by Mary Wilson
The Armacost family was in the car business. As Don Armacost Jr. says, his grandfather opened his first car dealership in 1923 in Cincinnati, and after opportunity struck in Indianapolis in 1926, he moved and became the sponsor of three Indy drivers, whose cars were marked Armacost Special. He then was offered a position in Kansas City as a master dealer, which entailed every car in the metro’s 16 counties going through him.
“Dad grew up in that business,” said Armacost Jr. “So did his younger brother. It got to the point where Dad realized that that car dealership, at 14th and Baltimore, wasn’t going to provide all of them with the lifestyle they wanted.”
Armacost’s grandfather, he said, who could care less about cars and was just in it for making money, was always looking for businesses. In 1956, he had a little company called Peterson Manufacturing come across his desk, located in a dump at 14th and Chestnut in Kansas City. Armacost Sr. asked his father if he could look at it. Started in 1945 by Wilbur Peterson, who had two businesses at the time, Peterson Manufacturing made several things including bicycle pumps and, eventually, vehicle lighting.
“Dad bought the company with a loan from Crosby Kemper,” said Armacost. “I started working there in the summer of 1957, at 14 years old, sweeping floors, straightening stock, and such. Because of my age, I couldn’t be on the payroll. So, I was ‘miscellaneous expenses.’ I got 75-cents an hour. Which was enough to keep gas in my motorcycle.
“It’s amazing that he took a leap of faith. He didn’t know anything about the industry,” Armacost added about his father. “He was a very brilliant guy. A smart learner.”
Peterson Manufacturing, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, came out with the first color catalog in the lighting industry, and for three-quarters of a century, has remained a leader in lighting innovation, technology, and service internationally.
When the Armacosts took over, Peterson didn’t have a chair for anyone to sit on, and made employees pay a dime a cup for their coffee. As business grew, Armacost Sr. decided he needed to get out of, what Armacost Jr. refers to as, the hole-in-the-wall.
“Mr. Peterson went crazy when he heard that my father put chairs in there for everybody,” said Armacost. “And then we provided coffee. He actually came down and stood on our shipping dock and gave my father a hard time, calling him a big shot. Dad looked at him and said, ‘Mr. Peterson, you don’t seem to understand that I own this business now, and if you don’t leave right now, I will physically throw you off the shipping dock.’”
A new facility was built in 1960 in the Swope Park Industrial District, surrounded by the Little Blue River. A dock-high building, the first year Peterson Manufacturing was in operation there, it flooded within a foot of the business. It got so bad that only three people remained, including Armacost Sr. and the business owner from across the street, whose building was ground level and had flooded.
“The guy from across the street put his head on my dad’s shoulder and said, ‘Don, I’m ruined,” said Armacost. “My dad looked at him and said, ‘Ewing, I think you’ll be just fine.’ As in Ewing Kauffman.”
The company outgrew the facility and expanded, adding another 30,000 square feet, in 1965. By the late 1960s, Peterson Manufacturing was again out of space with no room to expand further. They were looking at building a 100,000 square-foot facility with an additional 12,000 square-foot of office space in Kansas, a right-to-work state. Clipper Manufacturing Company, located at 4200 E 135th Street in Grandview, was for sale and empty. At that time, the building was 225,000 square feet with 45 acres of ground space surrounding it.
“I remember walking in it with my dad, and when you see a building that big that’s empty, we just kind of said that it was way too much,” said Armacost. “So, we made an offer of exactly what we thought we were going to pay in Kansas, and I’ll be darned if they didn’t take it.”
In 1970, the office staff moved over, and the back part of the building, 90,000 square feet worth, was leased out, along with all the offices on the east side of the main entrance. In 1971, just prior to the rest of the move, Peterson Manufacturing was looking for someone with shipping experience, and hired Steve Sharp to join the team.
“This was so not going to be my career. I wasn’t going to do this,” said Sharp. This July, he will celebrate his 49th year with the company.
