Burris Means Business IN THE RIVER VALLEY

Story by Angie Self

Before there was a Lake Dardanelle, a nuclear power plant, or an interstate that joined towns across Arkansas, there was a small business supply store owned by H.D. Coffee. The store sat at the corner of Highway 64 and Highway 7; the crossroads of Russellville.

A young, determined soldier made a decision to purchase that store on Sept. 8, 1953. The young soldier was Troy Burris. And, 60 years later, customers, can still chat with Troy – age 91 – at the business now located just across the street from the original. 

Troy and a partner purchased the store, but within a year, Burris and Rigdon became Burris Inc. when Troy’s partner decided to move back to his home state of Kansas. Troy, a Pope County native, added repair and maintenance to the business and sold just about anything and everything needed to keep a typewriter or adding machine operational.

Troy took to the roads in order to build his clientele, visiting businesses from Morrilton to Fort Smith as well as north to Harrison. He often left machines with the business owners to try out for a while, in order to make an informed purchase.

“I remember taking some adding machines over to the manager of a hatchery on West Main Street,” recalls Troy. “I had a full key machine and a 10-key adding machine. I demonstrated the 10-key and left it with him for several days to see how he liked it. When I was on my way back, I was trying to think of a way to get him to buy one of the machines. I thought to myself that if I asked him which machine he was going to take, then I wouldn’t be giving him a chance to say no. So, that’s what I did. He asked the prices, and settled on the 10-key machine. Anytime I would talk to a potential customer about a machine, I would refer to it as ‘their’ machine. This also helped me in the selling process.”

Building trust was also a key to success. One day, Troy stopped at a grocery store outside of Morrilton to demonstrate a cash register. During the demonstration, Troy bought a soda from the store.

“I intended to pay for it before I left, but didn’t. I got down the road about 10 or 12 miles before I realized it. Cokes cost about 10 cents back then. I knew on my way home, I wasn’t coming that way and it would be about a week before I could pay him back. So, I just turned around at the next wide spot in the road and went back and asked him how much I owed him for the Coke. He said, ‘Oh, it was just a Coke.’ I said, no, those add up. So, I gained his confidence, and by word of mouth, I gained the confidence of the community that I was an honest salesman. If you are dishonest, it is going to catch up with you.”

Troy also trusted his customers. He offered lease/purchase agreements on machines that many small business owners could not afford to pay for with cash. One of the adding machines with paper tape cost $500, but with his lease-to-own program, customers could pay only $7.50 to $10.50 per month. This allowed Troy to sell hundreds of machines across the River Valley, and it helped many owners get their businesses up and running.

“I started out leasing the Hugin cash register at $10 a month,” said Troy. “The National brand cash register representative wasn’t allowed to lease his for less than $30 a month. Although this was the best brand cash register, the representative told me that he just couldn’t beat my lease agreement and would usually just move on when I was selling in a particular area.”

Troy and his siblings learned about hard work growing up on their parent’s dairy farm. He and his brother also joined the Arkansas National Guard to help pay their tuition while attending college at Arkansas Tech University. But, with only a semester left to graduate, Troy’s unit mobilized to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

“When I was stationed there, most guys spent their free time gambling,” recalled Troy. “I decided to spend my time working to finish my degree. Arkansas Tech didn’t have any correspondence classes, but I found out that the University of Arkansas did. I took 30 hours from U of A in 11 months. So, when I got back, I had enough hours for a two-year degree.”

After being activated again during the Korean Conflict and serving overseas, Troy furthered his education at Fayetteville, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in business/marketing. His education helped him operate Burris Inc. through decades of change in technology. Today, nearly weightless digital and pocket calculators have replaced bulky 10-pound adding machines. Computers and printers have replaced the typewriter.

“I never would have envisioned that the office business and machines we sell would have changed so much in my life time,” said Troy. “I worked hard to stay one jump ahead of the changes in technology. If not, I would have been forced to close like some of the other businesses over the years.”

Diversity has allowed Burris Inc. to stay ahead of the game in the business world. During the early years, John’s Recording Studio was located in one of the adjacent buildings. So, Burris Inc. sold music records at the store. The store used to be the only place in town where you could purchase art supplies as well. Office furniture has also been a major part of the business since the days when Burris Inc. used the lease/purchase program. “A new business owner could come in to our store and purchase everything he needed to get set up in a business from furniture and machines to file-folders and paperclips,” said Troy.

Today, phone orders are still taken, but customers can order from an on-line website of nearly 40,000 products as well. The company prides itself on free local delivery said Troylynn McSpadden, Troy’s daughter and Burris Inc. employee since her high school days.

“A local banker can get on-line and log in what he needs for five different locations,” said Troylynn. “If it is placed by 1 p.m., we can deliver that same day.”

Troylynn’s husband, Roy McSpadden, joined Burris Inc. in 1980, and does much of the delivery work. He said he follows the influence of his father-in-law to be hands- on with the customers. Troy’s grandson, Ed McSpadden, joined the business in 2004. He continues the traditions that made Burris Inc. a River Valley success. “My grandfather’s philosophy has always been, if we can sell it, then we will carry it,” said Ed.

The flood of 1981 was a turning point in the decision to relocate the business from the original downtown West Main Street building.

“When I looked out and saw a boat going by in front of my store, I decided it was time to do something different,” recalls Troy. The current site at the corner of East Second Street and South Arkansas Avenue provides more parking space for customers, a larger warehouse, and higher ground.

Burris Inc. donated the original store site to Main Street Russellville for a park; a lasting memorial to some dear friends who lost their lives in a Little Rock plane crash.

“I don’t know anything I could have done over the years that has benefitted me more than donating that land for the park,” said Troy. “It has meant a great deal to me.”

Troy has served on several governing boards and has always been eager to give back to his community. He was named Russellville Citizen of the Year in 1988 and served as chairman of the Arkansas Ethics Committee. Troy was president of the Russellville Chamber of Commerce when the decision to build Arkansas Nuclear One was made.

“All that was out there where the power plant is today was corn fields,” said Troy. “The Chamber and other city leaders drove a big flatbed tractor/trailer into the middle of those fields to stand on and have a big welcoming ceremony to the company representatives who would be constructing the power plant. Most of those leaders are now gone, except me and Bill Newsom (past editor of The Courier).”

A handshake is a promise to “Mr. B” recalls Troylynn. “It has been wonderful working with my father. He is such a sweet man. I’m not going to say it’s always been easy opening and closing the business each day and having the responsibility. Things have changed so much since Dad started the business.”

One of the hardest workers of the family business was Margie Burris, Troy’s wife, who passed away earlier this year. “She wasn’t physically at the store 8 to 5 like we were, but worked harder than anybody on making our presence known in the community,” said Troylynn. “Mom loved the Chamber functions and going to social events. It sometimes wasn’t on our radar to go to a banquet or a Business-After-Hours of the Chamber after a full day of work, but she was always there.”

Burris Inc. will continue to modify its business to keep up with the changing world and providing products that customers need.

“I remember us buying a skid of copy paper and it lasting about six weeks,” said Troylynn. “Now, we go through about six skids in a week and probably make less than we did on the one skid in the past. They say we will eventually go to a paperless society, but I don’t see that happening soon. I am so thankful that we’ve had this business and been able to keep it going.”

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