The way business is conducted in Columbia, as well as every other metropolitan area in the United States, has evolved over the past several decades. Technological innovations and new forms of media have made for faster communication, more effective advertising and greater access to goods and services. However, there are still a few people around today who can truly say they knew the business climate in Columbia 60 to 70 years ago. Columbia is most fortunate to have the benefit of their perspectives on the way business practices have changed, for better and worse.
Crawford Clarkson, 92, has been a CPA for more than 60 years. His father held the first CPA certificate that was issued in South Carolina and began an accounting firm in 1915. Crawford assisted his father in the summers during high school and traveled with him on extended visits to clients’ workplaces. After serving in the Navy in the North Atlantic and Pacific in World War II, Crawford attained his CPA certificate in 1948 (the 128th issued in South Carolina). He was recalled to service in the armed forces during the Korean War, returning to Columbia a year later in 1953. He attended law school while simultaneously maintaining his accounting practice, and he became a member of the South Carolina Bar in 1955. He continues to maintain his bar membership, although he has kept his focus on accounting throughout his career, helping to build one of the most successful accounting firms in the state.
Crawford has seen the business world move from dependence on personal contacts to a dependence on technology. He marvels at the size of the universe that we operate in today. As he says, “Today you can get on an airplane one day and be in London the next morning. Back when I first started, we had trouble getting from town to town!” Speed, efficiency and time management have supplanted getting to know one’s clients personally — their families, their businesses and their problems. That change is worrisome, he says. He recalls spending a lot of time in the offices of some of South Carolina’s oldest and most respected companies, rendering advice and making sure their accounting was sound. Now, much of the work is done by computers.
Crawford relates that in his early days, all of the professionals in town worked six days a week. Eventually, the work week contracted to five and a half days, then five days, and now, he says, “It seems like a lot of people are only working a half day on most Fridays.” Despite the longer work week in those days, during the summertime Columbia largely shut down, due in no small part to the “Famously Hot” weather and the lack of air conditioning.
Crawford fondly remembers a great sense of camaraderie among the professional ranks of lawyers, accountants and businessmen. It was customary to do business on a handshake, because one’s word was his bond. “If others could not rely on you to follow through with your promises, you weren’t going anywhere in business,” Crawford says. Why? Because the business community was small enough that everyone knew each other and how they did business, which reinforced the bonds of trust that supported the conduct of business in the relatively small Columbia of the 40s and 50s.
Crawford remembers many businesspeople gathering at the United Cigar Store at the corner of Main and Washington streets, the Capitol Restaurant and the Metropolitan Café on Main. Lawyers gathered on the sidewalk along the “Law Range” on Washington Street. It was in these informal, sometimes fortuitous, meetings where a lot of deals were struck, conflicts were resolved and plans were hatched for new economic initiatives.
If a conflict developed with a client, Crawford would write the client a letter, and not mail it, but rather hand deliver it to him. He would sit in front of the client as he read the letter and try to work out the problem right then. That personal touch kept conflicts to a minimum and often led to quick resolutions. Modern methods of communication allow for much misunderstanding and the possibility for small problems to become much larger, Crawford says. He continues to advocate for managing a client’s expectations to avoid surprises and conflicts altogether.
T. Russ Rooney graduated from The Citadel and served in World War II before starting Rooney & McArthur, a property and casualty insurance agency.
T. Russell Rooney, 96, a native of Charleston, moved to Columbia in 1937 after graduating from The Citadel with a degree in civil engineering. “We were in the middle of the Great Depression,” he says. “There was nothing being built anywhere.” He began working as an engineer in the insurance industry at a salary of $75 a month. “Money was a scarce commodity, but everybody was in the same boat. We got along just fine.” As an example, he remembers checking the morning paper to see which store had the 10 cent breakfast – a full Southern style breakfast, not just toast and coffee. “Another difference,” he remembers, “is that everyone worked at least until noon on Saturdays.”
The economy started improving, then World War II began. “I joined the army in November 1941 and spent three and a half years chasing Japanese from Australia to the Philippines. Then they dropped the big bomb on Japan, and I was able to return to Columbia.”
On returning to Columbia in 1946, Russ got connected to insurance again, eventually forming his own agency in 1948. Seven years later, Palmer McArthur joined him, and the company became known as Rooney & McArthur. “Incidentally,” Russ says, “Crawford Clarkson’s company helped us a great deal throughout our careers.” Both Russ and Palmer were heavily involved in community activities. “We both enjoyed our involvement and like to think we did some good. We found it satisfying and broadening.”
In 1995, Russ and Palmer sold the business to the salesmen who worked for them. “It was a wonderful partnership of many years with a lot of great people in our organization,” Russ says. “The business today, I am happy to report, is an exceptionally successful company known as KeenanSuggs.”
John R. Folsom began his career in banking as a loan officer before becoming president of the bank. He served in the Navy in World War II, entering as a Seaman and finishing as a Lieutenant.
John R. Folsom, 93, grew up in Hartsville, S.C., and graduated from Furman University in 1940 with a degree in business. He was a born entrepreneur and a born leader. He served in the Navy in World War II, entering as a Seaman and finishing as a Lieutenant. His career in banking led him from being a loan officer with Liberty Life Building and Loan to becoming president of Home Federal Savings and Loan in 1963, which later became South Carolina Federal Savings Bank, the largest banking institution of its kind in the state. He changed the banking industry in Columbia by actively seeking new business.
