Keith Catlin is using the slowdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to be creative in advertising, like his great-grandfather, William Catlin Sr., did in 1939.
Catlin Sr., who Keith said was a big-time salesman, hired well-known pole-sitter Richard “Dixie” Blandy to sit days on end atop a flagpole, attracting thousands to the North Main Street William Catlin and Son used-car business.
The 5-foot-4, 150-pound Blandy became a champion flagpole-sitter in 1933, sitting for 77 days and nights at the Chicago World’s Fair. He topped that in 1964 by sitting on a pole for 78 days on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Blandy died in 1974 at age 71 or 72, depending on the source, when a flagpole collapsed.
This time, Keith Catlin employs Facebook and Instagram as extra promotion for products and services at Catlin Truck Accessories at 1215 N. Main St.
Catlin, 44, is president and the fourth generation of the family-owned business, which Catlin Sr. opened in 1919 to sell used cars.
“Our business has a 100-year history of serving and staying in front of our customers. My great-grandfather, our founder, initiated the pole-sitter event, which brought thousands down to our lot,” he said.
“We have done billboards, magazine advertising, and most recently sports talk radio, to share the fun we have with our customers,” he said.
“My father, William ‘Bodie’ Catlin III, used to greet those first-time walk-in customers with his famous remarks: ‘Well, what took you so long? We’ve been waiting here for you since 1919! Welcome to the ‘grown men’s toy store!’”
The business evolved into new car sales at other locations, followed by auto repair and now auto and truck accessory sales and installation. “Over the years the business has changed and we just roll with the times,” Keith Catlin said.
Catlin joined the business in 1999 and took over operations four years ago when his father retired.
He saw a business slowdown at the start of the pandemic but did not shut down. Catlin Truck Accessories is considered an essential service business, outfitting city, JEA and repair company trucks.
The company sells and installs shelving, ladder racks, special lighting, trailer hitches, toolboxes and other essential items for work trucks and vans.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, customers canceled appointments.
Catlin said the team had to promote the business and handed out free items to people using its Facebook page and Instagram.
Catlin gave away Husky Liners floor mats, an aluminum Weigh Safe trailer hitch and Wet Okole seat covers. It recently gave away a CamLocker truck toolbox, a $700 value.
“We are known for our toolboxes,” he said. “All people have to do is like us on Facebook or Instagram.” Catlin pulls the winner's name out of a hat.
“These are nice gifts,” he said.
Catlin Truck Accessories doubled its audience with the giveaways, he said. It wasn’t a promotion Catlin would have thought of during normally busy times.
“Social media is free, people like to see stuff they could do to their truck,” he said.
“The main thing is letting our customers know we are here for them and just doing something fun to keep their spirits up,” he said. “To keep our name fresh and know that we are thinking about them too.”
Catlin is telling his team of seven to “be on your game,” be courteous and cater to their customers.
He told his team that a lot of people are on edge and scared to come to the store.
Safety includes limiting customers to three in the showroom and three in the waiting room. Catlin will provide a chair if a customer wants to wait outisde.
“The name of the game is to keep people happy,” he said.
Catlin said the Great Recession in 2007-09 taught the company “to get lean and mean. We had to lay four people off.”
He decided employees needed to be able to do multiple jobs, making the business more efficient. That meant that in slow times, everyone has a job to do.
“Today we are not as busy, but we have been steady,” he said.
Catlin said business has been picking up with the easing of restrictions.
“It sounds like we are coming out of this,” he said.