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West Virginia Dealer Marks 50-Year Milestone With Cat

Wed March 01, 2000 - Northeast Edition
James E. Casto

For 50 years, Cecil I. Walker Machinery has supplied the West Virginia construction and coal industries with top-notch equipment and dependable, responsive service.

“You can’t go wrong with an attitude like that,” said Steve Walker, the company’s president and son of founder Cecil I. Walker.

Walker Machinery is the franchised Caterpillar Inc. dealership for 25 counties in West Virginia, as well as eight in southeast Ohio. According to Walker, the company’s sales consistently place it in the top half of Caterpillar dealers worldwide, and its 600 employees make it one of West Virginia’s largest private employers.

That’s a far cry from the company’s modest beginnings.

In the late 1920s, young Tennessee native Cecil Walker followed several of his uncles to Charleston, WV, where he found a job with General Motors Acceptance Corp. That experience in the automobile business served him well when, in the mid-1930s, he and a partner, R.D. “Dusty” Rhodes, teamed up to buy a Chevrolet dealership in South Charleston.

“They started business on a shoestring,” said Steve Walker. “When World War II came along, one of them had to go in the military while the other stayed behind to run the dealership. Since Dusty had taken ROTC in college, he’s the one who went. Dad stayed and did his part on the home front, helping selling war bonds and such.”

With the Detroit auto plants all converted to military production, Rhodes-Walker soon had no new Chevrolets on its showroom floor.

“Without any cars to sell, my father had to do something else to make a buck and so he got into the used equipment business,” Walker said.

“Meanwhile, he carefully took down the names of all the local guys who were off fighting the war and told them that when they war was over and they got home, they should look him up and he’d help them buy a car. And he proved as good as his word, even though right after the war cars were hard to get because the auto plants simply couldn’t turn them out fast enough.”

In 1949, Cecil Walker, Dusty Rhodes and several other investors purchased the former Baldwin Machinery Co. in Charleston, after owner Bill Baldwin died and his widow put the company up for sale. The new owners re-named it Statewide Equipment Co., and before long the elder Walker and Rhodes bought the other investors out.

“Given my father’s experience buying and selling used equipment during the war, the purchase just seemed a logical one,” Steve Walker said.

“They had several lines at that time but they weren’t a Caterpillar dealership. I think they were in the cable shovel, air compressors and heavy equipment business. Of course, that was 50 years ago and it wasn’t the type of equipment it is today.”

The new company immediately prospered, supplying much of the equipment used by contractors who in the early 1950s built the West Virginia Turnpike, the biggest roadbuilding project the state had ever seen. The 142-kilometer (88 mi.) toll road linking Charleston with Princeton in southern West Virginia was pushed through some of the most rugged real estate in the eastern United States. An engineering marvel, the turnpike required moving 53.5 million cubic meters (70 million cu. yds.) of earth and the construction of 114 bridges, more than one every mile. Although only two lanes, it cost a then unheard-of $1.5 million a mile to build. (In the 1980s, the turnpike was expanded to four lanes, an equally ambitious undertaking.)

In 1953, Caterpillar was looking for new dealerships and awarded a franchise to Statewide Equipment.

“In a number of communities, Caterpillar hooked up with people like us who had been successful car dealers. They saw it as a natural fit,” Walker said.

“After the turnpike was built, the interstate highway system came along and that’s when the business really took off.”

In 1955, Rhodes-Walker Chevrolet was all but destroyed in a fire and as plans were made for its rebuilding, the two friends and partners decided to go their separate ways. Rhodes kept the auto dealership and Walker took the equipment business, renaming it Walker Machinery.

Today, Walker Machinery’s main offices and largest store are located in Belle, WV, on the Kanawha River about 10 miles east of Charleston.

Cecil Walker’s two sons are the company’s co-principals. Richard Walker has been chairman of the board and chief executive officer since 1983. Steve Walker is president and chief operating officer. And younger members of the family are at work, learning the ropes. Mike Walker operates Product Support, Wayne Coleman is in charge of Product Sales and Pat Walker is responsible for Information Services.

