Second chances

The brass nameplate on the president's desk at Southern Industries Inc. says James E. Felton, but most employees call him Crow.

 

The widespread use of Mr. Felton's nickname, which he has had since his grandmother saw him chasing birds around her front yard as a child, is just the first indicator that the city's largest home-improvement contractor is a different kind of employer.

Spend some time around Southern Industries' recently completed headquarters and showroom on Bobby Jones Expressway and you'll realize the $25 million-a-year company Mr. Felton founded four decades ago is equal parts business and rehabilitation center.

Nearly 30 percent of the 132 employees working in the Southern Industries family of companies, including Southern Siding & Window and Enloe Residential, are recovering drug and alcohol addicts.

Southern Industries does not advertise that fact, nor has it ever received public recognition or assistance for trying to turn broken lives into productive members of society.

With Mr. Felton as the driving force, the company has quietly developed a reputation as an employer willing to give people a second, and sometimes third or fourth, chance.

"Jim Felton's business is more of a ministry," said Joe Testino, a former Southern Industries employee and recovering cocaine addict. "His real passion outside of business is helping other people."

Mr. Testino worked for Mr. Felton from 1997 to 2002, with the exception of the two years he spent in prison for possession of drugs, which he purchased by stealing and selling a Southern Industries company car and Mr. Felton's personal cell phone.

Mr. Testino recently sold his shares in Augusta-based eAuction Depot, a successful eBay seller, and is now forming a start-up medical device company called Life Coach Medical along with former executives of Osbon Medical Systems.

Mr. Testino said that without Mr. Felton's forgiveness and guidance, he would be on the streets or back in prison.

"I never believed in myself, so I couldn't understand why this person kept believing in me," he said. "It was the first time I felt unconditional love outside of my family."

The 68-year-old Mr. Felton understands the blessing of a second chance because he knows all about addicts.

He used to be one.

A helping hand

"What I've learned is that people with problems still have a lot of talent," Mr. Felton said. "They just need the chance to re-prove themselves."

Mr. Felton proved himself in the 1960s and '70s by parlaying his experience as a door-to-door aluminum-siding salesman into the city's largest siding distributorship. He proved himself again in the '80s and '90s by transforming the company into a conglomerate of home-improvement businesses after overcoming an alcohol addiction that ruined two marriages and dulled his entrepreneurial senses for nearly a decade.

Today, Mr. Felton's companies, which stretch from Augusta to Greenville, S.C., are known in the industry for doing a large volume of business in a relatively small market.

"He is a big guy in a small business," said Dave Yoho, whose Fairfax, Va.-based home-improvement consulting firm sponsors the "Legends of The Home Improvement Industry" award, which Mr. Felton won in 2002. "He is one clever businessman."

He's also a generous one, contributing to high-profile charities such as Golden Harvest Food Bank in addition to under-the-radar organizations such as The Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center for women.

For 15 years, Mr. Felton has allowed the program to use a home he owns on Milledgeville Road rent-free. Without the contribution, the fledgling organization might have never gotten off the ground because of limited community interest.

"A women's treatment program, at that time, was really frowned upon," Hope House Executive Director Dr. Gerald Carrier said. "It's only been recently that we've acknowledged that there are women addicts. Addiction has always been fashionably viewed as a male disease."

In addition to its generosity, Mr. Felton's company is also known for its ethical standards. In an industry fraught with disreputable contractors and consumer complaints, Southern Industries has for years maintained a Better Business Bureau "satisfactory" score, the bureau's highest rating. Mr. Felton points out that customer referrals generate 32 percent of all new sales leads.

The key to Southern Industries' success is the cohesiveness and dedication of its employees, some of whom see Mr. Felton as much as their savior as their supervisor.

"You know how some people get lucky and win those lottery games? Well I got lucky the day Jim Felton hired me - that was my lottery ticket," said Bob Cameron, the company's assistant manager.

Mr. Cameron lost his wife and his technician job at television station WJBF to an alcohol and gambling addiction in the 1980s. He was at rock bottom in 1993 when Mr. Felton hired him for a sales position, going against the recommendation of his then-sales manager.

"He provided me a chance to learn and prosper. He made me realize there were other things in life than just partying and not caring about other people," Mr. Cameron said. "I've had a new life over the last 10 years."

Not every story has a happy ending. Southern Industries' Marketing Manager Brad Codman tells many tales of people who have relapsed, quit without warning or, even worse, stolen company property.

"The hardest thing to do is trust them," Mr. Codman said. "We have to say 'Today, we're going to start from scratch, and until you prove us wrong, we're going to trust you.'"

Mr. Felton estimates his success rate is 50 percent.

"That's still better than a lot of rehab centers," he said.

