Curlie Joe’s featured in the Herald Tribune

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Hard work and dependability have kept local business going for 25 years

BRADENTON — You could say it all started with a pick-up truck.

In 1992, Brad and Cynthia Latham were in their 20s, working at restaurants and looking for a way to make money on the side. Or, as Brad Latham puts it, he wanted a truck and “didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

So he decided he’d buy the truck and find a way to make it pay for itself by offering tree-trimming services.

“I saw guys driving around town with pick-up trucks and I knew they had just trimmed up a tree and I knew that they were doing it for money,” Latham said. “Well, I could do that during the day and be a waiter at night. It’s so easy, you just trim a tree. How hard can it be?”

Little by little, Brad and Cynthia and their newfound company, Curlie Joe’s, built a following based on their quality of service and dependability. One job would lead to another, and eventually, Latham’s attendance at a Manatee County Home Builder’s Association cocktail event introduced him to six potential new clients who all asked him to perform a different service: site clean-up.

Through it all, the couple found it was their dedication and work ethic that kept people coming back.

“Nobody would show up and do a job,” Latham said. “We were known that if you called us, we did it. If it was raining, we did it. If it was a holiday, we did it. If it was a Sunday, we would do it. And that’s what really got us rocking and rolling.”

Now, more than 25 years later, the Lathams have expanded their business to offer a variety of services, including site clean-up, demolition and what Latham calls “their mainstay,” dumpster rentals. They now work about 60-80 jobs a week, a steep improvement from their initial rate of two or three a week.

And their milestones have certainly increased since the early 1990s. When the Lathams’ gross sales tipped over $100,000 in 1998, it felt like a good sign. They decided to incorporate the company. Now they are steadily making a little under a million a year.

Costs on their dumpster rentals range from $325 to $600, depending on size. An average site clean up costs $125 an hour for equipment and workers, and demolition is based on each job, according to Latham.

When they were first getting started, the Lathams knew they needed a way to stand out. They had already made connections in the field, but they wanted an eye-catching symbol to represent their company. It came to them in Cynthia’s love of Holstein cows, the iconic black-and-white-spotted breed.

“She was collecting everything cow, and we thought what a great thing that would be to get people’s attention,” Latham said.

When one of their clients gave them a 1972 Cadillac DeVille on a job, Cynthia Latham got out a paintbrush and bathed the car’s exterior in white with big black cow spots. Soon, the car took on a life of its own.

“I got such a wonderful response from the cow Cadillac that I painted my trucks like a cow. We’d drive them all over, and we were known as the cow trucks,” Latham said. “That was just a thing to get people so they’d know us.”

Cynthia and Brad also had to learn how to work together as a couple, which they said was entirely natural. They loved spending time together and it was even better to find a way to enjoy each other’s company, work hard and make money.

After a hard day at work, after, as they put it, you “can’t see in the morning” to when you “can’t see at night,” they would unwind and grab a beer and share a pizza. That allowed them to keep working together light and fun.

But as the Great Recession hit, construction in Manatee County “came to a complete stop,” Latham said. Companies that had promised to pay Curlie Joe’s at the end of their project went bankrupt, leaving them out of half a million dollars. It forced them to make some tough decisions. They went from a staff of 65 employees and gross sales of about $7 million a year to a staff of one.

“It was the hardest thing we ever had to do,” Latham said. “We weren’t getting paid, and we couldn’t put our boys out working knowing that we couldn’t pay them.”

The Lathams had to re-evaluate. They went through four months with almost no business coming in, and they seriously debated declaring bankruptcy and starting over.

“We were thinking about going bankrupt, but we didn’t have enough money to pay the attorney,” said Cynthia Latham, almost laughing at the bittersweet irony of it all. “We couldn’t afford to go bankrupt, so we just sucked it up.”

So they looked to the equipment they had, 400 dumpsters that were sitting out in the lot with no rental offers. They started selling any of their business’ tools until business finally picked up.

Now, Latham swears he will never go back to that large model of business. The Recession taught him what he didn’t want: a business so big he couldn’t manage it himself. He went from five secretaries, four managers and three offices at the height of their growth to five total employees and one office. He says he prefers it that way.

“I can really manage it, and I see the clients and see what’s going on and I’m involved in it every day,” said Latham, 49.

“It’s a total hands-on approach,” said Cynthia Latham, 48. “We keep it small, very manageable, and everybody knows him.”

The Recession has also made the Lathams more cautious about their finances. They’ve opted not to extend credit and they monitor the economy.

“We want to make sure that we’re not in debt and that we won’t get caught like that again,” Brad Latham said.

Friends say Latham is the type of guy who works hard but is willing to sit and chat when you need it. Chris Landis, 35, met Latham at a wedding and they’ve been friends ever since. As a self-professed “do-it-yourselfer,” Landis said he’s called on Latham for many a home job, including installing his new fence.

On that day, Latham met Landis at Lowe’s with not one employee but a whole crew, Landis said. They filled a dumpster with supplies at the store and went to Landis’ house, where Latham would not let his friend help unload. He had a back injury from his time in the military, and so they just sat in the air conditioning and talked.

“He said, ‘Tell them where to go or we all leave,’” Landis said, chuckling at the memory. “So they loaded that all out and we hung out in the air conditioning and caught up for a half hour.”

Still, maybe the cherry on top in the business combination that is Curlie Joe’s is its iconic logo and name. The name evokes a down-home business and the logo is a sketched image of a man with denim overalls and a Protective Industrial Products helmet, created by Brad Latham himself.

Curlie Joe’s is a nod to Brad Latham’s days as a driver for a plumbing company, where his colleagues joked that his tendency for breaking things made him a “Stooge,” like Curlie. As a waiter, one of his coworkers added “Joe” to the name, and thus a company name was born.

But the Curlie Joe’s caricature, that was all Brad Latham. He says it represents what he wants people to take away from his business.

“He looks like a pretty hefty guy who could get it done,” Latham said.

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