When you look at the reasons why most entrepreneurs start their own business—personal freedom, professional pride and a drive to succeed— you’ll find that Charlie Powers’ motivations for starting Frederick Fence in 1982 appear no different. Having worked for three fence companies, including Western Fence, where he held 25% ownership, Charlie was driven to succeed. “Why did I do this? I wanted to make a living and care for my family. I never thought about the money; I was discontent working for others and wanted to do things differently. I felt I could do better.”
Thirty-five years later, Charlie’s tenaciousness, natural sales ability and commitment to always do the right thing, have allowed him to build one of Frederick’s most successful small businesses. With a large lumber yard and showroom located on Tilco Drive, Charlie Powers managed to exceed his expectations and dreams of supporting his family. However, the company’s current geography was barely in sight when Charlie first started Frederick Fence.
Starting from Scratch
On day one of the company, all Charlie had was a strong back, a truck and his friend, Jon “JC” Wisner, to help with labor. Charlie’s father, Billy, gave his son a loan of $5,000 to get started, which Charlie paid back in less than one year’s time. Charlie’s wife, Diane-who was working at the Maryland School for the Deaf when the company started—also pitched in by acting as “administrative support” and answering phones. With no warehouse to store materials or equipment—such as a forklift or drill—Charlie and JC purchased materials as needed. Thanks to one of his former employers—Western Fence—who extended him credit for vehicles and equipment, Charlie slowly built up enough business and revenue to purchase his first bit of property off Route 355, just south of downtown Frederick.
For $50,000, in the form of a five-year note, Charlie purchased a half-acre piece of property off Grove Road in 1985. At the time, the road on which the property sat had no name so Charlie named it Grove Lane. Because he lacked the funds to build a permanent office initially, Charlie set up shop on Grove Lane in a small camping trailer that had no bathroom. For Diane, this meant she had to walk to McDonalds when nature called!
When Charlie set up shop, Frederick looked extremely different. Back then, the county’s population hovered below 129,000 and I-85 was still a two-lane road. You could still see a lot of corn fields alongside most roads before hitting the downtown area. Popular restaurants then were the Red Horse, Barbara Fritchie’s (with its infamous candy cane sign) and the Chat and Chew on Patrick Street. Frederick County still had Blue Laws in effect and the major downtown revitalization was just beginning. Because there was no internet, you had to rely on the yellow pages and ads in newspapers to get customers. When you look at what made Frederick Fence a success, you can narrow it down to one key word: salesmanship.
The Secret’s in the (Sales) Sauce
If Charlie Powers gave you a sales pitch for purchasing a fence, you pretty much bought it. His approach to sales was simple: Be direct, offer a good price and deliver a quality product. For Charlie, customers were like family; his desire was to treat them fairly and build the best fence possible. In the early days, there were several occasions where upon finishing the last fence panel, Charlie would review his work and yank the fence out of the ground and start over because he didn’t like how he’d done the job. He never wanted a customer to ever feel dissatisfied with their purchase. Charlie was also highly persistent.
Recognizing that partnering with home builders would prove critical to his success, Charlie would repeatedly stop by the offices of Ryland Homes to meet with Bob Pearson, who was a buyer for the company in the 1980’s. Charlie would stop by unannounced and wait for Pearson until finally he met with Charlie just to “get him out of the office once and for all.” Once they met, Charlie began forging a relationship with Ryland Homes to where many a Ryland homeowner in the Frederick area now has a fence with that infamous yellow and red sign hanging on a back panel.
Signs, in fact, were what helped Charlie experience much of his early success. Instead of spending money on large ads, Charlie hung signs on his completed projects, which still serve as one of his best marketing tools. “A well-built fence sells itself,” says Powers. “When you put your name and company number on a fence, people will call because they know you can deliver.” Before there were toll-free numbers available and calls to certain parts of Maryland were considered long distance calls, Charlie was granted the use of Western Fence’s phone number—the same one still on the signs today: 301 663-4000—for use in the Frederick area. Having access to this already published number afforded Charlie the opportunity to increase his sales at a consistent pace. When he originally designed the signs and his logo, he purposely chose the Maryland colors of yellow, red and black as a symbol for creating community with each fence built.
Prior to setting up shop on Grove Lane, Charlie had four trucks and a handful of employees. Once he put his first trailer on the property, he increased his sales and installation staff to 15 and purchased a second trailer before finally building a small office in 1986. Charlie then rented a second piece of property across the street from Grove Lane so he could store inventory for fence materials and additional trucks.
If you ask Charlie if he expected this to happen, he’ll readily admit that this 35-year trajectory comes as a bit of a surprise to him. “Honestly, I thought I would still be digging holes,” Charlie says. The thought that he would go from a man with a strong back, a truck and one loyal friend (who is now Frederick Fence’s Operations Manager) to a business that operates with sustained success still humbles him.
In fact, once Charlie built his actual office building (with-finally-a working bathroom), things began to shift and the life of Frederick Fence took a surprising turn…
To be continued….