The limits to his generosity and forgiveness seem to stretch beyond that of the average person, not that Mr. Felton has ever been an average person.

Tall on ambition

A look into the reckless life he led during his adult years requires a peek into his adolescence.

He was born James Edward Felton on July 27, 1938, the second son of J. Bert and Eloise Felton. Their residence was unit 2168 B in the Olmstead Homes public housing project. During World War II, the couple worked at the nearby Augusta Armory on Milledge Road. He was a sewing-machine repairman, and she was a nurse's assistant.

By the time Mr. Felton was old enough for elementary school, his parents could afford a home in Albion Acres, a then-middle class neighborhood just west of T.W. Josey High School, and attended the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Growing up in the 1950s, a time of unbridled prosperity and optimism, Mr. Felton enjoyed a happy childhood. He did, however, have one problem - his size.

"I was extremely small in stature," said Mr. Felton, who was 5-foot 3-inches tall and 98 pounds his senior year at the Academy of Richmond County. "I was a very slow maturer, put it that way."

As a teenager, he hung around with a crowd of mostly younger boys who, though equal in size, looked up to him because he was older and wiser - outside the classroom, that is.

"Jimmy wasn't the best of students," older brother Joe Felton said. "He liked to play too much and cut up."

He did, however, have a competitive streak. Though too small to excel at sports, Mr. Felton said he was driven to be the best at everything else he did, be it yo-yos, marbles or roller skating.

His slight physical presence also taught him to think on his feet.

"My size was a handicap in one way, but in another it was helpful," he said. "I learned at a very early age to overcome a lot of different situations. Coming up being small like that, you develop a lot of ways to cover up who you are."

When push came to shove, however, he didn't cut and run. If confronted by neighborhood bullies, he evened the odds by grabbing whatever object he could use as a weapon. He recalled one particularly large bruiser who knocked him to the ground one day while he was fixing his bicycle. Mr. Felton grabbed a pair of pliers from his back pocket and took a swing at the larger boy, putting a gash in his face.

"He never bothered me again after that," Mr. Felton said.

Still, being the little guy on the block had an indelible impact on his psyche - he yearned to be a big shot. In the coming years he would get his wish, but it came at a high price.

Growth spurt

Shortly after graduating high school, Mr. Felton grew more than six inches and put on more than 50 pounds during six months in the Army Reserve. After his two-year commitment, he enrolled in Augusta College but dropped out after a year.

Mr. Felton made up his mind to pursue a career in sales, a field he believes was in his cards from the beginning. His first experience pushing products began at age 12 when he started delivering the Augusta Herald in his neighborhood.

The Herald job paid up to $7 a week if all his customers paid on time. It also taught him the nuances of door-to-door sales that would come in handy later in life.

"Way back as a kid I knew I was going to be in sales," he said.

His first adult sales job was as a local representative for the Gerber baby food company. His work in getting the product placed on grocery store shelves led to a job with Kellogg Co., where he was a product rep for Corn Flakes cereal. He also spent time working for Sears, Roebuck and Co.

In 1960, at age 21, Mr. Felton married his first wife, Kathy, whose family had moved to Augusta because of Fort Gordon.

Mr. Felton's entry into home improvement came in 1965 when he joined uncle Fay Tompkins and cousins Ben Tompkins and Tommy Hodges in an aluminum-siding business that was backed by E-Z-G0 co-founders Bill and Bev Dolan.

The company, Augusta All Siding, sent salesmen door to door to market the product, which at the time was an attractive alternative to brick and wood.

Mr. Felton started as one of the company's "canvassers." He went door-to-door and made sales pitches. If the homeowner was interested, a "closer" would be sent in to make the sale.

They started their workdays late because they couldn't knock on doors too early in the morning. This allowed the salesmen to stay out late after work over a drink - usually several.

"That was one of the reasons I was attracted to this business," Mr. Felton said. "I could get up late and stay out late."

Life of the party

Mr. Felton was no longer the puny boy he was in high school.

He was now 5-foot-10, handsome and earning good money. Girls who would have ignored him just a few years earlier now gathered around to laugh at his jokes and marvel at the thick wad of cash he carried.

He finally was a big shot.

Mr. Felton played the role to the hilt when he was out for a night on the town. The alcohol-fueled outings made him feel more debonair, more important than he really was.

"When you're drinking, you get to be anyone you want to be," Mr. Felton said.

After a day of sales, he would haunt joints like the Capri Lounge and the old Alpine Club and Marine Room. He nursed his hangovers the next day in the YMCA before heading to work to do it all over again.

"I'd go to the Y to play basketball, and he would be in there taking a steam bath to get over the night before," recalled Mr. Cameron, the assistant manager.

