As soon as they could walk, Robert Potts Jr. and Michael Potts would visit the family business, Cochran, Blair & Potts Department Store in downtown Belton. They would entertain customers and visit with employees. Eventually, they would help around the store, cleaning display cases, taking out the trash and wrapping presents at Christmastime.
Now Robert, Michael and Robert’s wife, Ashley, are running Texas’ oldest department store—the seventh generation to operate the historic, family-owned business. With a commitment to customer service, an appreciation for history and a work ethic that has been handed down from generation to generation, they are making sure the store stays current.
It wasn’t a given that Robert, 34, and Michael, 32, would join the family business. While their father, Rob Potts Sr., and grandfather, Roy Cochran Potts, who died in March 2019, may have hoped they would be involved, there was no pressure to do so.
Rob Potts Sr. went to Texas A&M, where he earned a degree in industrial technology and, perhaps more significantly, met Ashley. He started full time at the store in 2009. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to come back here,” he says.
Ashley, who is from Henderson, has a health degree. She initially worked part time at the store; she moved to full time in 2013. Robert and Ashley have one child, Grayson, a boy born in 2018.
Michael also went to Texas A&M. With a degree in economics, he worked in banking for a while before returning to the store. “Dad never really pressured us to come back. We just naturally gravitated back to the store,” he says.
Michael and his wife, Julia, who is a first-grade teacher in Belton, have a daughter, Maddox, also born in 2018. Even though Michael and Julia both grew up in Belton, attended the same high school and college, they never knew each other well — at least not until grandfather Roy Potts “set us up,” Michael says. “He always got a kick out of that.”
While Robert’s title is president and Ashley and Michael are vice presidents, they share duties and work together to make sure customers are served. And even though Rob Sr., is approaching retirement, he comes to the store every day to give guidance and counsel. Rob’s wife, Brenda, is a retired P.E. teacher.
Keeping the store’s merchandise mix current and serving customer needs are paramount for Robert, Ashley and Michael — just like they were for the previous six generations.
“We have tried to respect our previous customers and bring in new customers,” Ashley says.
The front portion of the store includes women’s and men’s departments as well as gifts, including Cochran, Blair & Potts memorabilia and merchandise such as cologne, candles, T-shirts and hats that are popular with the large number of tourists who visit the historic business. The store also has expanded its selection of children’s clothes and has added “classic wood toys,” which fit well in a classic department store, Ashley says.
“I think a lot of the merchandise selection comes from us engaging with the customers,” Robert says. “A lot of times we know their name as soon as they walk in. Building that relationship and that rapport with the customer, we’re able to better fit their needs by providing products that we know that they’re looking for.”
Ashley says they will often have particular customers in mind when they are selecting merchandise. “We will say, ‘Oh this person would love this.’ We try to listen. ‘Oh, this customer requested this.’ That’s the advantage of having a small business and getting to know your customers.”
The store has moved to more “lifestyle brands for men and women,” Michael says, pointing to a wall that used to display men’s suits. “Now the whole back half of the store is work boots.”
Work boots is a niche that Rob Sr. saw and pursued in an innovative way, calling on local companies, finding out their needs and developing relationships. He came up with the idea of a “boot truck” that brings boots to a manufacturing plant or construction company in order to sell directly to the employees.
“A lot of companies will require safety footwear if you are going to be in the facility or off-site,” Michael says. “We have contracts set up with them. Some companies will subsidize the purchase, so the employee does not have to pay the full amount. We’re able to tailor the selection and the product for each individual company based on the needs the employees have.”
A ‘BACK TO THE FUTURE’ RENOVATION
The most visible changes to the store were the result of a renovation project that began in mid-2016 and ended just before Christmas 2017. It was the most extensive project since the store reopened in 1929 after a devastating fire a year earlier. The project was completed in segments in order to keep the store open.
“The whole goal was to take the store back in time in appearance,” Robert says. “I tell everybody it was really fun to do because you were peeling back layers. You could peel back a paneling wall with 1990s color wallpaper behind it, then something from the Eighties and then the Seventies. We really took the building back to the bones of it and really tried to highlight what the store potentially would have looked like when it originally opened.
“We wanted to have more of a classic, timeless feel,” he says. The project started with research, looking through old photographs and visiting with long-time customers. Contractor Jeff Ling of Peerless Enterprises in Belton was instrumental in the design, construction and preservation of the store.
Most of a limestone wall that is now a beautiful part of the décor had been plastered over. The original grand entrance on Penelope was covered. Wood paneling had replaced the old oak woodwork throughout the store.
“The original stone was covered up,” Ashley says. “This entrance (on Penelope Street) was covered up. It had a mural on the outside and then a wall on the inside. We knew it was there from previous pictures.”
The store’s wood floor, which was sagging in spots, required a lot of work, including adding supports in the crawl space below. Restoring the original tin ceiling took more time and “TLC” than anticipated.
“If we were able to restore it, we spent our time and did it slowly and restored it,” Robert says. “If we had to bring in something new, we did it in a way that’s time-period appropriate. There was a lot of attention and detail that went into that.”
Windows at the Central Avenue entrance were uncovered which, along with the work on the Penelope Street side, brings more natural light into the store. Exterior work also included new awnings and restoration of the iconic Cochran, Blair & Potts neon signs.
With the renovation complete, what’s the next big thing on the horizon for Cochran, Blair & Potts? “I guess another 150 years,” Robert says. “That would be pressuring our children,” Ashley quickly adds.
Cochran, Blair & Potts celebrated its 150th anniversary with an open house December 5, 2019.
STORE’S HISTORY MAINTAINED IN SECOND FLOOR MUSEUM
The story of Texas’ oldest department store is maintained with a spectacular collection of artifacts on the second floor of Cochran, Blair & Potts in downtown Belton.
Organized with displays and artifacts depicting each of the preceding six generations of operation, the museum includes the business’s first ledger in 1869, mannequins with hats from 1930s and 1940s, china sets, registers, business equipment, as well as books and photographs of the store and the individuals who made it a success.
Preserved copies of a Temple Daily Telegram special edition produced in 1929 following a devastating fire a year earlier showcases the store’s merchandise and history.
With a desire to tell the Cochran, Blair & Potts story and display the rich history that was in storage, Jean Potts, Robert and Michael’s grandmother, organized the museum in the 1990s. The space previously was the children’s department.
There’s nothing in the museum for the current, seventh generation – at least not yet. “We’re too young to be in the museum,” Robert says.
Reprinted with permission Don Cooper, November 29, 2019, Tex Appeal. “Cochran, Blair & Potts: Customer service guides Texas’ oldest department store”