Bluefield Daily Telegraph
As he was finishing eighth grade at Fairview Junior High School, Tom Cole decided to try his hand at running for the seat as treasurer in the up-coming class elections. At the time, his dad, W. Paul Cole Jr., had won his first term to serve on the Bluefield city board of directors, but Tom wasn’t as successful.
“I lost and dad won,” Tom Cole said. “I was devastated. Well, not really devastated, but I was disappointed.” Thomas “Tom” Cole, the youngest of the three sons of Paul and Carol Cole said. Still, he didn’t let that experience stop him from seeking election again in 2013. But this time, Tom Cole — like his father before him — was the top vote-getter in the 2013 election, and was later selected to serve as mayor when the new board reorganized. For the first time in history, Bluefield has father and son mayors.
Former Mayor Paul Cole, 81, was elected first elected to the city board in 1981, at a critical time in Bluefield history. In 1980, Bluefield Community Hospital moved from the downtown to a new campus on Cherry Street, and soon after, most of the anchor retail stores of the downtown headed outside of city limits to the new Mercer Mall, reflecting a major change in American shopping trends. The population of Bluefield peaked in 1950, and so-called “Hillbilly Highway” was taking new generations South in search of jobs.
“I never regretted one day that I spent as mayor of Bluefield,” Paul Cole said as he and Tom sat in the living room of his home in the section of town commonly referred to as Country Club Hill. “When I was mayor, no one ever said anything about being a Democrat or a Republican. I may have thought that one director was probably Democrat while another was probably Republican, but that wasn’t something we ever talked about.
“We were all there, we just tried to do the best we could for the city,” Paul Cole said. “I never had a thought that I should do this or do that because of political parties. When you work like that with no thought about what a political party might think of your decision, then you can get along real well.”
“Running for city board ... for me,” Tom Cole said, and paused to consider his response. “Bluefield has had a rough go for some time,” Tom Cole said. “I just felt like there needed to be some business people on the board. We have a diverse board with business, education, the legal profession and the arts represented. I feel like we have some tough and some unpopular decisions to be made. I feel like I’m tough enough to take the criticism after the decisions are made.”
“One thing that a board should always do is, if you have the time, you need to get as much public input as you can,” Paul Cole said.
“This board will be very transparent,” Tom Cole said. “We are a diverse group who will be bringing differing viewpoints to the position. Just like Mike Gibson said, we want to go out and have town hall style meetings in the communities to get input from the people.”
“I think it’s great that Tom has been elected to the board,” Paul Cole said. “He does have extremely good ideas. I’m confident that he will do a good job. We can start here by working to stop the losing. Losing Flowers Bakery ... Losing the mail sectional center ... Losing a grocery store. We need to stop the losing.”
The Cole family has a long history of success on a myriad of fronts. In the 1890s, less than a decade after the first coal shipments started moving through Bluefield in 1883, L.C. Cole, Paul’s great grandfather, brought his family to (then) Graham, Va., from their home in Smyth County, Va. L.C. Cole operated a grocery store — Cole & Holbrook Groceries in the West Graham section of Graham and the family lived at the store.
“My grandfather was 10 years old when his family moved to Bluefield, Va.,” Paul Cole said of William Jacob “W.J.” or “Uncle Bill” Cole. “He moved to Bluefield and started the Sunbeam Bakery in 1910. It was Kew Bee Bread, then Sunbeam before it was sold to Purity and they sold to Flowers. He also served a term on the Bluefield city board, and he was the developer and manager of the West Virginian Hotel. He worked with Eddie Steele on getting that lemonade promotion together. I got a letter from Nelson Walker from when he was the director of the Chamber. He said that ‘Uncle Bill’ was the first chairman of the lemonade committee.”
Cole’s father, W. Paul Cole Sr., was president of the bakery, but he also served on the board of Raleigh County Bank in Beckley. “He was a great Rotarian and was active at church. He chaired the committee that expanded the church in the 1950s, but he died at age 59 when he was pretty young,” Paul Cole said. “He didn’t get a chance to reach his full potential.”
The death of his father caused Paul Cole to change his plans. “I was working for IBM in New York, and my dad was here in Bluefield running Sunbeam,” Cole said. At the time, three of the senior Paul Cole’s brothers were all working at the bakery, and while none of them had the responsibilities of serving as president, “Uncle Bill” Cole insisted on paying them all the same wage because they were brothers.