Sharp, who now serves as Director of Inventory, along with a handful of other employees, loaded 18 pallets with product to take to the new facility in Grandview in December of 1971.
“I came into the back doors, and though I had seen the building before, had not been in it,” said Sharp. “I put these pallets all back-to-back, and I thought, ‘this is insane.’ I knew it wasn’t going to work. It’s monstrous and we’ll never fill it up.”
Armacost said that, for years, 24 acres of the property was for sale. Luckily, though, that never sold, because Peterson Manufacturing would go through more growth over the next several decades. In 1987, Peterson doubled the space and, according to Sharp, stayed that way for a little while. In the early 1990s, Mission Plastics and Vector Tool and Engineering, which were part of the ownership’s group of companies, moved to the property in Grandview.
The Armacost car collection started with a 1947 Studebaker. Armacost Jr.’s first collectible car was a 1953 Studebaker, bought used from someone in Nashville, TN. From there, the collection grew, and grew. The restoration shop was built, and eventually they outgrew that.
“They couldn’t restore any more cars because they couldn’t get around the ones that were stored in there,” said Armacost Jr.’s daughter, Kristen Goodson, now the company’s Vice President of Product Management.
Armacost’s younger brother, David, convinced their dad that they needed to build a museum for the cars. The Armacost Car Museum opened in 1992.
“Plus, we needed the space,” said Armacost. “We took all the sixties-era chairs and furniture from Dad’s old office that were then scattered around the building, every bit of it, and put it in the office in there.”
Unfortunately, Armacost Sr. had a stroke, and after recovering from that, never had the time to devote to enjoying the museum and what was built as his office inside. He did, however, have some friends out to tour the museum on a few occasions, before his passing in 2000.
Peterson Manufacturing, along with the other companies it owns, now has around 600,000 square feet under roof in Grandview. Tunnels, completed in 2005, connect each building, so that business can take place between them rain or shine.
In 1956, when the Armacosts took over the operation of Peterson Manufacturing, they employed just under 50 workers. Today, Peterson Manufacturing and its subsidiaries employ over 600 in Grandview. A true locally-owned business, Armacost and his brother employ many members of their family. At one point, a change in the company’s name was discussed, but it was decided that with all the catalogs and publicity already out there, there wasn’t a real need.
“Quite often, I’m called Mr. Peterson,” said Armacost, “mostly by people who don’t know any better.”
Armacost has worked a variety of jobs at Peterson Manufacturing since he was first pushing that broom at 14. From shipping, to finished goods, warehousing, sales, billing and so on, his dad thought he might like to do accounting. However, he wanted to be where the action was in sales. That’s where he spent most of his career, until becoming President and CEO of the company upon his father’s retirement.
“Dad always drank martinis,” said Armacost. “He once told me, he said, ‘I never dreamed the company would be this size. I was just looking for a way to have a nice lifestyle for my wife and my children.’ His father was a taskmaster, and my dad was tough on me, too. Really tough. We were having cocktails on my deck one afternoon and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, I was really, really tough on you. But I was just trying to make you strong.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m strong enough, let’s call it quits, okay?’”
Over a drink at a Chiefs game, Armacost Sr. told Sharp that he couldn’t’ be happier with the way Peterson Manufacturing had come out.
“He said he was harder than hell on Don Jr.,” said Sharp. “He said, ‘But look what it’s done. Look at what he’s done now. Between those two boys, they’ve built something that I’ve never in my wildest dreams imagined.’”
While he was hard on his boys, and had high expectations, Armacost Sr. was also very charitable. It wouldn’t be unheard of for him to load up his car full of Christmas gifts for a family in need.
“I think he would be astonished at what he started,” added Goodson.
For a family in the car business, the Armacosts grew to love, and respect, the light business. And for 75 years, Kansas City, Missouri, the nation and the world, have respected them back ten-fold.