Arrow Hits The Mark: An ill towman’s wife took over and built the business

Overview

Published: 08/01/2011

by Jami Frankenberry

Photos

Front row: Randy Ott, John Ragland; Back row: Chris Cole, General Manager Steve Gordon, Rick Stafford, Travis Embry; In the truck: Diane Richardson. Not pictured: Sean Stewart, Mark Gordon

    Diane Richardson knew the outlook was, in her words, “grim.” Arrow Wrecker Service, the Wichita, Kansas, towing business her husband Eugene had spent nearly 30 years building, was on the verge of collapsing.
    As Eugene battled Alzheimer’s disease, Diane met with attorneys and an accountant in 2005 to discuss her options. The company, they told her, was more than $500,000 in debt, and only a handful of employees remained after six years of missteps.
    “Do you want to file bankruptcy, or what?” Diane Richardson remembered an attorney asking her.
    “I did,” Richardson, 54, said recently, “but the words that came out were ‘No, Gene did not work hard all our lives for nothing.’ Those were my exact words.”

Peas In A Pod

    Diane and Eugene met at the urging of a cousin in 1980 – against her will. “My cousin tried for two years to get us together,” Diane said. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to go out with any friend of yours, and he told me ‘You’re two peas in a pod. You’re meant for each other.’”
    Finally, her cousin asked her to dinner one night. “And there was Gene,” Richardson said.
    She was pleasantly surprised. “He was the funniest, wittiest man I’ve ever met and I remember he was so well-respected,” Diane said. “I remember thinking everybody likes him. I remember going back to my parents and saying I think he’s OK.” The courtship began.
    Gene had started Arrow Wrecker Service in 1977. It was a small operation, with fewer than a dozen employees, but soon the company’s reputation grew.
    Steve Gordon began working for Gene as a teen-ager, and now is Arrow’s general manager. “He was a real fair guy,” Gordon said. “He wanted stuff done his way, but he wanted it done the right way and he’d show you how to do it. He was the guy to go to if you had a problem. He’s one of the towing pioneers in this city, and a lot of the people in this city learned from him, most of them learned from him. That’s saying a lot.”
   
A Shaky Start

    As Gene’s business grew, he began needing more help. He asked Diane to join him. She had worked in banking and as a professional photographer, and she was hesitant. “I was shocked to come to this gravel lot with this little building and these wrecker drivers,” Diane said. “I was just shocked at the way they talked and the way they acted.”
    Diane worked as dispatcher her first night after about 30 minutes of training. It was a Sunday – normally a slow day – but a snowstorm socked Wichita, sending cars all over the roads and in need of a tow. “I was so overwhelmed,” Diane said. “I probably ran off 70 calls; maybe it was 50. All I know is I left pretty shaky, wanting a drink.”
    Diane learned quickly, and she was surprised to learn something else about working in the towing business. “Within six months, I remember looking at Gene and saying I can trust these people here better than anybody I ever met in a bank even though they’re in a suit.”
    Diane got better at her job, and she and Eugene got more serious. They married in 1982 and had the first of their three children two years later.
    Eugene, with Diane working alongside, built Arrow into one of the biggest – and most respected – towing companies in Wichita, the state’s largest city.

Early Onset

    But what Diane called “a perfect world” began to crack in 2000. That’s when Diane began to notice subtle changes in Eugene. He was more forgetful than usual. Eugene, though, was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
    Diane said doctors misdiagnosed Eugene twice. Eugene was then in his 50s, and the majority of Alzheimer’s sufferers are 65 and older, although a small percentage have early onset Alzheimer’s, which can appear in a person’s 40s or 50s.
    Before Eugene was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Diane said he had already had severe memory problems. By then, the business had begun to unravel. Eugene “was making grave errors, financial errors,” Diane said. “We had six years of him working with not being able to remember, and he didn’t tell a soul he was sick, didn’t tell his doctors. He tried to work it out himself.”
    The company was losing money and customers. “The drivers were overrunning (Eugene) because he was sick,” Gordon said.
    Eugene never obtained a will. Diane said “he was from the old school, and wouldn’t do it.” But asked what he wanted her to do with the business, she said he told her to do three things: “Shut the gate and lock it; send the employees home and call the attorneys.” In other words: get rid of the business.
    “I did the opposite,” Diane said, “because I didn’t want all that hard work to go down the drain.”
   
Never Give Up

    Diane also had other reasons for trying to keep it afloat. Mostly, she wanted to prove to her daughters that she could do it. “I will not let my kids see me fail,” she said. “It’s so hard for women to get to the position of a man, and I said I’ve got to show these girls never to give up.”
    Her other reason was simple: her husband. “Gene was huge in this community,” Diane said. “Gene had been so good with employees. He did everything to help an employee or the community or a customer. You hear people say they’d give you shirt off your backs. Yea, right, but Gene did it.
He got in this business to help people. That was his whole life, helping people.”
    When Diane assumed control of the business, though, she needed help. Some competitors took advantage of Arrow’s mistakes and lagging customer services. Some of Arrow’s drivers and office employees left, too.
“That first year was really hard,” Gordon said. Customers “were used to drivers who had been here so long and used to the people in the office. Some people who were here started their own business and they stole customers from us, and it was pretty rough. It took the better part of a year for people to see that we weren’t going anywhere and that we weren’t going to close.”
    “The competition ate me up,” Diane added. “Our competitors had always wanted to be number one so they took full advantage. I did put my head in the sand for about four months, and that was the worst thing I could have done. I was grieving on top of everything else.”