Paul Cole said that a friend of his father’s who owned the Bluefield International Harvester franchise wanted to get out of the business, and the senior Paul Cole bought it for $7,000.
“I was living in New York, and Carol and we had two children at the time, Billy (State Senator Bill Cole R-Mercer) and Charlie (Charles Cole, owner of Cole Harley-Davidson). My father called and said come here and run this business,” Cole said. “I had a family, so I asked him how much it paid.” Cole said the response upset his father, and the job did not materialize.
However, not very long after the telephone conversation, the elder Paul Cole died. Paul returned home for the funeral, and while he was in Bluefield, representatives of International Harvester approached the young IBM executive and told him that he owed IH $30,000 to $31,000.
“It’s called a floor plan,” Tom Cole explained. He said that in the early days, automobile dealerships were similar to service stations. Manufacturers allowed dealerships to hold the cars on trust. “When we sell a car now, we pay the bank,” Tom Cole said. “They (International Harvester) came down, did their floor plan and wanted their money.”
This was in 1965. Paul Cole said he spoke with the dealership management and asked them what they did. “They wrote a check,” he said. “I asked them: ‘Do you have $30,000 in the bank to cover the check?’ They only had about $1,000 in the bank.” Cole collected some accounts payable and came up with an additional $5,000, then borrowed the rest of the money to make the check good.
“Dad has a great saying about what happened next,” Tom Cole said. “He went back to New York, talked to IBM and took a one year leave of absence that turned into a career. I think that’s what he says. It sounds really poetic.” Paul Cole just smiled.
Paul Cole’s uncles ran the bakery, while he started building the International Harvester business. While building that business, he became active in the state and national associations, eventually serving from 1878-80, as chairman of the National Association of Truck Dealers, an association that represents all of the truck dealers in the country.
“There was quite a bit of travel associated with that job,” Cole said. “I was away from home about 40-50 days a year.” He also worked with the West Virginia Auto & Truck Dealers Association where he worked to get the truck dealers to be part of the association.
Tom Cole has followed in his father’s footsteps in that respect as well. He served several years on the board of directors of the West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association and is currently president-elect of the association. “I’ll be president next June,” Tom Cole said.
In 1982, Paul Cole acquired the former Evans Chevrolet dealership that was located on Bland Street and is now part of the Cole Harley-Davidson complex. Paul Cole said he attributes the success of Cole Chevrolet to one thing. “I had three good sons work for me,” he said.
“One of the keys for myself and my father’s success is the quality of the people we have working for us,” Tom Cole said.
Tom Cole started working at Cole Chevy when he was at Fairview, walking from school to work to wash and detail cars and prepare them for sale. In 1987, he started working full time in the Cole Chevy service department. When he started, the dealership was only a half-mile walk from Fairview, but in 1987, Cole Chevrolet moved to its present location on U.S. Route 460 in Bluefield. Tom Cole is now the dealer/owner of Cole Chevrolet Cadillac Inc., along with 5 other businesses — Cole Collision Center LLC, Cole Truck Parts Inc., Cole Auto Outlet Inc., Hometown Service Center Inc., and Rock House Marina LLC — at 11 locations with 150 employees.
Like his father Paul, Tom Cole has worked to serve the community as vice president of the Alliance for the Arts, president of the Wade Center, on the board of directors of Second Chance for Cats Inc., and with the Bluefield Sales Executives. In 2009, Tom Cole was profiled in the “WV Executive Magazine” as a Young Gun.
Tom Cole said he follows his father’s example in the way he ran his business. “I set standards and hire good people to work for me,” he said. “I don’t micro-manage.
“The greatest thing that my dad did for me was to allow me to fail,” Tom Cole said. “He let us all have the opportunity to fail, but he didn’t give us enough rope to hang ourselves.”
“Or to hang me,” Paul Cole injected.
“He gave me the opportunity to try things without smothering me,” Tom Cole said. “He was always there as a resource, but he is not a micro-manager either. All three of us have been successful, but we couldn’t have done it without his initial support and trust.”
“My dad had three brothers and a brother-in-law in the bakery and my grandfather said that since they were all brothers, they had to make the same thing,” Paul Cole said. “He said that too many family members in the same thing isn’t good. That’s why I had three separate businesses,” Cole said with respect to Cole Motors, Cole Chevy and Truck City Parts. “That situation was far, far better than what my dad did.”
Paul Cole attended his son’s first board meeting on Aug. 13.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org