Southern Bleacher started with two men's pride in a small-town school -wanting to give their students' families a better experience when they turned out to support the team. In that sense, not much has changed. Today, the same values inspire Southern Bleacher to build great stadiums across the country, for raceways, colleges and - more than anything else - school districts.
Like anything else, Southern Bleacher started with a simple idea. Jim Geurin a high school band director in Van Buren, Arkansas, got it in his head that his school should have bleachers. His buddy Virgil Coleman, the local superintendent, was on board, and though neither had the first idea how to do it, they did know how to start.
Together, in 1946, they got the dean of College of Engineering at University of Arkansas to draw them up a simple design. They acquired steel, got a local lumber company to donate wood, and that summer, working in the Arkansas heat, welded and bolted together their first high school bleachers.
Jim and Virgil must have done a good job that first time out of the gate, because every time their school played another team that fall, coaches and fans left wanting bleachers of their own.
An employee who started painting for Southern Bleacher at age 15 in 1967 and is still with the company today describes Jim as "a great man with a big heart," so it's no surprise that for the next few summers, he and Virgil went school to school, pouring concrete, welding steel and building bleachers for all the local teams.
From 1941, when Jim's first child was born, to 1947, when the daughter who would carry on Southern Bleacher was just a year old, Jim juggled teaching, family and building bleachers on the side, all while completing a bachelor's and master's degree.
Jim was a smart man, but when it came to business, he was mostly self-educated. His daughter remembers him surrounded by stacks of books, reading up on whatever caught his attention.
Standing 6'4, always with a cigar in his mouth and a big hat on his head, he wasn't afraid to plumb new territory, which is why he soon found himself in the bleacher business, with not one, not two, but four machine shops.
With no sign that the bleacher gigs were slowing down, Jim built a tiny office to operate from in Graham, Texas. He traveled constantly, not only pitching his product, but also welding, painting it - anything that needed done. He was owner, accountant, salesman, crew boss and builder.
In the summers, Jim hired crews of young men from local colleges who would work from town to town, on the road for eight weeks at a time, and his wife, Ann, worried after them as if they were her own.
Ann made those boys call her every night to report where they were, how long they'd be there and where they were going next. They were Southern Bleacher's hard-working, bright, young ambassadors, and helped establish the reputation that endures today.
Southern Bleacher began building not just in Texas and Arkansas, but in Oklahoma, Kansas and eventually Iowa, where they connected with a company that had recently started to make their bleacher bench seats with aluminum rather than wood - a major innovation at the start of the 70s.
By 1973, Southern Bleacher completed its first bandstand with all-aluminum decking - a material stronger, lighter, almost indestructible - and never looked back.
They moved to bolted structures, investing in high-tech equipment for precision drilling so that steel arrived on site assembly-ready. The bleachers got stronger and went up faster with no wasted steel or labor - savings the company could pass on to customers and invest in ever-better quality.
Still, Southern Bleacher was the underdog in the industry, even in their home state of Texas, where two other companies ruled the field. But Jim, joined now by his daughter Jo Ann, who brought new energy to Southern Bleacher, focused on doing jobs he knew they could do well, not over-reaching, never over-promising, growing the company one day at a time.
Eventually Southern Bleacher was building stadiums as far afield as Oregon and Washington. They finally built a bigger office in 1986 - one Jim would never move into (after all, it was non-smoking, and he wasn't about to give up his signature cigar) though he continued to work alongside his daughter until his death in 1988, following his beloved wife, who had died three years before.
Sadly, Jim didn't live to see Southern Bleacher build the 150,000-seat grandstands for NASCAR at Fort Worth's Texas Motor Speedway in 1996, what was then the largest grandstand in the United States. From one little high school bleacher in 1946, his underdog had done good.
Today, Jim's grandsons, Garrett and Wyatt, run Southern Bleacher while Jo Ann sits back with a smile. The company has weathered recessions, a time when the Korean conflict made it impossible to get steel, and downswings in the market, all without once having laid people off.
It's done this by investing carefully, spending where it makes sense, and being the best in the business - not because of its size but because of its values. As one of their top salesmen put it - that same boy who'd started at 15 and is now in his 60s - "It's good people, it's a good company, it's a good product."
If that's not the best formula for success, we don't know what is.