Beginnings can’t get much humbler than Gene Hale’s. One of 11 children born to a poor, deaf car washer in Birmingham, Ala., Hale helped out at the carwash and at 8 began working as a shoeshine boy at a local barbershop. The idea, he later recalled, was to assist his family, then occupying a ramshackle two-room house fronting an alley. Within two years, Hale realized that he could make more money by buying shoe polish wholesale downtown and selling it to fellow shoeshine boys at a profit. Thus, a future capitalist was born. He went on to become a busboy at several restaurants, but as a black man couldn’t tolerate the racism and eventually left for California, arriving nearly penniless. He continued busing dishes by day and began studying finance by night. Today, Hale, 62, is the founding chief executive of G&C Equipment Corp., a Gardena distributor of construction equipment that does about $70 million annually in sales nationwide. He is also founding chairman of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. Last year, he was appointed to the prestigious President’s Export Council, which meets regularly to offer President Obama recommendations on trade. Hale also was an adviser to President George W. Bush – for whom he served on the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed him to the California Small Business Board. The Business Journal caught up with Hale in his Gardena office, where one entire wall is adorned by pictures of him with such luminaries as President Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and, of course, Obama.
Question: You come from amazingly humble beginnings. Tell us about them.
Answer: My mom and dad slept in one room, and some of us slept in that room on the floor on little pallets or rollaway beds. The rest of us spread ourselves out in the other room. We didn’t have electricity, but we did have a wood-burning fireplace so we had to get up early to get wood and coal to start up a fire for cooking.
How did you get by?
I had five brothers and five sisters, and our father was a deaf guy who washed cars every day for a living, so as young kids we’d go out before school to help him feed the family. Of course I wanted to be more than a car washer, so I branched out to become a shoeshine boy in a barber shop. That’s where I started my first business.
Was it a rough neighborhood?
No, it was just a poor black neighborhood. People went to church every Sunday and the kids went to Sunday school. You had respect for people, and your parents would make sure that you did the right thing. There were no gangs, just lots of poverty. We were very poor, but didn’t know it at the time because everyone around us was the same way.
Did you ever experience racism in Birmingham?
I grew up in it. Everything was segregated; there were signs for blacks and whites, “for colored only” and so forth. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came through town one day and all the schools let the kids out to participate in a Civil Rights demonstration. We were so little that we really didn’t understand it all, but then we saw the dogs and fire hoses being put on people. As kids we thought that was fun, but when we saw older people being slammed against the walls with those high-pressure hoses it didn’t seem like so much fun. I said, “OK, this is what it is – but there’s got to be a way out.”
What was the way out for you?
It started with business. From shining shoes I learned that the most important thing was, if you did a good job, people would give you a better tip. I also figured out that you could go over to the wholesale house in downtown Birmingham, buy these products wholesale then come back and sell them in the neighborhood at a profit. Later, in high school, I started washing dishes at a restaurant, sweeping floors and working as a busboy at the country club.
How did you get to California?
My brother had done a stint in the Army and, fortunately for me, ended up here in Los Angeles. So right after high school I got on a Greyhound bus with $3 in my pocket and two pork chop sandwiches, both of which had been eaten before I got out of Birmingham. Even that ride was an experience, because we had to go through places like Mississippi where the bus would stop and the driver would say, “You can’t get off. You got to stay on the bus until the next town where there’s a restroom for coloreds.” That was in 1967.
What was it like when you got here?
I remember coming onto the freeway and I had never seen so many lights in my life. The cars were going 80 miles an hour and I thought, Geez, these guys are speeding. I asked the bus driver, “What’s this thing you’re riding on?” and he said, “This is a freeway.” I said, “What’s that?” and he said, “Well, it’s free.”
So you stayed at your brother’s?
Yes, he was living in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife. I went out the next day looking for work and got a job as a busboy at the Hollywood Palladium. Later, I did the same thing at the VA in Westwood, helping out old veterans. I also decided it was time to start college, so I enrolled at a community college and later attended Cal State Dominguez Hills. I had always been a good student in high school. So now I was working all day and going to school all night studying business finance.
I presume that’s what eventually got you out of the kitchen.
Through the college I was able to land a job as an analyst at CIT, a financial services company, and that was my first real job. I was making $13,000 a year, which wasn’t bad for me, looking at financial statements from companies like Bechtel – general contractors that needed capital equipment – and making credit decisions on whether we wanted to finance them. Ultimately, looking at the cost of the equipment, I decided that I needed to be selling that stuff rather than financing it.
How did you make the transition?
After six years, I told the boss I was out. Then I thought, well, before I can really sell cranes and tractors and stuff, I need to know something about the product. So I went to work for a tractor company. It was called the Load Center, out of La Verne, and that’s where I cut my teeth as a salesman. I told the guy I was only going to be there for a year, and that’s how long I stayed. I was on straight commission making pretty good money, but one day I walked in, told him I was done and walked out. That’s when I started G&C, got married and the rest, as they say, is history. I started the company using one of our bedrooms as an office. It took about $10,000, which I saved from commissions and borrowing on the house.
Have you found Los Angeles to be more conducive to a black man in business?
The difference between racism in Alabama and California is that in Alabama it’s overt and here it’s not, so you might not even know you’re being discriminated against. I must say, though, that I’ve been very fortunate with my clients and the people I’ve met – I’ve never had to deal with those issues here. I’m a businessman first, and when I present myself and my product to a person, that’s what’s foremost on the table. Obviously, they’re going to see that I’m black, I’m not trying to hide it, but I really don’t put a lot of emphasis on that.
What exactly does G&C do?
