Harford business partners for 30 years, friends longer

Beverage warehouse owners stayed committed to goals

May 23, 2004|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They've been partners for 30 years, friends since high school and were born at the same hospital.

These are a few of the similarities that could explain why the owners of Ronnie's Beverage Warehouse in Forest Hill have operated one of the most successful businesses in Harford County.

But Ronnie Walls and Bill O'Leary point to a sound business plan, a hands-on management style and many long work-related hours as the reasons their business has risen to rank among the leading beer, wine and liquor dispensers in the state.

"Bill and I have been extremely fortunate," Walls said while easing away from his office desk, "but it didn't come without a great deal of hard work. We made a decision many years ago about our long-term goals, and we've never lost sight of those goals."

How did they decide to enter the beverage business?

"We were students at Towson State College, now Towson University, in the late 1960s and began working part time at Perring Liquors," said O'Leary. "Ronnie and I carpooled to school from Harford County so it was easy to work together."

"Yeah," added Walls, "the owner was happy to have two dependable workers."

They stayed on the job after graduation, and when the owner, Jerry Brenner, decided to expand his business, he turned to Walls and O'Leary.

"He wanted to expand into Harford County, so he began negotiating to open a store in the Rock Spring Shopping Center with the two of us as managers," said Walls. "Since Bill and I lived in the county, our names would be on the license. That meant we would be responsible for everything."

Walls and O'Leary decided that if they were to be held accountable, they might as well be owners. Walls approached his father-in-law, Charlie Reed, for financial backing. On June 23, 1973, Ronnie's Beverage Warehouse opened with Reed as the sole stockholder.

By 1979, it had become apparent that they were outgrowing the 4,000-square-foot store. Walls and O'Leary approached Tom Gentry, a successful county developer, with their expansion plans. Gentry purchased a piece of property at Rock Spring Road and Forest Valley Drive in Forest Hill, and constructed the current 10,000-square-foot building where a seafood retailer rents space in the rear.

"We entered a lease with an option-to-buy contract with Gentry," said Walls. "In 1983, we exercised the option."

In 1981, the county changed its spirits-dispensing system to allow stores to sell liquor. That added considerable revenue to the partners' beer and wine business.

Ronnie's ranks among the top five in statewide beer keg sales, and its ever-changing wine stock is popular in the county.

"We are always looking to improve our wine inventory," said O'Leary. "We've seen domestic wines make tremendous inroads in the market."

Beer, wine and liquor aren't the only reasons for Ronnie's 30-year climb to prominence. The partners point to their 35 employees and the store's emphasis on customer relations.

"Over the years we've probably employed more than 600 countians ranging from college students to retired administrators from the Board of Education," said Walls.

O'Leary pointed to the importance of several essential employees. He praised the work of bookkeeper Lois Kelly, general manager Jimmy Bishop and managers Rosemary Lyons, Bonnie Ryan and Charlie Hamilton, who have logged more than 60 years among them.

Walls noted the contributions of Matt Lynch, the store's youngest manager; Richard "Pudge" Sova, the newest manager; and Board of Education retirees Larry Mills, Chris Terry, Paul Welsh and Jim Hawk.

The partners are proud of the store's record of never having been fined for selling products to minors.

Asked about unforgettable characters at the store, Walls and O'Leary didn't hesitate to identify the late farmer, auctioneer and county councilman John O'Neill, and sportsman Al Neville. "Those two didn't come in here just to make a purchase. ... They provided an endless amount of humorous conversation and stories," Walls said.

O'Leary noted their modern inventory-control computer system. "We have 14 computer stations that allow us to keep an accurate account of our products," he said.

Asked about situations that didn't work out as planned, O'Leary quickly mentioned the partners' brief ownership of the Bel Air bar The Draft Board.

"Too many hours and too many headaches," he said.

Walls recalled an employee who had a habit of standing on a lower shelf to reach a product on the top shelf. "He managed to topple an entire row of shelves, destroying a great deal of inventory," he said.

As they prepare to celebrate their 31st anniversary, Walls and O'Leary took a moment to recall their history. Both were born at Fountain Green Maternity Hospital; attended Bel Air High School, Harford Community College and Towson University; and worked at Perring Liquors.

Asked whether they had regrets, they replied, "None."

Of their plans, they said with a laugh, "Less hours."

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