Passing the rockPublished 11:13am Monday, April 16, 2012
Following the death of their father in 1970, Tom and Bob Welle sat talking with their mother, who encouraged them to take over operation of the monument business their father had purchased some 20 years earlier.
“She said it would be worthwhile if we wanted to make it work,” Tom said.
“It was neat to have a good little business,” Bob said.
At the time of Ralph’s death, Tom had been home from military duty about a year, and Bob, 21, was serving in the Navy. Both had some basic knowledge of the business — Tom had worked with his father in sales and Bob had worked in the shop prior to entering the service.
The two decided to take on the business. Neither one had management or accounting experience, so Bob went to the community college for an accounting degree, he said.
Now 43 years later, as Bob’s sons prepare to take over the helm in the not-too-distant future, the elder Welle brothers say they made the right decision.
“It was slim pickin’s at the time,” said Tom, “but it’s grown and we’ve been fortunate.”
In the early years, there were many who helped the brothers, including their landlord. He charged them just $150 in rent or they would never have made it, the Welles agreed.
The brothers hail from Melrose. Ralph had purchased the monument company, with his brother, Gilbert, and they had made a living selling granite gravemarkers, eventually from a location on East Lincoln Avenue, next to the former Lantern Cafe.
Early on, the brothers knew they had to grow the business, so with no sales experience, Bob put together a promotional kit and hit the road. He still remembers an early sale that was lost to a competing monument company.
Being so young, they counted on many people to help them along the way.
Tom points to the expertise of Harry Noyes; good shop people — Mark Hermes is still with them in the shop — and Jim Wilkins, who helped with the accounting, as well as many, many others.
“We had a lot of help along the way,” Tom said. “We’ve had some good employees.”
It was their father’s dream to build a new facility, have some room and put up a nice display, they said.
That dream was realized in 1977, when Tom and Bob built their store on Pebble Lake Road.
The Welles early on divided up the tasks of the business, with Tom on road as the primary salesman and Bob handling much of the day-to-day business and the accounting.
Now Bob’s sons, Ryan and Mike are learning the business, and also finding their strengths. Ryan, with his uncle as a mentor, is working in sales, while Mike is the design guy.
“We are still working out the details,” said Mike, “but we have a plan (for working together.)”
The elder brothers seem relaxed and comfortable with each other, but they admit some decisions saw them on opposite sides. However, respect for each other, recognizing individual strengths and their relationship as brothers has helped them reach compromises, they said.
In 1996, the Welles bought a countertop business, which they operated until Ryan bought the business in 2006. He sold it last year to Jason Nelson, who operates it today.
It was fun business, Bob said.
“I got my first hug doing countertops,” he said. “Not something I experienced in the memorial business.”
The brothers emphasized the business has been good to them.
“It’s been a nice business,” Tom said. “We’ve met so many nice people. I hope I can do this until I can’t walk anymore.”
They didn’t want to build an empire, they agree, but rather they wanted to offer a quality product at a price people could afford.
“We could charge more,” Bob said. “But we are selling to our parents’ friends now and I wouldn’t feel right increasing prices. We wanted to make a living (off the business) and yet live along the way.”