Sunday, June 12, 2011

EYE CANDID: Moving Downtown with the Mysterious Mr. Odle

A quiet Columbia power broker turned downtown mega-developer  

COLUMBIA, 6/12/11  (Beat Byte) --  Sapp, Atkins, Burnam, Waters, Lindner, Mendenhall...Odle?   I'd heard all the names except for the last one back in 2007, when the Columbia Business Times published a list of Boone County's most prominent "business" families.

When I asked about Bruce Odle (right) -- patriarch of the clan behind Trittenbach Development and a string of student apartments -- one wag answered simply enough:  "He's an arms dealer."  
An arms dealer?  Building apartments for the kiddos?  You might think that if you visited the family business, Odle Sales, online.   

More accurately, Mr. Odle (rhymes with "yodel") is a manufacturer's representative in commercial sporting goods and law enforcement, which includes some heavy-duty artillery.   According to his resume, however, Odle's claim to fame has nothing to do with firing lead bullets.  He won a Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” award for breaking the world record in archery distance shooting back in 1977. 
"Bruce Odle, 23, of Clearfield, Utah used a handheld bow strung at 119 pounds to shoot an arrow 1,077 yards, three inches and break his world flight record—set last year—at the National Archery Association Flight Championships near Wendover, Utah," the citation reads.
Policy Driver
Between 1854 and 1929, some 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children journeyed to new homes in forty-seven U.S. states and Canada on so-called "orphan trains".   PBS documented the "Orphan Train Movement" that would bring a a young boy from New York -- Bruce Odle's great-grandfather Conrad Trittenbach -- to Kansas in 1911.  
Genealogical research found that Conrad was taken in by a family named Odle -- the last name Conrad took because, at the time, he couldn't remember Trittenbach.  
Great grandson Bruce Odle came to Columbia from Utah, where Conrad and wife Grace Homewood ultimately settled.   He started Odle Sales in 1983.  Over time, Odle amassed a rental property portfolio that reports say he turned over to his sons, Nathan and Jon, who together with their father now "seem to be the most active developers in Columbia," the Business Times reported.  
So active, in fact, reports say they might even absorb the development assets of another family on that most prominent list, the Lindners.
With Brookside Townhomes stretching from Old Plank Road to downtown Columbia, and a proposed 4-story, 100-unit student apartment complex on the corner of College and Walnut Streets the Business Times reported "could set a significant precedent for the city’s development policies," the Odle family is doing what many developers do in our fair community -- driving development policy, rather than the other way around.
It is at least partly for the Odles that City Hall is building yet another downtown garage near Short Street, barely a block from College and Walnut.  At the same time, if any single company will bring residential life to Columbia's downtown District, it will likely be Trittenbach building in bulk, rather than historic preservationists such as John Ott, renovating a limited supply of existing structures. 
Bruce Odle writes to this publication on occasion, but as this note in the Business Times suggests, doesn't sit for interviews about his projects:  "The Odles, who rarely talk to the media, were unavailable for comment."    Hence this Internet-based  "i-candid" profile.
Better Mousetrap
You've probably heard of the inventor with the better mousetrap who goes broke trying to get his or her product to market.  Sure, it's a great idea.
Sure it works much better than the competition.  But the visionary engineering skills required to design and build new products aren't the same skills necessary to sell them, and with rare exception -- most notably, Apple's Steve Jobs --  the two skill sets aren't found in the same person.

Enter a company like Odle Sales, which begins its About page with a business maxim:  "Sales representation is an important part of the success of Manufacturers, Distributors, and Dealers."
Without a sales team, the inventor or manufacturer with the better mousetrap will never change the world, and never be rewarded for all that hard work.  But few manufacturers have the multi-divisional heft of a Microsoft or GE, and so outsource sales to a contract representative like Odle, whose clients include smaller companies such as Bulldog Cases, Battenfeld Technologies, and Pro Mag Industries
Odle Sales also acknowledges something that nearly a decade running an environmental laboratory and consulting firm taught this author:  The sales representative can be the end user's -- the customer's -- best friend as well. 
"Selling Through"
"Odle Sales philosophy is to 'Sell the Product Through,'" the site informs.  "This philosophy focuses on the end user...which helps the Dealer and Distributor complete the sale." 
To "sell the product through," sales reps have to straddle a divide -- they have to know the needs of their customers; the capabilities of the products they sell; and the ins and outs of the companies they represent.  For new customers, they may have to negotiate pricing and terms.  And if the customer has a problem with any part of the manufacturer, from billing to shipping to product performance, the sales representative will become a dispute mediator if he/she wants to preserve the client relationship. 
For Odle Sales, selling through means hosting customer-driven events, like shooting competitions.  It also means showing customers how to use products -- aligning a rifle scope, for instance, or how to wear protective glasses.
When I first opened shop, five laboratory equipment sales reps vied for my business.  I hadn't established credit, so I told the reps that the first company to extend me credit for 30 days -- aka "net 30" -- would get all of my business.  The sales rep from Fisher Scientific secured those terms, and picked up tens of thousands of dollars in yearly sales as a result.  
That's another example of "selling through" -- going the extra mile, beyond just making the sale. 
Family links
Other than over the occasional development scuffle -- most notably student housing on Old Plank Road -- the Odles have appeared for years in Columbia news reports as a traditional mid-West family, committed to high school, hometown -- and the American Dream.

Daughter Elissa opened the Studio E hair salon in 2005, the same year she married a young civil engineer named James Gladish. 
Son Jon -- one half of Trittenbach -- has appeared some 70 times in Columbia Daily Tribune stories chronicling his life on the links as a Hickman Kewpie golf champion -- a game he's shared with father Bruce at local tournaments.   
"Jon Odle had to reach down deep for the killer instinct to win the three-day tournament," a 1999 story reported.   "Considering he was tied with best friend and Hickman teammate Caleb Walker, that killer instinct was a little tougher to find." 
They say golf is good practice for business, and the Odle clan clearly plays to win.  But as in golf, so life and business.  Both father and son once suffered a tough defeat on the links.
"Hickman golfer Ryan Schultz ruined the day for the Odle family," the Trib reported back in 1997.   "Schultz, younger brother of former state amateur champion Jason Schultz, knocked off high school teammate Jon Odle 7 and 5 in the morning round, and then defeated Bruce Odle, Jon's father, 4 and 3 to advance to next weekend's competition." 
Knowing that ups and downs lurk around every corner, the family tradition seems to emphasize another business asset -- low-profile humility.  Even with friends bragging about his "killer instincts," Jon Odle maintained a humble demeanor during that winning 1999 tournament. 
"Once he gets going, you really can’t stop him," said Caleb Walker.  "Jon was just playing so steady.  It was par after par -- he wasn’t making any big mistakes.  When he gets focused, he usually doesn’t mess up."
"I guess I found my putter again," said Jon Odle. "I was able to make some par putts that kept me going."

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