Three Generations and Going Strong
Back in the front half of the 50’s Frank G. May moved his filling and service station to the intersection of Germantown and Ringgold Road and named the business A&M. Frank was not content to just fill tanks, so out of that location he did a little bit of everything, from selling fishing tackle, home goods, even toys and hobbies. Within just a few years it had become apparent that the toys and hobbies were the real draw, so he formally created one of the nations first toy and hobby stores, displacing the service station and gas pumps for a more playful affair.
Not long after, Frank opened a location in Eastgate Mall selling toys, hobbies, and pets. The mall shop was called A&M Toys and Hobbies like it’s sister on Ringgold Road. As a pioneer toy retailer, Frank took his expertise into distribution as well as retail and traded throughout the region from Chattanooga. The business was still thriving when Frank passed away in 1973 at which point his son, Tom May found himself at the wheel with his mom Pat. This interesting combination proved to be beneficial. Tom ambitiously expanded both the wholesale and retail trade of A&M through the latter half of the seventies until it became clear that the day of the small locally owned and operated toy shopkeepers would slip into past because (in part) of the seemingly unstoppable march of the big-box retailers (Walmart) using toys as a loss leader during the Christmas season. Toy production was moving overseas so the big importers bought far more competitively than locally owned shops. So Tom knew that he had to reinvent the business in order to survive. And reinvent he did.
When Tom built the A&M distribution building on what is now Perimeter Drive in Chattanooga, there was no Home Depot, just a field in front and a gravel road in what is now Perimeter Drive.
It was about 1980 when Tom installed an above ground Doughboy pool in front of the facility set up a small pool store in what had been the wholesale toy outlet. The new endeavor was named A&M Outdoor Fun Center. It was soon after, in 1981 that the Maryville, TN toy store was recreated as a pool store as well, run by Karen Paxton. In 1982 Ken Paxton joined his wife for work in the summer after selling his business, Paxton Furniture House in Maryville. Well, Ken never left the business as he had planned to and in 1984 Tom told Ken if he planned on staying in the pool business, then what had been renamed The Pool Place in 1982 should become a part of the Knoxville community as well and Ken was the man to make that happen. So Tom bought a vacant night club on Kingston Pike and Ken opened for business in 1984. Ken and Karen Paxton still run that store and today Ken is the general manager over all the Pool Place locations.
The seasonality of the business presented challenges, especially in keeping experienced and knowledgeable staff employed year round. Tom and Becky Elam couldn’t run the operation alone so along came the idea from Wally Kooiman in Charlotte, NC to enter the Christmas decor business in the off season as a model for rounding out the business year round. Tom pitched the idea to Peg, his wife, who had spent time running the Castle (another family business in the original A&M location), a kids clothing store on Ringgold Road that many will remember as having the lit days-till-Christmas sign seen on the approach to Ringgold Road from Germantown. Tom and Peg joined Wally and his wife at Market in New York and the what became known as Christmas Time at the Pool Place was born in 1989. But never content to sit still, in 1992 Tom recruited Scott Orthner, my brother-in-law, Kelly’s husband to assemble hot tubs here in Chattanooga. These spas were offered exclusively at the Pool Place until in 1993, Tom bought J.E.M. manufacturing in Cerritos, CA and created Majestic Industries, maker of Artesian Spas. Today, Artesian Spas is one of the world’s largest spa manufacturers and are sold all over the world at hundreds of dealers. Later in the 90’s Tom tapped Richard Krabbendam, his brother-in-law to create Artesian Pools, which began its operations in Chattanooga before moving to a production factory in Baltimore Maryland.
At the end of the 90’s Tom encountered some heart troubles which God graciously brought him through, but the impact forced him to slow down. Kelly and Katie, the May sisters had been a part of the company for years in bookkeeping and finance but Frank May did not come on board until 2003. An entrepreneurial chip off the old block, Frank was soon at another round of expansion by first building a store in Huntsville, AL then opening one in Cleveland, TN which is now run by Becky Elam who first began her career with Frank G. May, my grandfather in the 70’s when she was a grown kid. Becky needs little introduction as her charisma and her understanding of the business have made her loved and familiar to many in Chattanooga and Dalton. Kelly has long been the CFO of the whole operation, but in 2006, Katie took the Christmas baton from Peg and has kept up the tradition of putting together the cities most celebrated Christmas shop each year.
By 2005, Frank had taken over for his dad Tom at the head of the company and in 2003 Ken Paxton became the General Manager of the entire firm. In 2006, Tom eased even further to retirement, needing to keep his pace slow but steady, and he sold A & M Distributors to his three kids (Frank, Kelly, Katie) plus Ken and Karen Paxton. Also under the leadership of Frank May, the firm has expanded it’s scope of operations to become a full service backyard living shop with extensive capabilities with inground construction, a vast offering of patio furniture, as well as outdoor room products from firepits to pergolas.
We hold to the same standards of integrity today, striving to provide high value product at reasonable prices with solid service that marked the company from its origins. We seek to measure our performance by the principals of the triple-bottom-line: financial sustainability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. These goals and values affect what we do and how we do it, seeking to be a meaningful part of our communities who have given so much to us over the years.