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.
Mabie decided to leave Jacoby a message. In small print on one of the signs, he scribbled, "Leave my signs alone, you bitch."
Kansas City's prince of pallet racks grew up in Independence. He has always been a hustler. His mother died when he was 3, so he went to live with his father; then his father died when he was 16. The William Chrisman High School grad went to work and got an apartment.
He managed shoe stores before going to work for Jacoby in 1992. Six years later, he left Warehouse 1 but stayed in the pallet-rack business, working for Industrial Sales and then Mid-America Lift Truck before opening his own business.
But pallet racks aren't his only gig. The 40-year-old also sells outlaw softball bats.
Mabie was a rec-league player who discovered the wickedness of titanium bats in the early 1990s. Because they rocket baseballs at stitch- and skull-splitting speeds, softball organizations started banning titanium from organized play in 1993. Mabie, though, was a titanium junkie. Bat companies quit making them, but Mabie started buying them on eBay. When he saw a vintage titanium bat sell for $2,000 in an auction, he saw a chance to make some money.
"I decided, you know, if they made the bats before, I can make them again."
Mabie wasn't interested in the approval of softball's governing bodies. He just wanted to make a badass bat.
To make his first bat, he says, he reverse-engineered the best titanium bats of the '90s, an effort that put him about $20,000 in the hole. First, he had to find the titanium; then he made prototypes that sent balls into orbit, but their end caps kept popping off. Finally, Mabie offered a couple of guys with engineering experience a piece of the action to help him finish his creation.
First came the Maximus, in 2003. It was a limited edition (only 1,000 exist), high-performance, double-wall titanium rocket launcher. "I thought that bat was the greatest bat made, and that's why I named it that," Mabie says. He sold the Maximus online for $599.
Calling his company Toloso Sports, he used midgets, babes and sexual innuendo to market the product. "Chicks dig the longball," one ad brags.
In homemade videos, balls disappeared into the atmosphere. The Toloso Web site brags that the Maximus would never pass a Bat Performance Factor test, which measures the speed of the ball coming off the bat.
"I came out and said, 'No, I'm not restricting it. This is the best fucking bat produced. It hits it farther and harder than anything else. If you play with it, you'll get hurt. It's fucking dangerous. That's it."
Toloso's Web site warns that the bats are for batting practice or home-run derbies and not to be used in an actual game. Each one comes with a warning label.
"It says you have to pitch behind a pitching screen," Mabie says. "And anyone who uses it in a game, they're fucked. Every bat that leaves here has got one of those stickers on it."
Mabie's second titanium bat was the Primo, a two-piece, 26-ounce bat with a 13.5-inch barrel, selling for $399.
"The bat is sick," Mabie boasts. "I would not pitch if someone was hitting that bat."
In 2006, Mabie auctioned off the right to be the first to test the Primo. On eBay, softball fanatics paid hundreds of dollars for the opportunity.
Maxim magazine featured the Primo in its May 2007 issue. "A titanium shaft and carbon-fiber grip give this boom stick more ball-crushing power than certain leagues allow, so buy it in black, paint it to resemble a legal brand and enjoy a leisurely stroll around the bases," Maxim commanded.
Orders poured in. "I honestly turned my phone off," Mabie says.
A year after the Primo debuted, Mabie claims, Rawlings came out with a glove also named the Primo.
"That was my marketing idea," Mabie says of Rawlings' ads for the Primo glove. "If you look at the name, you look at the logo, the color scheme, all of it, is truly mine. In my opinion." He's right — the colors, logos and fonts are similar. But Rawlings also uses a fierce stallion on a shield with a green and red backdrop and "Italia" written on it.
Mabie hired lawyers from Blackwell Sanders to fight for his name. He says they told him that he would probably win, but Rawlings would keep him in court for so long, fighting it would be too expensive.
The bat business did OK, Mabie says, but it wasn't enough to earn him a living.
A dark-colored Chevy Astro Van hooks into the parking lot in front of a used appliance store owned by Bill Mabie, Chuck's brother, near Interstate 435 and East Truman Road.
The video shows a man getting out of the van and running across an open field toward "New Pallet Rack Cheap" signs. The man collects three or four signs, runs back to the van, throws them in and drives away.
It's 6:30 p.m. Monday, October 20.
Mabie says the man on the video is Ron Boone; in addition to being Jacoby's son, he's one of the owners of Erotic City, a porn emporium.
