the rest, as they say, is history. Today Uncle Albert's Auto Stop and Gunnery Shop is one of the 100 biggest businesses in North America, and the single largest privately-owned company in the United States. Estimates of Albert's fortune are hard to come by, but the best guess available puts the figure at $850 million - and some estimates are as high as $1.4 billion.
We caught up with Albert at the Uncle Albert Corporate Headquarters and Proving Grounds. His office is large and well-appointed, but not flashy. The interview started there, but as you will see, Albert is a tough guy to keep in one place.
ADQ: Very impressive plant. But how much of it is necessary?
Unc Al: Honestly? Except for the live proving grounds, we could do the rest of it out of rented warehouse and office space. But I've worked long and hard to have a nice place to work in. And my employees deserve the best, too.
ADQ: Tell us a little about yourself.
Unc Al: Oh, the standard bio, huh? I was born in 1983 in Chicago, and just got out of high school when the Second Civil War broke out. I got drafted, but was lucky enough to spend my time in supply. I found out there that I had a flair for supply and distribution. When I got out, I went to Loyola and got a degree in business administration. It took a while to build the business, but here we are. I've been married for 23 years, and my wife Cathy and I have one child, James, who's 18
ADQ: You're obviously a good businessman, but how did you get started with cars? Why not some other line of work?
Unc Al: Cars are so ... American. I remember my first car, a '90 Buckingham. It was a real heap, but it got good mileage. This was 2000, remember, and gas was up to $4 a gallon or so. I remember even then, people loved their cars. And it wasn't easy to love cars then, either. Everything related to cars was horribly expensive. Lots of folks couldn't afford to drive 'em, but everybody owned one - just kept it in the driveway. Those were funny times. But I figured that if people would love their cars then, and spend money on them like they would a kid, that they always would. It seemed like the best business to be in.
ADQ: And then, later, you moved into duelling accessories.
Unc Al: Talk about your untapped gold mine! I knew, as far back as '24, that autoduelling would be a craze. it seemed like an easy step, since the Auto Stops were already well established as auto parts stores. And Edgar had some good ideas - he's always been more into the violence of duelling than I was - so in '27, we introduced our line. By '31, it was making so much money that I sold the auto parts side of the business and never turned back.
ADQ: I'd like to get back to your brother Edgar in a second ...
Unc Al: He's a great guy. We're a natural team.
ADQ: ... but I wanted to ask you about your personal feelings about autoduelling.
Unc Al: well, it's great for business. I don't watch it that much, though. All that death and blood ... I know people like to see it, but the Romans liked watching lions eat people, too. On the other hand, nobody's forcing anyone to participate. And like I said, it's good for business. This is not to run down duellists or fans. The people that go out in the arena have a lot of skill, and lots of courage ... it's just not my thing.
ADQ: What do you like to do?
Unc Al: When I'm not working, I like to spend my time at home. I've got a little basement workshop, and I build models.
Unc Al: Yeah, just about anything. I started with kits, but the past four or five years, I build strictly from scratch. I do ships, planes, cars, you name it. It takes me a couple of months to finish one, more if there's a lot to do here at the plant.
ADQ: We get the impression you spend a lot of time here.
Unc Al: Well, I take a two-week vacation every year. That's company policy - everybody who works for us must take two weeks off, paid, every year. But if it weren't for that rule, I'd be here then, too. I typically put in about 55 hours a week. There's a lot to do around here - new markets to explore, ad copy to write, franchise applications to screen.
ADQ: That doesn't give you much time to enjoy your money.
Unc Al: Well, that's true, but this company got to where it is today because I watched over it carefully, and because we do things my way. If I started paying less attention, things would go downhill - and I won't let that happen. And that talk about my money - it's overrated.
ADQ: Being rich is overrated?
Unc Al: No, the amount of money I have is overrated.
ADQ: But we've heard some pretty amazing numbers...
Unc Al: I read that same speculatory trash, and I have to laugh. I'm certainly doing all right - I've got a very prosperous business, and I got a tidy sum when I sold the auto parts business, and I have made some pretty smart investments, but there's no way I'm worth a billion dollars. That's the silliest thing I ever heard.
ADQ: How much is the business worth?
Unc Al: That depends on how you look at it. From an accountant's point of view, we're worth about $350 million. But I wouldn't sell if for twice that ... well, maybe I would sell it for twice that ... no, I wouldn't. This business is my life, and besides, what would I do with all that money? At least now, I've got a place to go in the mornings.
ADQ: Let's get back to your brother, Edgar. How does he fit in?
Unc Al: Edgar and I are a perfect team. I couldn't have built this business without him - but he couldn't have done it without me, either. Edgar's a tinkerer and inventor, always has been. He kept that old Buckingham going for years after it should have been in the junkyard. he's not only very creative, but he's complete. He covers all the angles, and finds the weird side effects and unexpected combinations before the product hits the market. We've had a reputation for high quality and good design for years, and Edgar's responsible for it. He's the best.
ADQ: And where do you come in?