Mr. Felton's hard-working, hard-partying lifestyle strained his marriage, which ended in divorce after two years.

His carousing landed him in trouble in 1966, the same year he married his second wife, who also was named Kathy. He decided to take a trip to New Orleans to go to Mardi Gras - without telling his bosses at Augusta All Siding. When he came back, he was fired on the spot by his cousin, Mr. Hodges.

The event marked a turning point in Mr. Felton's life. He was on his own now; there was no support team. If he didn't sell, he didn't eat.

So with a product sample case tucked under his arm, he set out to pound the pavement.

During a trip to Jackson, he made two cash sales in a single afternoon. Elated on the drive back to Augusta, he realized he could make his own deals and his own destiny.

"After that, I never had another struggle. I never had a lack of income," he said. "It was all the other things that were my problems."

Peaks and valleys

The company that Mr. Felton oversees was created in 1967 with a $4,000 loan from Mae Allen.

The co-worker at Augusta All Siding helped solicit leads for Mr. Felton and the other salesmen. She was older and had no husband or children at home. She took to Mr. Felton, whom she believed had talent and ambition.

"I think she saw something in me that I didn't see," he said.

Their agreement was that he would repay her $400 a month for 12 months. But Mr. Felton, as a show of gratitude, continued mailing payments of $100 each month until her death nearly 20 years later.

Mr. Felton used Ms. Allen's nestegg to create Southern Steel & Aluminum Products. He set up shop in a $35-a-month storefront on Eighth Street. Shortly thereafter, his cousins and uncle abandoned the Augusta All Siding venture and went on to form The Tompkins Co., which today competes with Mr. Felton's Southern Industries conglomerate.

With one employee - a secretary to answer office calls - Mr. Felton went knocking on doors. He soon built a reputation that was able to attract some of the city's top home-improvement contractors. Within a decade, he had a staff of 15 and annual sales approaching $1 million. The company relocated to larger offices on Milledgeville Road and created a wholesale division.

As Mr. Felton's company grew, so did his personal real estate holdings and side ventures, including two liquor stores and a lounge in south Augusta he dubbed the Crow's Nest.

The siding business was growing in leaps and bounds, but so was his alcohol addiction, which he denied he had. He used a barrage of personal tests to fool himself that he was in control, such as abstaining from alcohol every January.

"When February came around, I teed off," he said.

He sheepishly describes tales of past revelries, such as the time a breakfast meeting with two buddies turned into a two-day bender in Savannah, or the time he woke up in Miami after a blackout night of partying.

He was living a double life. There was James E. Felton, a married father of three children in control of a fast-growing home-improvement business. Then there was Crow, the big-spending, self-indulgent, skirt-chasing night owl.

The two were on a collision course.

Rock bottom

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, Mr. Felton's wife had about all she could take. She left in November 1983, after nearly 18 years of marriage.

The ensuing months were among the worst in his life.

"I was tired, I was worn out," he said.

On March 17, 1984, Mr. Felton had what substance-abuse counselors call a "moment of clarity." On a day he was supposed to be headed to Savannah for what's regarded as the biggest St. Patrick's Day party in the state, he was instead sitting on his bed, looking back on the wreck he had made of his personal life.

"It was really working on me that day," Mr. Felton recalled. "All the guilt, I just felt worthless. Totally worthless."

Instead of heading for the coast, he drove east to Atlanta and checked himself into Ridgeview Institute, a drug and alcohol rehab center.

It was about halfway through a 53-day stay before he fully owned up to his drinking problem, but it took years of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before he could look in the mirror and like what he saw.

"I discovered who I really was, not who I wanted you to think I was," he said. "Once you get sober, you realize you don't have a lot to be cocky about."

Straight commitment

With the haze gone, he was able to rediscover the entrepreneurial energy he had in his younger days. The renewed focus he has had during the past 23 years of sobriety has helped him lead the company through its steepest growth curve.

The comeback was welcomed by many.

"It was a really good surprise that he's turned out to be such a good businessperson and so generous to the community," said Tommy Moxley, the owner of Appliance Land and one of Mr. Felton's friends since childhood.

In 1986 Mr. Felton's company branched into the gutter sales and installation business by acquiring Aiken-based Enloe Residential Co. That same year he opened the wholesale operation, Southern Wholesale Co., and renamed his flagship company Southern Steel to Southern Siding and Window Co. In 1989 he purchased a 33,000-square-foot warehouse on Gordon Highway to replace the Milledgeville Road site the company had outgrown.

Southern Industries' latest chapter begins with last year's opening of its headquarters at 259 Bobby Jones Expressway, which will have its grand opening celebrations Friday and Saturday.