Help From Outside

    Diane said her attorneys and bankers provided help during that first year, but perhaps most important was the help she got from some of the people her husband touched over the years. Among them were Jay Beglinger and Ed Henk, both WreckMaster instructors who visited with Diane early on to lend a hand.
    Beglinger and Henk “saved my life,” Diane said. “They said they owed it to Gene. They did in-house training, consulted with me for a week. They sat in my office and we started. I said, ‘What do I do?’ I was a people person in the office answering phones and dispatching. I had no knowledge of the business.”
    Another tower, Charlie Strickland – owner of Strickland Road Service about 50 miles south of Wichita – showed up to help, too. “I’m a good friend of Gene’s and I’m here to help you,” Diane remembered Strickland telling her.
    “That first year I know we wouldn’t have made it,” Diane said. “Everywhere I looked there were people that said they owed it to Gene, from Wreckmaster to anybody else.”
    More help came from an unlikely source. While their son Kyle worked at Arrow briefly, Eugene and Diane didn’t insist their children join the family business and never asked daughters Sunny and Jessica to do so.
“I told him not to put my children in that crazy business,” Diane said.
But both Sunny and Jessica, who at one point were close to going into a business venture with their mother, joined the staff at Arrow Towing.

Getting It Right

    Diane and her employees have worked hard to restore the company’s good name by proving to customers they were again reliable. She emphasized training, including WreckMaster, to the drivers who came on board.
    A key, Gordon said, was “trying to get good help in here and making sure training was right and getting the right equipment and making sure it’s safe. We had to make sure that people could depend on us as a business.”
    “We’re taking on a lot of training,” Gordon added. “We make sure everybody knows what they’re doing before we set them free.”
    Along with her daughters, Gordon and a handful of employees who have worked for decades with the business are still on staff. Gordon has been in towing for more than 20 years – all of it with the Richardsons. “Everybody in this town thought that it was going to go under when he got sick,” Gordon said. “It’s not easy being a woman in this industry. A lot of people dismissed her, but she stuck with it and has done a good job.
    “All of a sudden it was on her shoulders, but she had been around it for 35 years, so she had an idea of what to do,” Gordon added. “But there was a lot she didn’t know. She had to see her way around in the dark and make her way.”
    Diane admitted that while things certainly have improved financially, Arrow has not been immune from the struggles of others in the towing business. Rising gas prices have taken a toll. And Wichita – nicknamed “The Air Capital of the World” for its history as a popular location for aircraft corporations – has seen its share of economic troubles.
    “I see so many towers wanting to give up because of the hard work,” Diane said. “It’s really hard. It’s just how much you’re willing to do. I won’t kid you, there are days I want to shut the doors and live my life halfway normal and by the next day I’m fine. I see all the progress I’ve made and think, “Why would I want to give this up?”

Sidebar 1
Image Building

    Diane Richardson worked to get the company’s name out in the community despite, as she put it, “having no money – not a dime,” to spend on advertising.
    Instead she came up with some unique strategies, both using tow trucks that were already outside her office window. One of the first heavy-duty trucks Gene ever purchased, an International 4700 Loadstar, had been in the lot and used only for parts. Diane had Gordon, a talented artist, use a sponge and brown paint to replicate “Tow Mater,” a character from the popular kids’ movie Cars.
    The truck – which also features Arrow Towing’s logo – goes to fund-raisers, schools and parades. Another truck, also an International, has been painted hot, bubble-gum pink and is a regular at “Race for the Cure” functions.
    Even Diane said she was “shocked” at the popularity of the two traveling billboards for Arrow Wrecker Service. “They bring in more advertising than anything I could ever think of,” she said. “We get calls all day long: ‘We don’t need a tow, but when we do we’re going to call you.’”
   

SIDEBAR  2
Visiting Gene

    Diane visits about three times a week. Some days, she dreads the trips. Other days, she can’t get there fast enough.
    Eugene, 61, has been in a care home for about 18 months. Diane works at the Alzheimer’s Association in Wichita, speaking about respite care, telling anyone who will listen that they can’t care for an Alzheimer’s sufferer alone. “Eighty-six percent of caregivers die before the patient because they try to do it all themselves,” Diane said. “At first I was a martyr and thought I needed to do it all. They taught me not to try to do it all. You can’t run a business and do that. I thought I was the only one who could take care of Gene properly, but I was wrong.”
    Eugene doesn’t remember much, but he occasionally asks how the shop is doing. Diane is happy to tell him.
    “I hope he would be very proud,” Diane said. “I don’t think he would believe how I pulled it off. I think Gene would be so proud of his daughters and his wife.”