The company has two divisions: Walker Machinery, which is a heavy, earth-moving equipment sales company, and Walker Lift, which sells and services forklifts and related light industrial items.

The company also sells used equipment and last year opened a light equipment rental operation, Walker Express.

In addition to its main store at Belle, the company operates branch locations in Beckley, Huntington, Logan, Parkersburg and Summersville in West Virginia and Jackson in Ohio. Walker Lift and Walker Express are located in Nitro, just off Interstate 64 south of Charleston.

Steve Walker took over as president of the company in the early 1980s. He began his career with the company in 1971, after earning B.S. and law degrees at West Virginia University.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” Walker said of his decision to join the family company. “My older brother, Richard, came here in the 1960s after he earned his accounting degree at WVU. He went to work in our accounting office and then worked his way up, learning each facet of the company.”

Founder Cecil Walker remained active in the company until the mid-1970s, when he more or less retired and turned control over to Richard Walker. Cecil Walker died in 1978.

“Between the construction and coal industries, and now the forest industry, we’ve had a great pattern of success,” said Steve Walker.

But that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t seen its share of tough times.

In 1973, when the Arab oil-producing nations slapped an embargo on oil exports to this country, it set off an unprecedented demand for coal — and the heavy equipment needed to mine it. Even after the Arabs lifted the embargo the next year, the coal industry boomed.

“We had about 200 employees when I came aboard in 1971. By the end of 1981, because of what was happening in coal, we had 600,” Steve Walker said.

“We had, I’m sorry to say, lots of inexperienced people. We couldn’t get the kind of people we really needed and so we had to hire them right off the street. We tried to train them, of course, but there’s only so much you can do when your employment force triples in just a few years.

“Dad kept warning us that what was going on couldn’t last. It’s out of whack and can’t continue, he said. And he was right, of course.”

In 1982, the bottom fell out of the coal market, and the company found itself forced to repossess much of the equipment it had sold. “Of course, when it came back in it was worth only a fraction of what it was worth when it went out new,” Walker said.

“At the end of 1981 we had 600 people on the payroll. Within 18 months, we were down to 300.

“It wasn’t just the coal industry’s problems. A world-wide recession and double-digit inflation changed things for everybody in the equipment business. Free trade changed a lot. Too many American companies just didn’t keep up with what was going on.”

The company’s problems in the 1980s proved to be “an excellent teacher for us,” Walker said. “It made us more cautious in dealing with what might be called ’fast money.’ And it made us extremely conscious of the need to hire and retain quality employees.”

Walker Machinery’s employment has steadily increased in recent years and now is back at 600.

Many of those new employees are involved in equipment maintenance and repair.

“A lot of our customers used to repair their equipment,” Walker said. “But it has become so sophisticated now that it’s not feasible for companies to keep up their own equipment. They don’t have the products, they don’t have the electronics, the training — that’s what we supply.”

Walker Machinery has completed the first two phases of a planned $20-million expansion. In the past 18 months, a new welding shop, track repair shop, truck engine repair facility, training facility and three new branch locations have come on line.

A company-owned helicopter is used to whisk prospective equipment buyers from mine sites to Charleston.

“It can be tough to convince somebody to essentially take a day to drive to Charleston and back to look at a piece of equipment. It’s a whole different ball game when you tell him you can pick him up in the copter and have him back in a couple of hours,” Walker said.

Walker said he sees a bright future for Walker Machinery as long as the coal industry, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the company’s business, remains strong.

The future of mountaintop surface mining, however, poses a huge question mark over the West Virginia coal industry’s future.

In October of last year, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haden in Charleston ruled that coal companies’ long-time practice of dumping excess rubble and material in nearby valleys violates federal environmental rules. The judge’s ruling has been stayed pending appeal.

Spokesmen for the West Virginia coal industry have warned that the ruling, if upheld, will have a devastating impact on the industry.

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