The 15,000-square-foot facility on the high-traffic corridor gives the company visibility it never had at its previous locations. The property's centerpiece - the customer showroom and demonstration area - is the perfect way to showcase the major brands the company carries, such as Prodigy siding and Gorrell windows.

Mr. Felton said sales have increased nearly 20 percent since the move from Gordon Highway.

Mr. Felton's personal life has improved along with the company. He married his third wife, Nancy Whitaker-Felton, in 2002, after meeting the divorcee at the West Lake pro shop.

The once late-riser is now up at 5:30 on most days for his morning run.

His free time is split among golfing, his mountain home in Highlands, N.C., his farm home in Kingstree, S.C. (his father's hometown) and spending time with his children and four grandchildren, who live in the Augusta area.

Of course, he hasn't stopped helping the underdogs of the world, such as Jerry Harvey.

The 31-year-old T.W. Josey High School graduate grew up in Augusta's poor district but had a dream of owning his own business. He met Mr. Felton in 1996 when he began leasing one of Mr. Felton's old buildings on Milledgeville Road for his custom wheel and rim shop.

Mr. Felton was impressed with the young man's entrepreneurial spirit and liked how he always paid his rent on time, even during the year-long period when he was in jail on drug charges.

Upon finding out about the arrest, Mr. Felton told Mr. Harvey's wife, Cheryl, who had been taking care of the bills, that he wanted to see her husband after his release.

"He just asked me, 'Are you ready to stop messing around and make some real money?'" Mr. Harvey recalled. "He showed me that making money the right way is the easy way."

Mr. Felton gave Mr. Harvey nearly two years of free rent on a second Milledgeville Road building he owned, which Mr. Harvey renovated into a child-care center. Mr. Felton even contributed to the renovation costs on the building.

Today, the couple's Kreative Minds Child Care has 14 employees and 100 children enrolled.

For Mr. Harvey, the icing on the cake came last year when Mr. Felton agreed to sell him the Milledgeville Road parcels, including the former rim shop (which is now Mr. Harvey's barber shop and salon), the day-care building, the next-door Hope House building and a four-unit mobile home park at the rear of the 2-acre parcel.

Mr. Harvey couldn't obtain a bank loan, so Mr. Felton agreed to owner-finance the deal with a low interest rate.

Mr. Harvey said Mr. Felton is beyond a mentor.

"If I hadn't met Jim Felton, I would be in prison somewhere. I'd be sitting in a penitentiary," Mr. Harvey said, pausing to show off the laminated copy of an old newspaper article on Southern Industries he keeps on his desk. "There's four men I respect in this world: myself, my pastor, God, and Jim Felton."

Exit strategy

Mr. Felton could retire at any time. He's financially set, he has trusted managers and family members in leadership roles. His oldest son James "Ed" Felton Jr. works for him and his niece Fran is his office manager. At age 68, the time is right.

But the man they call Crow shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he's in the middle of forming a joint venture with another company to sell K-Guard brand gutter systems in the suburban Atlanta market.

"I'm still competitive. I still want our company to be the best," he said. "I guess when I lose that, I'll retire."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

SOUTHERN INDUSTRIES HOLDING CO. INC.

President: James E. Felton

History: The company that grew into Southern Industries began in 1967 as Southern Steel & Aluminum.

Products: Residential contractor specializing in vinyl siding, windows, gutters and sunrooms

Profile: Southern Siding is the flagship business for Southern Industries, a holding company whose other subsidiaries include Southern Wholesale, a window and siding distributorship with locations in Augusta and in Greenwood and Greenville, S.C.; and Enloe Residential Co., a gutter, roofing and siding contractor in Aiken.

2006 sales: $25 million* (approximate); 80 percent of sales generated from siding and window products

Employees: 132*

* Figure is for all Southern Industries companies

Source: Southern Industries

JAMES EDWARD FELTON

Born: July 27, 1938, Augusta

Education: Academy of Richmond County graduate, 1957; attended Augusta College, 1960

Career: Mr. Felton held various sales jobs shortly after graduating high school; entered the home-improvement market in 1965 by working for Augusta All Siding, an aluminum-siding business started by his cousins; started his own business, Southern Steel & Aluminum, in 1967. The company grew into Southern Industries, a holding company whose subsidiaries include siding, window, roofing and gutter contractors.

Family: Wife, Nancy Whitaker-Felton; three stepchildren from her previous marriage; five biological children from his two previous marriages

Hobbies: Golf, relaxing at his Kingstree, S.C., farmhouse and his mountain home in Highlands, N.C.

More

Your Money: Be cautious when attempting to sell timeshares

Many are looking for ways to reduce expenses. One popular option is to unload timeshares so owners can recoup... Read more

Chamber Corner

Good Deeds