One of the fastest-growing large corporations in the 1960s and '70s was a company started and directed by a man who grew up in rural Cass County.
Bertin "Bert" Gamble, along with childhood friend Phil Skogmo, formed a business partnership in 1920. The business that they started later became a chain of Gamble stores that mainly sold auto parts but later expanded into hardware, appliances, clothing, enamel ware, household utensils, paints, wallpaper and garden and lawn supplies.
In 1928, the partnership was incorporated as Gamble-Skogmo Inc. (GSI), which went international in 1945 after acquiring the 270 Macleod Hardware outlets in western Canada. Two years later, GSI went public when they were placed on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. However, the company received a severe blow on New Year’s Eve in 1949 when Skogmo, the president of the corporation, died.
Gamble and Skogmo had worked closely together for 30 years to build a thriving enterprise, and the death of Skogmo left a significant void in the company. Gamble, who moved into the role as president, had two children and had groomed his son, Jerry, to eventually play a major role with GSI. However, Skogmo’s death hastened Jerry’s entrance into the company in an executive role when he was named vice-president.
I was not able to find any major acquisitions by GSI during the 1950s, so it appears that most of the company’s efforts were in consolidating, refining, and growing their current holdings. This changed during the '60s when GSI acquired a number of sizable companies. Between April 27, 1961, and March 1962, GSI acquired 50.12% of the stock of the General Outdoor Advertising Co. General “was the largest company in outdoor advertising in the United States,” and through acquisitions, it also controlled “the largest outdoor advertising company in Canada” and “the largest Mexican outdoor advertising company.”
In 1962, GSI “expanded into mass merchandising by forming its Tempo Stores division.” Tempo Stores were essentially mini-malls that included “the following departments: auto supplies, small appliances, clothing apparel, hardware, housewares, luggage, sporting goods, home furnishings, jewelry, fabrics and notions, cosmetics and photo supplies.”
In the Midwest and the northern Mountain States, Tempo enterprises expanded quickly during the 1960s. Also in 1962, GSI purchased Stedmans, a variety discount department store chain that operated 286 stores throughout Canada. Later that year, Gamble purchased the bulk of the 3.4 million shares of the Alleghany Corp., a holding company whose interests included the New York Central Railroad and, more importantly, Investors Diversified Services, a Minneapolis-based large mutual fund company.
He purchased these controlling shares from the Murchison brothers, Clint Jr. and John. Clint Murchison Jr. is best known as the founder and long-time owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team. According to an article in the Oct. 19, 1962, issue of Time magazine, Gamble was believed to be the big winner in the purchase. The Murchisons allegedly sold their shares in Alleghany because of a “running feud” that they had with Allan P. Kirby, a New Jersey financier who owned 33% of the shares of the company. Not long after Gamble purchased his shares, he also found himself in frequent altercations with Kirby.
On Feb. 25, 1963, the body of Jerry Gamble was found in his car parked in the garage of his home in Minneapolis. The cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning, and the sheriff declared the death to be “accidental.” Soon after the death of Jerry, his father sold his shares in Alleghany.
In 1964, Gamble entered the catalog merchandising field when he purchased the large Chicago-based Aldens operation, the fourth-largest mail order distributor in the U.S. The purchase of Aldens increased the number of products GSI had available (i.e. toys, books, etc.), and since Aldens also sold life insurance, GSI could now sell policies.
In January 1966, GSI merged with the Founders Incorporated Holding Co., which brought in a women’s clothing chain, Mode O’Day, as well as the wide-ranging groups of variety stores Cussins & Fearn, Buckeye Marts and Rasco. Later that year, GSI acquired the House of Fabrics chain and “formed the Gambles Import Corp. to direct the purchase of goods made overseas.”
Early in 1967, GSI formed the Gamble Development Co., a real estate subsidiary, to develop and lease shopping centers. In June, GSI took a major step by entering into the supermarket and drug store chain business when they purchased the 400-store Red Owl chain, headquartered in the Minneapolis suburb of Hopkins, Minn. Red Owl was originally owned and operated by a private investment firm affiliated with General Mills, and once it became part of the GSI network, many Red Owl stores operated in conjunction with the Tempo stores. With the purchase of Red Owl, GSI also acquired the 62 Snyder Drug stores.
With the large and very diverse enterprises that had been acquired by GSI up to 1970, Gamble decided to spend much of his time and energy improving and expanding his existing businesses. He did purchase the 24-store Woman’s World clothing chain in the early 1970s, but Gamble’s most significant decision of the decade was the launching of home improvement centers in the fall of 1974. The focus of the centers was on audio-visual equipment, and even though the company got a late start in the year selling the equipment, the centers accounted for a very large percentage of total sales for GSI in 1974.
Variety magazine published a lengthy article on Sept. 22, 1974, about how GSI had revolutionized the audio-visual industry. Every year from then on, GSI had sales that went well beyond the billion dollar mark, and Gamble was affectionately labeled “The Last of the Main Street Merchants.”
With such a large and diverse corporation, Gamble believed he needed the best legal advice available, so he hired William F. Casey to be the company’s chief attorney. Casey had served as chairman of the Export-Import Bank, as well as many other key official positions. In 1977, he resigned from GSI to become Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign manager. After Reagan was elected president, he selected Casey to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
After struggling with health issues, Gamble stepped down as chairman of GSI in September 1977. Three years later, the company was sold to the Wickes Corp. The crowning honor bestowed upon Bertin Gamble occurred in 1972 when he received the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. Gamble died on March 1, 1986.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.