Within the past year, a man was convicted of prostituting and sexually abusing his 14-year-old stepdaughter in Erotic City's coin-operated video booths (The People vs. Erotic City, March 25), a 16-year-old boy accused a man of sodomizing him inside the adult bookstore, and a man was shot in the head behind the building. Boone vehemently defended Erotic City, denying culpability in the girl's molestation, and blaming her for the incident by saying she had a fake ID and could have called for help. He portrayed Erotic City's owners as victims who had been persecuted by Jackson County and the "masturbation police."
Boone also runs a forklift company located around the corner from Erotic City. And he owns an Astro Van, according to Jackson County property-tax records.
On October 21, Mabie called the police and reported that Boone and Jacoby had stolen his signs. The police asked Mabie if he wanted to press charges; Mabie considered it but decided not to.
A week later, The Pitch called Boone to ask whether he had taken Mabie's signs. "I don't have any idea what you are talking about," Boone said politely.
Informed that Mabie had a video of the theft, Boone again said, "I don't have any idea what you are talking about."
A woman — not Jacoby — answering Jacoby's phone at Warehouse 1 did know about the sign thefts.
"Well, actually, those signs were there illegally, and if you'd notice, those signs have been removed by the city of Kansas City," she said.
Mabie's signs were illegally posted. Steve Barquist, Kansas City's manager of right-of-way inspections, says no signs other than authorized signs — traffic and street signs — can be in the right of way, which stretches 10 feet behind the curb.
Told about Mabie's claims that he captured Boone on video, the Warehouse 1 employee said, "Yeah, we know. We've already talked to the police."
The Pitch requested an interview with Jacoby.
"I'm going to be straightforward with you on this: probably not," the woman said. "But I will leave your name and number and why you're calling."
Jacoby never called. The Pitch called again in early December, but Jacoby didn't return that call, either.
Two days after catching on video a man who looked like Boone, Mabie is driving into the industrial park near his warehouse when his cell phone rings. It's his sister-in law, telling him that Kansas City's Public Works Department is picking up the signs he posted in medians and next to his brother's used-appliance store near I-435 and East Truman Road.
Mabie floors it for the interstate and swings off on the East Truman Road exit. He spots the city's white truck and a woman in a rain poncho uprooting his signs. Mabie pulls onto the shoulder.
"Boy, they've got a bad day for you to do this, don't they?" Mabie says.
"Yes, they do," the worker says.
"Do you know who made the complaint?"
"It's an anonymous complaint."
Mabie is pretty sure he knows who ratted on him.
"As soon as you leave, can I put them back out?" Mabie asks. "Or am I going to get in trouble?"
The woman tells him that whoever complained will just call again, and she'll be back out to pick up the signs.
"Can you tell them it was a skinny blond-headed guy?" Mabie jokes.
He is neither skinny nor blond. His hair is short and dark, and his waist is wide. But the guy is all energy. He hops out of the car, runs to retrieve his signs and throws them in the back seat.
Mabie breezes onto the interstate and exits on East 23rd Street. The light is red. Mabie throws the car in park, jumps out, runs to the trunk, and grabs two new white T-shirts and a sign from the back seat. He runs across the grass, stakes the sign and runs back to the car — all before the light changes.
Mabie loops back onto the interstate and heads toward Front Street. He needs to find some homeless people.
It's a rainy midmorning in October as Mabie drives along 23rd Street and spots a man in a wheelchair, parked in the median near the stoplight. Rain is pouring down on him. Mabie flips a U-turn.
"You wear this T-shirt?" Mabie asks as he hands the man a shirt and $5.
The T-shirt reads, "New Pallet Rack Cheap."
"Yeah," the man says with a strained voice.
"Put it on. I'm gonna be back later. If you're wearing it, I'll give you some more money. There's $5. Make sure you put this on, OK?"
"All right," the man says. "Thank you."
"Put it on right now. I'll be back in a little bit."
Mabie sees another homeless man under the I-435 bridge. He pulls under the bridge and rolls down his passenger window.
"Come here, buddy," he says to the gray-bearded man. "Here. Wear this. Wear this T-shirt, OK? And I'll be back later on, and I'll give you some more money. But you've got to be wearing this T-shirt."
Mabie drives away. As he heads for the highway, he spots the man in the wheelchair trying to put on his new T-shirt.
