WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - When R.J. Harris was looking for work in the late 1950s, he stumbled into an unemployment office that referred him to a company that sold nuts, bolts and other fasteners.
Little did the soft-spoken Lumbee Native know at the time that this seemingly transitional job would develop into a labor of love and eventually his own company, Southern Fasteners and Supply Inc.
Harris, now 67, opted out of college, which he said might have contributed to him going through 20 years of on-the-job training. ''I had to learn the hard way,'' he said. ''It had to be on-the-job learning and training.''
When Harris started out in the nuts and bolt industry, he said that he viewed it filled with promise as machines slowly replaced people and those people moved to cities in search of jobs. He especially noticed this change occurring in the farming industry.
Instead of remaining an employee in the industry, in 1972 he and his wife opened up their first business. But he said it was underfunded, and instead of going under he sold it and moved on.
With that learning experience behind him, he opened Southern Fasteners in 1982. The company has grown past offering just nuts and bolts to its customers to include a quality assurance program, labeling, bin service, computer-aided design drawing and much more.
Southern Fasteners offers more than 20,000 items from its inventory. Aside from offering a variety of nuts and bolts, washers, anchors, socket products, wire hardware, cutting tools and screws are sold.
The company supplies parts for nuclear power plants and gas pumps, as well as specialty parts that hold factory production line machines together.
In 1993, Harris' only child and daughter, Donna Goins, decided to follow in her father's footsteps.
She originally went to college for architecture and traveled a great deal in her former career, but with three young daughters in tow, working close to home became appealing. So with some encouragement from her father, she opted to dive right in and learn all she could about the business.
He said he was shocked when she asked for the office next to his. He explained that she wanted to be next to him so she could absorb as much of the day-to-day operations as possible and learn sales techniques to increase their client base.
''We get along really good,'' she said. ''Everything I learned, I learned from him.''
Goins, 41, humbly refers to her title with the company as sales manager, but her father fondly refers to her as the vice president. As she has slowly assumed a leadership role in the company, Harris has branched out and has traveled to meet more of his customers, and now spends less time in the office.
''A lot of stuff he taught me, he has already forgotten,'' she said in a humorous tone.
Parts of his travels entail implementing the quality assurance program that the company offers to help keep customers up and running and their equipment safe.
For example, Southern Fasteners has a contract with South Carolina Electric & Gas, among numerous clients. Representatives are available around the clock in the event that a part they supply malfunctions. ''It does not matter if it's Saturday or Sunday; we have to respond to those requests,'' Harris said.
The company also offers bin maintenance for nearly 150 companies. Depending on individual needs, this inventory service is provided weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. ''We use scanners to check for inventory,'' he said.
Labeling services are also a common request of customers. Harris said this is a perfect solution for a company that wants to ship parts directly from Southern Fasteners to their customer, but they want only their company name on the label.
The CAD drawing is reserved for clients who need an idea of what kind of machinery and hardware they need to run their business.
''We are just the middleman,'' Goins said. ''We break it down and get it out to the end users.''
The average cost for an item is 12 cents to 15 cents apiece, but can run astronomically higher depending on the item. ''You can't imagine a bolt costing $5,000, but it does happen: you just never know,'' she said.
Being a minority-owned company gives Southern Fasteners some advantages, but both father and daughter said they still have to compete with the bigger companies. In addition to their corporate office in North Carolina, they have offices in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee.
The Southeastern Fasteners Association and National Fastener Distributors Association endorse them. To learn more about the services available, call (800) 642-0921 or visit www.southernfasteners.com.