be stuck in an office where I didn't see people."
His interest in the retail clothing business surfaced about this time. He had been keeping books at a convenience store in Pinehurst, which he later leased and operated on his own for two years. This gave him time to investigate opportunities in the clothing business.
He found that opportunity in Dave Ginsburg, with whom he formed a partnership that led to establishment of Fashion Square on Courthouse Square in downtown Carthage. Ginsburg was experienced in this field, and he trained Cole in management of the store, which sold menswear, women's wear, shoes and gifts.
Fashion Square remained in business until 1991, when it became apparent that downtown Carthage was changing from a business center to more of a government center. County, state and federal offices were taking over much of the area around Courthouse Square. The decision was made to close the business.
Farm Business Calling
Roy Burt was the owner of the farm supply business at that time, but he was getting ready to retire and wanted someone to help transform the management to new owners. Burt also owned a farm supply store in Cameron, and a year later he sent Cole to manage that store.
The new owners of Carthage Farm Supply were partners Mallow, a farmer and former Extension agent, and Dr. David Thompson, a veterinarian. Mallow is the active partner in the business.
In 1995, the Cameron store was closed and Cole was transferred to the Carthage store as manager.
By then, however, dramatic changes were under way in agriculture, and the company's customer base was becoming more diversified.
Prior to 1995, tobacco had been the economic mainstay in Moore County, but tobacco was on its way out. Other types of agriculture were moving in, along with people interested in living on what Cole calls "lifestyle farms," such as horse farms and other types of smaller farming operations. "Horse country" was spreading out from the historic area at Southern Pines into historic Carthage.
Cole saw more people moving in and buying a small acreage to build a house and a barn with pasture to accommodate a few horses, or a few cattle or some truck crops. Many were making a living in other occupations. They included physicians and military personnel.
"Our customer base was beginning to change, and we realized we had to add a lot of things we didn't have in stock," he says.
Adapting to Changes
With tobacco fading, the farm supply company spotted a fresh opportunity when the Cooperative Warehouse closed its doors as a tobacco auction warehouse.
The partners bought the building, renovated, modernized, built a showroom and added "enough stuff to serve" the increasingly diverse clientele.
In the past, the merchandise had been directed toward farming enterprises. But now the merchandise changed along with their customers, many of whom today are women.
Carthage Farm Supply now sells planters, bird baths, bird houses, bird seed, pet supplies, Christmas trees, poinsettias, wreaths, animal health supplies, lawn and garden materials, yard art, flags, mailbox covers, tree stands for hunters, ammunition (but not guns), some men's clothing, turkey and deer calls. A large nursery section has been added with shrubbery and bedding plants available.
"We're not strictly a farm store any more," he says. "Agriculture is still a very important part of our business, but the homeowner business is also a large part of our customer base."
The busier Carthage Farm Supply became, the harder Cole worked not only in the store but also in the community.
'Go to the Beach'
Cole was among the organizers of the Carthage Council of the Chamber of Commerce. He served on the Sandhills Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and on the board of the former First American Savings and Loan. He is a former president of the Carthage Merchants Association, the Carthage Rotary Club and the Carthage Jaycees. And he's a former PTA president.
An active member of Carthage First Presbyterian Church, he has taught Sunday School and served as both deacon and elder. He remains active there as a committee member, including chairing the Cemetery Committee and serving on the Finance Committee.
What is he doing in retirement?
First, Cole wants to catch up on all the things that need doing at home. His retirement came two days before Christmas, and at the time of the interview he had not completed decorating at home. Small lighted trees invite visitors into the two-story house with cedar siding perched atop a small hill on Carthage-Glendon Road. He didn't have all the lights up at that time, and he was intent on preparing for Christmas.
Then, his wife, Susan, admits that she has a long "honey do" list. He also wants to tackle a few landscape projects around the house.
But most of all, the Coles want time to spend at their Cherry Grove beach house. They both enjoy the beach and want to do some fishing.
Cherry Grove has romantic connections for the couple, who met at this beach some 40 years ago when Susan Greeson and her parents, all from Winston-Salem, were visiting.
"Now I'm going to see what it feels like to say, 'Let's go to the beach,' and we can just get up and go to the beach and do a little fishing," he says.
Susan Cole is a registered nurse who formerly worked at the health department and also for the state. She is now retired as a high school health occupations teacher in the Moore County Schools.
Obviously proud of her husband, Susan says he learned the farm supply business from bottom to top after working all those years in a clothing store and as an accountant.
"At the farm store, he had a lot of the same customers that he had at the clothing store. He's patient and easygoing, and people always like him," she says.
Their daughter, Leigh Davis, is a graduate of N.C. State University, but now works for herself from her home in Greensboro as a stay-at-home mother of two boys and one girl. Her husband, Brett Davis, is a sergeant with the Greensboro Police Department.
The Cole nest is not empty.
They coddle and cuddle Charlie, probably the only "redneck poodle" around.
Susan says they never got around to securing "papers" for the aging miniature poodle, although he qualifies for them.
Benny Cole sums up Charlie this way: "He doesn't like to be treated like a socialite. He's a country poodle."
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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