Rain pelts Chuck Mabie's Lexus ES300 as he zooms through the gaudy, hot-pink gates of Warehouse 1.
More than a decade ago, Mabie worked inside these gates, in an industrial park near Interstate 435 and Truman Road, selling pallet racks — steel beams and uprights used to make shelving in warehouses. He learned the business from Warehouse 1 owner Mary Lou Jacoby, a respected Kansas City businesswoman.
Jacoby's business dates back to 1986, when Macy's department store closed its Kansas City warehouse. "What Mary Lou saw wasn't trash," Warehouse 1's Web site explains, "but quality retail ready shelving, storage cabinets and more. These items were already used, but with a little paint, would be just the thing that someone could be looking for to start their own business."
Jacoby pounced. That opportunity helped build Warehouse 1 into "the Midwest's largest used material handling equipment company," according to its Web site. Kansas City's business community has showered Jacoby and her company with accolades, including the Joan Strewler-Carter Women of Influence award in 2007; one of the Top 25 Women-Owned Businesses, in 2005, by The Kansas City Business Journal; and one of the Top 10 Small Businesses of the Year, in 1998, by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Mabie, however, is a pudgy entrepreneur with a preference for profanity. He burns up the driveway to Warehouse 1, passing rain-soaked stacks of bright-orange steel rack. Mabie isn't impressed. Something about rust huffs from his mouth. His own steel racks and uprights sit in the dry confines of a warehouse right across the street from Warehouse 1.
Mabie turns around and steps on the gas. Signs posted on the way out of Warehouse 1's property thank the company's customers for their business. Mabie stops just before exiting onto East 12th Street to show off the giant "New Pallet Rack Cheap" sign on a chain-link fence facing Warehouse 1's driveway. An arrow points directly to his warehouse, home of Pay Less Material Handling. No one leaves Warehouse 1 without seeing the sign for Mabie's competing business.
"They think I'm doing them wrong," Mabie says of Jacoby and her son, Ron Boone. "But that's a matter of opinion. I'm just trying to build my business."
Last year, Mabie started his own pallet-rack business, leasing a warehouse across East 12th Street from Jacoby's 20-acre complex of metal warehouses and brick buildings.
"They're huge," Mabie says of Warehouse 1. He's right — Jacoby's clients include Dover Air Force Base, Kansas City Power & Light and Sears. "But I can just undercut the shit out of their prices. If we're going head-to-head with each other, I'm not going to lose."
Mabie keeps his overhead low. He employs one man. He doesn't heat his warehouse. He bought a job-site trailer for $500 to use as an office. He didn't even have a bathroom in the warehouse until a few weeks ago. Before, he used a bathroom at QuikTrip.
In the past month, he says, business has jumped. Charts and graphs project more than $1.5 million in sales by the end of the year. Mabie credits the boom to his strategically placed signs.
For three months earlier this year, he planted about a hundred signs near Warehouse 1 and along the corridors of Interstate 435 and Truman Road. Each white sign, about the size of a small political yard sign, reads "New Pallet Rack Cheap" in blue lettering and includes Mabie's phone number.
In early October, the signs began to vanish. The signs were illegally in the right of way, but Mabie says he knew that city workers weren't swiping them; other signs, advertising homes for sale or offers to buy houses, were still up. Plus, Mabie claims that his landlord caught Jacoby pulling his signs and throwing them in her trunk.