Up until his arrival, Columbia’s banking community had operated rather passively — the general understanding was that clients would come if they needed banking services. John, and the legions of young bankers whom he trained, would call upon prospective clients and seek time with them to ask for their business, rather than wait for it to come in the door. Such a simple gesture, now second nature to those in modern-day Columbia, was an entirely new concept in the 1960s. John’s success did not just depend on assertive marketing; he preached the singular importance of offering a quality product or service and getting it right the first time. That commitment instilled confidence and loyalty in his customers. And that, John says, is the key component to a successful business, whether it operated 50 years ago or today.
During his storied career, John was not afraid to hire those he considered smarter than himself. In his words, “I wanted to hire someone who could take my job.” But with his gregarious personality and commitment to success, his job was never in danger.
John has invested his time heavily in community and social organizations throughout his life, forging friendships and important business associations that propelled him, and the banking community, forward.
John Gregg McMaster’s career in law started during the Great Depression and has spanned almost 75 years. He also joined the Navy during World War II and served stateside running the gas rationing program in South Carolina.
John Gregg McMaster was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1938, and he continues to practice law today at the age of 98. He remembers well what it was like to begin his career during the Depression. He lived at the YMCA with several other young professionals, including Russ Rooney. The rent was quite reasonable, and the accommodations were very comfortable. After passing the bar, he joined the Navy, but he could not pass the physical due to a heart murmur. He worked stateside running the gas rationing program in South Carolina during WWII, reflecting that everyone wanted to do something to help, even if they could not actively serve.
John Gregg now has the good fortune to practice with his sons, but in the early part of his career he practiced with John Hughes Cooper, a lawyer and major player in the early development of Columbia. John Hughes was an old school attorney who found modern conveniences — like telephones — to be wholly unnecessary. He and John Gregg shared one telephone and would pass the receiver through a hole they cut in the wall that separated their offices. They also had no law books, and because the old Richland County Courthouse did not have air conditioning, occasionally in the summer court would be held outside.
In John Gregg’s early days, lawyers tried many more cases than they do today. A client might bring a dispute to a lawyer and expect to have the case go to trial within a few weeks. This expeditious means of dispute resolution made for a business-friendly environment in Columbia. The increasing complexity of modern life has led to more complicated disputes and more effort focused upon the pre-trial process lawyers call “discovery,” which was largely non-existent decades ago. Now, John Gregg says, lawyers are much more prepared when they go in the courtroom, but the time it takes to get there is longer. In his early days, John Gregg used his keen knowledge of procedure and evidence to stay ahead of his opponents in the courtroom. Outside the practice of law, he kept his mind and body sharp by playing basketball after work — until the age of 75.
Darnall “Donny” Boyd graduated from UVA following his service in the Navy. During his career in real estate, he has played a large part in developing land into productive commercial and residential projects throughout South Carolina and several other states.
Darnall “Donny” Boyd, 85, grew up in Columbia and graduated from Dreher High School. He started his college education at the University of South Carolina, but he was interrupted by an 18-month stint in the United States Navy. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1950. Although he has spent the majority of his career in real estate development, he got his start when he and Walter Keenan opened the Cotton Patch Drive-In that sold hamburgers and beer on the corner of Millwood Avenue and Devine Street. These young entrepreneurs conceived this idea over drinks on the porch of Forest Lake. Sixty days from the night Donny and Walter put their heads together, they were able to borrow the money, purchase the land, build the building and throw open the doors for business. “Business certainly can’t be done like that anymore,” Donny reflects. After six months, he knew that was not going to be a long-term endeavor. He then went into construction, but he had an epiphany while working atop a roof on a 100-degree day. Taking a cue from his friend, Heath Manning, he decided to move into real estate development – taking large tracts of raw land and subdividing them into lots to create new neighborhoods.
Aided by population shifts from urban centers into the suburbs, both in Columbia and elsewhere, Donny began buying land in the 1950s and commenced a remarkable string of successful projects, including 80 multi-family apartment complexes over a 15-year period. He has tried to seize as many opportunities as he could during his work life. With vision and a singular devotion to succeed, Donny has played a large part in developing land into productive commercial and residential projects throughout South Carolina and several other states. He bemoans the impediments to future development that have arisen as a result of increased regulation and heightened competition, but he continues to persevere and find success despite such obstacles.
Each of these remarkable business leaders says that honesty in business dealings is at the heart of a successful career. They uniformly lament the loss of the personal touch that graced the business community in Columbia decades ago. However, they all recognize that the development of Columbia’s business environment — in which they have each played an integral part — has required the city to embrace new methods, new technologies and new people. Those changes have, by necessity, resulted in the loss of the small, close-knit community that once constituted Columbia’s business marketplace. However, these men stress that relationships remain at the heart of business. Those relationships must be based upon trust and responsiveness, as client and customer loyalty come from the consistent delivery of a quality product or service.
The work ethic of these gentlemen is a hallmark of their success and, perhaps, of their longevity. Taking pleasure in work and in doing it well has sustained each of them through long careers. They would advise young business leaders not to expect success without long hours and a sustained commitment to their clients and their ideas.
Columbia is fortunate to count these fine men among its ranks and would not be the thriving, forward-thinking community that it is without their influence.