We started out selling equipment, mostly tractors and cranes, to general contractors then expanded to municipalities and governments. Now our sweet spot is what they call MEP stuff: mechanical, electrical and plumbing products. It’s less capital intensive, doesn’t take as much work and represents almost 45 percent of the total cost of a building. That’s what has really sustained us and helped us grow.
Were you hurt by the downturn?
We saw the recession coming and realized that the only money left was the money coming from the federal government in the military base realignments they’ve been doing. Because when they close one base, another base has to absorb some of the parts of that facility. We figured out where that money was going to be spent and opened offices at those locations. As a result, we never had to lay anyone off, and our growth was 35 percent from 2008 to 2009 and 28 percent from 2009 to 2010.
How did you happen to found the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce?
I was sitting right here 17 years ago, just back from one of my business trips, and realized that what L.A. was missing that other places had was a black chamber of commerce. So I called four or five people and said, “Hey, what do you think of this?” There was a lot of construction going on at the time, money being spent in L.A., and all I was hearing was the complaint that African Americans weren’t getting their share. So we formed the chamber to give the black business community a voice.
Do you have strong political leanings?
Not really. I have ties to the black community from a business and charitable standpoint, but I’m not an activist – more of a business guy. I have good friends across the board.
What’s your typical day like?
I get up around 6 a.m., go to the gym for about an hour and a half, then come to work. I start the day off by seeing how many e-mails I have. Then maybe I start meeting with people, including my assistant; going through the daily calendar; assigning things; and hitting the pavement to meet with clients. I do a lot of traveling; to my office in Washington, D.C., and wherever my clients are, whether it’s Las Vegas or Phoenix. If I have a deal going, I’ll jump on a plane and go see them – it makes for good relationships.
Has that taken a toll on your family life?
Most days I get home around 5 or 6 p.m. I’m not trying to be one of those guys who works 16 hours a day; I don’t have that mentality. When I started this company, one of the pledges I made was that I wasn’t going to be someone who wasn’t home with his kids. Now that they’re gone, I spend evenings watching TV with my wife while we plan out our next week or next year. Then I retire to my corner of the house to shoot pool while she has her chores to do, so it works out.
Tell us about your kids.
I had three, but the oldest one passed away on Aug. 31, 2010. We had just finished talking on the phone 30 minutes earlier and the next thing I know I’m talking to a nurse at a hospital telling me that my son passed away from a heart attack. He was just sitting in the car with his wife when it happened. He was 38. That’s something you really don’t anticipate or want to experience.
How did it affect you?
Coming from such a large family, I’ve experience a lot of that. My brother who was a year older than me passed away when he was 16 – just drowned in 10 seconds. Then a few years later, my oldest brother was shot and killed. He was a disc jockey holding a community dance to raise money for kids in Louisiana. Some guy wanted to get in free and they called my brother over to explain things and the guy took offense, pulled out a gun and shot him. He was 28. Then, three months later, my mother passed away because she just couldn’t take it.
How does one cope with that kind of tragedy?
I don’t think there’s a single way to deal with these things; you just find a way to cope. You throw yourself into your work, your church … whatever. You really have to put it in perspective and understand that life is what it is and, when these things happen, there really isn’t much you can do about it so you just have to do what you can to make things better.
Is that why you’re serving on the President’s Export Council?
I guess it’s from not being able to say no. I’ve been around and, you know, I guess when people ask for recommendations my name comes up and I get these interviews. I think some people want me to serve because they know I’m not a bureaucrat and when I’m put in charge, something is going to get done.
What is your role?
The goal of the export council is to double exports in the next five years. I’m chairman of the small/medium business enterprise committee, which means I go around the country conducting round tables with small to medium companies to hear their problems. What I bring to the table is the perspective of not being from a Fortune 500 company, someone closer to the ground with a real feel for what small businesses go through. My job is to gather all this information and then, in March when I next meet with the president, give him some recommendations.
Any you care to share?
We have two or three, but I really can’t put them out there just yet because I don’t want someone to read it in the paper before the president hears it.
What’s Obama like up close?
He’s a person who’s really concerned. He’s also a very nice guy; he comes into the room, says hello and the next thing you know he’s walking around the table shaking hands. When I took my 25-year-old daughter to meet him here in L.A., he said, “Well, Crystal, take a minute to tell me something about you.” At first she was speechless, but she ended up talking about her education, where she works and her plans to finish grad school. He said, “Well, good, maybe you can come in and encourage my daughters to do the same thing.”
Has your success changed you?
Not as a basic person. I don’t live lavishly, don’t do crazy things and remain a family man with kids. I try to balance my life with what I do, not only regarding work, but with family and then with friends. That’s what keeps me grounded. Because of my humble background, I know that it’s not about how much money you make or who you know – it’s about your quality of life.
Any plans to retire?
Not really. I started a foundation about three years ago and what I really want to do is grow it so I can go on the road to help out with some of the starvation around the world. That’s my end game. Right now we donate hundreds of turkeys every year for Christmas and Thanksgiving to Sweet Alice Harris, a well-known African-American woman in Watts, so she can feed the kids. When I leave the company, I’m not going to play golf or go on a cruise every day. I think I’ll be working until I really feel like I’ve made a contribution to humankind.
Do you ever reflect on how far you’ve come?
Not as much as others do. My mother would really be proud; if she were alive today, she’d be crying every time she saw me.
TITLE: Chief Executive
COMPANY: G&C Equipment Corp.
BORN: Birmingham, Ala.; 1949.
EDUCATION: B.A. in business finance, Cal State Dominguez Hills.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His mother, Minnie Hale; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Colin Powell.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Leaving finance to start his own business.
PERSONAL: Lives in Gardena with his wife, Cecelia; has two grown children.
ACTIVITIES: Reading, playing billiards and playing backgammon.
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