Mabie knows people might think he's exploiting homeless people. He thinks about this. He thinks about it often. He wonders if it's wrong to pay these men to be walking billboards for his business. But he says he's gotten to know them. He likes them.
"I am putting the bums to work, in a way, because I'm paying them to wear these T-shirts and put the signs out. I'm exploiting them a little bit, I guess, but I'm providing them with money and lunch once in a while."
His lead guy, Dan Kearns, lives under the I-435 bridge. As Mabie drives under the bridge on East Truman Road, he sees Kearns walking. Mabie honks his horn. Kearns walks up to the car.
"Staying warm?" Mabie asks.
"The police department took your signs down just now," Kearns says.
"I know," Mabie says as he hands Kearns some money. "Give that to her," Mabie says, motioning to a woman covered up in a blanket under the bridge. "How's it going?""OK." Kearns is bundled up in a winter coat and a sweatshirt. His bushy eyebrows stick out from under his sweatshirt hood. Scruffy whiskers cover his face. He keeps talking about the signs disappearing. Kearns wants to know about a customer he sent to Mabie's warehouse. He says a man at a gas station asked him for directions to Warehouse 1.
"I'll give you directions to Warehouse 1," Kearns says he told the man, "but I want you to go across the street, too."
Mabie says he remembers the customer.
"You're my boy," Mabie says. "Dan's the real man down here. Thanks, Dan. We'll see you later, buddy. I'll bring you lunch or something."
The air is cold and chilly on an early Wednesday in November. Kearns smokes cigarettes while panhandling in the median next to the I-435 offramp. Kearns is bundled up with several layers of shirts and sweatshirts. A stocking cap covers his matted hair and hides his headphones, which are blaring country music.
The early afternoon traffic doesn't seem to be generating much money when Mabie pulls up, passes Kearns a folded $5 bill and tells him to get in the car.
Kearns has lived under the bridge for 20 months.
"MODOT used to bother us, but I got most of the riffraff out of here and keep it clean," he says. "They ain't bothered us since last winter.... We've got harmony on the corner now."
Kearns grew up in the Quad Cities of southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois and has lived in Kansas City since 1983. He and his girlfriend at the time used to run Tom's Thrift Store across the street from the Aldi grocery store in the 6400 block of Truman Road. And he used to sell old appliances for $25 apiece to Mabie's brother, Bill. These days, his trade is rehabbing houses. "I can do anything to a house but plumbing or electricity. Anything. Roof. Sheetrock. Texture. Paint. Tile."
Mabie didn't know about Kearns' connection with his brother when he first approached Kearns about guarding his signs. Now, the two have a friendly business arrangement.
"Chuck buys me lunch all the time," says Kearns, who usually refers to Mabie as "sign man."
"Brings Wendy's by and stuff. He does that for all the homeless people down here. If he sees you wearing a shirt, he'll give you $5."
Kearns says he has seen a man from "the forklift place," who drives the Astro Van, taking Mabie's signs. Kearns says he ran after the man and yelled, "Hey, put that back."
"He got in the van with the sign and flipped me the bird and drove off," Kearns says.
Mabie recognizes another homeless man, hops out of the car, opens the trunk and gives him a sign and some money.
Mabie says he used to ignore the homeless people panhandling by the intersections.
But then, he says, "When I started doing this, it started working. So I paid him [Kearns] all the time. And he was always going, 'You don't need to give me that much money.' I was making money and I was fine with it.
"I'm not trying to save the world," Mabie continues. "I'm not trying to save a homeless person. Had I not come up with this, I'd probably have just done like everyone else and kept my eyes straight and not made eye contact with them." But now, Mabie says, "If I was to blow him off, I just couldn't do it."
Back at his warehouse, Mabie talks about the history of his baseball bats. It was a glamour product. Pallet racks aren't glamorous. But they make him a comfortable living.
There's a knock on the door to his office trailer. A man walks in, says he's from Olathe and needs racks for shelving. Mabie shows him the new orange beams sitting in his warehouse.
"That looks perfect," the man says.
Mabie quotes him a price well below Warehouse 1's.
"I bet that sign just pisses them off," the man says of the sign facing Warehouse 1's driveway. "That's how I found you. Glad I saw it. I just about pulled away."
"I'm glad you saw them," Mabie says. "Give me a call whenever you're ready to order them."
"Thank you," the man says as he walks out of the trailer.
Mabie grins as though he just pulled off a heist.
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