Unc Al: I'm the marketing wizard. I know what will sell just by being available, and I know what has to be pushed. I know where to push it, and how hard. Edgar has yet to come up with the gadget that I can't sell. But it's not all done with mirrors. At their heart, our products are useful, dependable, and high-quality. Those kind of products are much easier to sell.
ADQ: How do you decide what products to sell?
Unc Al: It's a group decision. I value Edgar's judgment a lot - and we've got a good staff. I rarely go against their recommendations. I figure I'm not the expert - just the salesman.
ADQ: How much testing do you do?
Unc Al: Enough to satisfy ourselves that the product will do what we say it will do, and do it safely, efficiently, and effectively. We are, of course, in compliance with all applicable product safety regulations - both state and federal. But our own policies, to tell you the truth, are much more strict.
ADQ: Not all of your products have passed this test, I assume.
Unc Al: Not hardly. That's what our proving grounds are for. We've got 80 acres of tracks, roads, buildings, bunkers, labs, you name it, just to test products. Come on, I'll show you. (At this point, Albert bounded out of his chair and headed down the hall. Our interviewer reports, "He moves pretty good for an older guy. I had trouble keeping up.")
ADQ: Where are we now?
Unc Al: This is a room that's not on the regular tourist tour. Every new research engineer, developer, product tester, and ad writer we hire has to spend a few days in here. We keep all our failures in here.
ADQ: Your failures?
Unc Al: Yeah, all the products that didn't work out, or had a side effect we hadn't counted on, or just didn't sell. We've got some actual samples in here, plus lots of video tape from testing sessions and product demonstrations. Some of it's pretty funny.
ADQ: Most people try to forget the things that go wrong.
Unc Al: And those are the people who never learn. When a product goes in the toilet, it's a bad thing. We lose money, the people associated with the project lose self-esteem, everybody feels bad. There's only one way we can salvage anything from that, and that's by learning from the experience. You can not create things or grow or expand without trying something different, and mistakes are inevitable. No one gets in trouble around here for making a mistake - provided they learn from it. Making the same mistake twice ... that I won't tolerate.
ADQ: Anyway, what kind of stuff have you got here?
Unc Al: All kinds. Weapons that blow up, things that don't work ... Here's an interesting one - a spike-sweep plate. It ran off the power plant, and attracted spikes magnetically. Spikes on the road would get picked up by the plate, clearing a path for the car or truck.
ADQ: Sounds good. What happened?
Unc Al: Well, in testing it exhibited a nasty tendency to pick up things other than spikes ... like mines. Which exploded on impact. Plus, it attracted bullets. Approximately 10% of shots that should have been close misses ended up hitting the vehicle in our combat tests.
Unc Al: Our statisticians said the attraction factor wasn't significant, but can you imagine the marketing job required when word gets out the product attracts enemy fire, even a little bit? We're still working on some kind of spike-sweeper, but magnetism is not the way to go. Here's another one you might like: Anti-laser foam. You spray it on your vehicle, and it absorbs a certain amount of laser fire, usually two or three good shots per side, sometimes more.
ADQ: What's wrong with that?
Unc Al: It's a great idea, and initial research indicated it would go over big, but it died in testing. There were some problems we anticipated, like the stuff washing off in the rain and blowing off at high speeds, but we figured that was just one of the unavoidable drawbacks, and people would still buy it and take their chances on the weather. We forgot about aesthetics.
Unc Al: Yeah, all our independent testers came back with the same report - "I don't care if it does work," they said, "the car looks like a Burma Shave reject." There were also problems with the foam getting into weapons ports and gumming things up, but the main problem was that no one wanted to put the stuff on because of how ugly it made the car look. It's too bad - I really liked the stuff. but if no one will buy it, you can't sell it. We could spend all day in here, but you get the idea.
ADQ: Let's talk a little about your new catalog. you've never published anything like this before. Why'd you do it?
Unc Al: In the past, we've relied on word-of-mouth, or regional showrooms - and, of course, our advertisements in all the major duelling magazines. But as our line expands, it gets tougher and tougher to keep track of it all, so we wanted to put it all down in one place. We've done catalogs for our dealers in the past, but this is the first time we've directed it toward consumers. We're real proud of it - it looks real sharp.
ADQ: Well, no doubt that it will increase your sales. You've been criticized in the past, however, for being too ... well, enthusiastic. how do you respond to that?
Unc Al: You mean, "Uncle Al, the Duellists' Pal"? Yeah, we get a little frenetic in our copy. But, I'll tell you - it works. We've established a friendly image. We've become a company that our customers trust. But don't overemphasize the marketing, or the hokey ad copy - our products sell because they're the best quality at a good price. That's the secret of our success - not clever ads.
ADQ: But there are other companies that offer good products - why haven't they enjoyed your success?
Unc Al: I'd rather not speculate on the good or bad points of other companies in the field, but it's obvious that we've put ourselves in a position where people think of us first when they want duelling accessories. And that's the way we want it to stay.