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Minding His Own Business ... for more than 45 years

Prayer and a golf game pave way for iconic Gresham appliance, furniture company
by: JIm Clark The second and third generations of the Riegelmann's Appliance store pose with a 1960 Maytag washer and dryer in the store's showroom. Jim Riegelmann, center, son of founder Neil is flanked by his sons Josh, left, and Mike.

When Neil Riegelmann decided to go into business for himself, he admits he put the cart well before the horse.

It was 1965. The 40-year-old salesman at Mark's Appliance decided he'd had enough of working for others and set out on his own. With $1,500 to his name, Riegelmann invested most of that in renting store space, a transport truck and office equipment.

Financing an inventory, his suppliers all assured him, would be no problem. But from his first visit to GMAC financial, he quickly realized he'd been misled.

'GMAC turned me down, and the others did the same,' Riegelmann, 86, recalls on the phone from his part-time home in Palm Desert, Calif. 'I was pretty discouraged. I already had the kids addressing invitations to the grand opening. My wife said, 'Well, don't worry about it. We'll pray about it.' '

The next day, at wife, Mae Vern's, insistence, the dejected businessman hit the links at Pleasant Valley Golf Course. A numbers draw paired Riegelmann with Glen Rossiter, who Riegelmann had never met.

After a few holes, Rossiter sensed his partner had something on his mind. Hearing his dilemma, Rossiter, a mortgage lender with Borg-Warner Acceptance Corporation, pulled out his business card.

'He said, 'You go in and get your appliances ordered,' ' Riegelmann recalls. 'We'll get all the paperwork taken care of.' '

Back at home, Riegelmann's wife was less surprised than her excited husband.

'She said, 'Ever since you left the house, I've been praying something would happen.' '

A family affair

These days, a semi-retired Riegelmann spends more time counting his blessings than praying for good fortune.

The store he founded nearly 46 years ago - when Gresham was a town of fewer than 5,000 residents - still flourishes in a refurbished building at 301 E. Powell Blvd.

With son, Jim, and grandsons Josh, 33, and Michael, 29, now holding down the fort, Neil Riegelmann has clearly earned the right to relax in the Southern California sun.

But when he returns to his Happy Valley home, typically around early May, he can't stay away from the store that bears his name.

'I love to come in and see old customers,' he says. 'I try to come in two days a week.'

Jim Riegelmann says his dad's mere presence contributes to the store's ongoing success.

'He loves people. He's the best greeter in the area,' Jim says. 'It's uncanny how he remembers people. He may not remember what they bought, or their name, but he remembers they're a customer.'

Jim Riegelmann, who earned a degree in political science, says he went into the family business with no pressure from his dad.

'I never thought I would not do this,' Jim says, praising his father's example as a friendly and effective salesperson. 'He's a master of sales and how to treat people. We have a very experienced sales staff, but we all learned a lot from him.'

Helping hands

Both Jim and Neil Riegelmann, who married his wife, Lynn, after Mae Vern died, admit there's more to keeping an independent appliance dealership than skilled salesmanship and family bonds.

The store's affiliation with the Brand Source buying group provides purchasing muscle on par with Lowe's or Home Depot.

'We can do battle with any of 'em,' Neil says, citing those stores and Sears as longtime big-name competitors. 'And they attract an awful lot of people.

'We do have one of the big advantages over them,' he adds. 'If you call us at 9 in the morning, we'll do our best to get there. The chain operations can't move as fast as we can move.'

Up to date

Neil, who served as a pilot during World War II, says the computerization of appliance components is one of the biggest changes he's seen since the '60s.

'You used to be able to fix it with a screwdriver and a wrench,' he says. 'Now it's so computerized, it's impossible.'

The sheer size of appliances customers demand also has changed.

'You're looking at a 26- or 28-cubic-foot refrigerators as the standard size. Back then, it was 13- or 14-cubic feet.'

Riegelmann, a longtime supporter of Mt. Hood Community College and the Gresham Salvation Army, calls the success and camaraderie he's experienced in East County nothing short of a blessing.

'Some of my customers I've known for 20, 30, 40 years,' he says. 'And that's wonderful. That's what life is all about.'