Charles Danner doesn't participate in business organizations or small business organizations or small business groups. He hasn't sought government assistance to help his company, although a federal employment office first sent him to the corporation he now owns, when he was looking for work.
Danner is one of Washington's quiet success stories, as a Georgetown merchant and perhaps the only black business owner in that affluent part of the city. At 36 years old, Danner is also the only black owner of a lighting fixture company in the Washinton region.
He devotes all of his time to the company, Blair Lighting of Georgetown, with the exception of regular trips to Point Lookout in Southern Maryland to catch blues and trout.
What has driven Danner is an inner motivation that he says developed when he was a youngster in the South watching television, an interesting counterpoint to critics of mass culture who claim that TV harms children.
"I saw people on TV, and they always went to an office dressed up in a suit. I wanted my own office, and I wanted to wear a necktie every day."
He nows wears that necktie and a very serious three-piece suit to his sotre, with his office and desk at the rear. "Since I got here, I've been really serious, I really wanted it to be my life," he said last week.
Danner came to Washington from his home in Hamilton, Miss., with $20 in his pocket, when he was 19. His first job was with Marriott Corp., picking up papers around the Hot Shoppes. He became a kitchen supervisor and then was drafted into the Army for two years.
It was the U.S. Employment Office that sent Danner to Blair Lighting, applying for a handyman's job in 1967 after he got out of the Army.
The owner, Robert Blair, was one "shrewd businessman," in Danner's words.
But he was a hard taskmaster and employes didn't stay with him long (one worker lasted a few hours), Danner recalled last week. Danner was hired, but within three weeks another worker had left and Danner was the only employe with Blair in a firm with gross annual sales $76,000.
Danner said he had to learn everything about the business by watching Blair or putting together and fixing light fixtures by trial and error.
"I paid a lot of attention to the way he (Blair) did things, in buying and selling particularly. He was good with people," Danner said. At the same time, "he would fire me about twice a week," but the layoffs never really took place, Danner said.
Enter an important third person in this story, Stewart Burns, who was credit manager for Giant Food Inc. Burns was experienced with heavy wiring and helped out the Blair-Danner team with such work in his offhours.
By 1972, Blair was anxious to retire from the business he had started about two decades earlier. When a friend suggested to Danner that he find a white businessman as a partner in an effort to buy the business, Danner thought immediately of Burns, then looking to retire himself from Giant.
Danner and Burns formed Danburn Inc., and bought Blair Lighting, with Burns anxious from the start to help Danner get started and then to step away from the business. He has done so, and Danner is now the sole owner of a much larger business, one with annual sales of $350,000 and three employes. A loan from D.C. National Bank helped Danner to buy the firm -- a loan he got with no difficulty, based on his previous business record.
"I was sure I wouldn't find another person I could get along with like Burns," said Danner in explaining why he decided on a solo venture this time instead of a partnership.
The keys to Danner's success are his own drive to learn and grow and what he inherited from the two men, Blair and Bruns. From Blair, the Georgetown store owner got knowledge of buying and selling, which he loves most. Danner enjoys helping a customer find just the right fixture for a certain spot. And it's imperative with Danner that the shops opens at 9 a.m. every shopping day.
From Burns, Danner learned about keeping records, about paying bills on time to maintain credit, about monitoring customers accounts.
"The plan all the time was for Burns to retire, but when the time came, I developed a certain amount of fear," Danner recalled, because Burns always had kept the company's records and accounts so fully. "The details are so important, they can foul up the works," said Danner of the recordkeeping process that leads to many small business failures. So Danner learned how Burns had kept the accounts straight.
He noted, for example, that he has $13,000 in outstanding accounts receivable and that customers have been taking longer to pay their bills. Danner keeps a key book that lists all of the debts he owes and dates by which payments must be sent. Each day, when customer checks arrive, Danner pays off more of his own bills. He plows back virtually all revenues into the business and takes home just $135 a week for himself. His wife, who works for the Treasury Department, helps with the billpaying and letter-writing chores.
Blair Lighting's location in Georgetown, two premises at 3001 and 3005 M St. NW, more than double the single-store space Danner started with is good for this type of business. Tourists and visitors in town for conventions often walk around Georgetown and many stop in the Blair Lighting store, which handles a variety of lamps and lighting fixtures in many price ranges.
The tourists like what they see and about a third of Blair's business now is shipping out of town to persons who saw fixtures here. There is a particularly heavy demand for hand-made lanterns and other lighting fixtures, for which Blair is one of the few major retail outlets in the business.
Danner has published a catlogue to help with his growing mail-order business. The business also does a lot of volume with decorators and with builders; some developers to to Blair for all the lighting in various houses, for example. One of his major problems is the delay in receivng many of the imported fixtures he sells; customers often have to wait a few months for some orders to be filled, he said.
As for why he is successful where similar small business ventures fail, Danner said he has good help and that too many entrepreneurs abuse their businesses by trying to get rich quick, such as taking large salaries for themselves.