“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You can earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”
– Jeff Bezos
Celebrating Chattanooga Companies’ Anniversaries
By Rachel Studebaker
The Scenic City is a historic city, and its thriving business landscape is an integral part of the area’s many stories. From the founding visions of inspired locals to companies who ended up planting roots in the city, countless businesses with rich history call Chattanooga home. Here, read about the origins and successes of six of these valued businesses celebrating quarterly anniversaries from 50 years to 175.
Cleveland Boat Center – 50 Years
Photos Courtesy of Cleveland Boat Center
Whether it’s the Tennessee River, Chickamauga Lake, Harrison Bay, or Lake Ocoee, the Chattanooga area has no shortage of options to spend a day on the water. These sparkling waters have inspired many a local to invest in a boat to spend time soaking up the sun, but for two couples, a love for boating led to the creation of a business that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Randy and Brenda Wattenberger, along with Jerry and Reita Hamby, founded Cleveland Boat Center in 1972. Stacy Wattenberger Greenwood, the current owner, shares, “My parents, Randy and Brenda, spent their time dating by going out in a little jon boat, and after getting married, they bought a boat before buying a kitchen table. The whole business – and my family’s life – was built on boating.”
The boat dealership carries a large selection of new and used inventory and offers maintenance services and parts for sale. “We sell boats and accessories that we believe in and would own ourselves. We are blessed to partner with the best manufacturers to ensure our customers have the best experiences possible,” says Wattenberger Greenwood.
The team at Cleveland Boat Center are industry pros, with the awards and certifications to prove it. The business has received a Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics and ranked in the Boating Industry’s Top 100 Boat Dealers, along with being a Marine Industry Certified Dealer. Wattenberger Greenwood explains that the business wants to achieve more than just the sale of a product – “We want to enhance the lives of others. We understand that life can be challenging and often hard, and we want to help make it better by providing opportunities for rest, play, and time with friends and family.”
She acknowledges how special it is to manage the business she’s known all her life and invest in relationships that span multiple generations, saying, “Many of our customers held me as an infant, took me out on their boats while my parents worked, and celebrated my daughter’s birth. And now, I am helping their grandkids with their boats. It has come full circle.”
Considering what has changed since Cleveland Boat Center’s inception 51 years ago, Wattenberger Greenwood says that though the boats have gotten bigger – “When my dad built the building where we are currently located, we could get over 12 boats in our showroom; today we can only fit three!” – the positivity of the boating community hasn’t changed a bit. She is grateful for all of the smiling faces and friendly waves on the water and finds it rewarding to know her business supplied the vehicle they’re on and will continue doing so for years to come.
Image #1: Randy and Brenda Wattenberger, Founders
Image #2: Stacy Wattenberger, Owner
Image #3: Brenda Wattenberger
RSS Insurance – 50 Years
Photos Courtesy of RSS Insurance
RSS Insurance was founded in 1973 when Tom Rowland decided to start his own agency after working in the insurance industry. Starting completely from scratch, Rowland would grow his business into one of the most prominent agencies in Chattanooga within 20 years, and today, RSS serves clients both locally and nationwide.
After 40 years of leading RSS, Rowland decided it was time for a transition in ownership. Though he received many external offers, Rowland ultimately decided to perpetuate the agency from within to two young producers; in January of 2013, David Allen and Trey Powell purchased RSS and took over day-to-day operations. Rowland remains on staff in an advisory position, maintaining the relationships he has built over the past half century and helping the agency any way he can. Upholding the precedent that Rowland set, strong relationships continue to form the backbone of the agency as RSS commits to “earning our clients’ trust, which in turn helps us build lasting relationships with them,” says Becky Bozza, chief operations officer.
A privately owned regional insurance brokerage firm, RSS provides personal and business insurance, along with workforce solutions, and strives to be an advisor, partner, and advocate for all its clients. Since Allen and Powell acquired RSS, the agency has grown to over four times its initial size, growth that Bozza shares “has come from many high-quality agents and experienced staff.”
Much has changed in the workplace over the last 50 years, and RSS has moved with the tides, from introducing remote capabilities and flexible time for employees to implementing digital tools. When it comes to improving client offerings, Bozza says that RSS has focused on “technological advancements, a wider range of coverage options, and ease of doing business.”
Though the agency has expanded its coverage, it has maintained local ownership and headquarters here in Chattanooga rather than selling out to larger, national firms. RSS continues to invest in the Chattanooga area and has most recently grown its presence in nearby Cleveland via a partnership with Insurance Incorporated.
RSS is celebrating its 50th anniversary with customer appreciation events throughout the year, thanking the clients who have made its continued success possible. Moving forward, Bozza shares that the agency plans to “continue our record growth but maintain our personalized service to our customers,” adding that “Chattanooga residents can feel good about the fact that RSS is committed to Chattanooga for the long term.”
Image #1: Tom Rowland, Founder
Image #2: David Allen, Principal
Image #3: Trey Powell, Principal
Plum Nelly Shop & Gallery – 50 Years
Photos Courtesy of Plum Nelly Shop & Gallery
While Plum Nelly Shop & Gallery began officially celebrating its 50th anniversary last year, it’s been over 75 years since its origins took root. Now a gift shop in Northshore, Plum Nelly started out as an outdoor art show on Lookout Mountain. Fannie Mennen, a local art lover, began the Clothesline Art Show in 1947, welcoming guests into her home’s yard to browse art and gifts. Roughly 300 people attended the first show, and within a few years, it was attracting as many as 20,000 visitors in one weekend.
The last art show was hosted nearly 30 years after its inception in 1972, but an exciting new venture was in the works. Mennen and her sister, Cecilia Marks, opened a gift shop that same year, continuing their support of the arts and crafts from a brick-and-mortar location. Mennen named the shop Plum Nelly after the property where the art show had taken place. The nickname was courtesy of Mennen’s brother-in-law, who had once remarked that her house was “plum out of Tennessee and nearly out of Georgia.”
In the following decades, Plum Nelly continued to grow under the leadership of hardworking women including Cecilia Marks, Joy Storey, and Beth Gunn. The shop added new categories to its offerings and became an American craft gallery mainstay while increasing its investment in the Chattanooga community by supporting local artists and partnering with charities. In 2006, Gunn moved Plum Nelly to its current location on Frazier Avenue, where the shop joined a vibrant community of businesses in Northshore.
Plum Nelly is now managed by Catharine Daniels, the fourth in a succession of women owners since its inception. Daniels credits the shop’s longevity to “staying true to representing artists and being a unique version of a gift shop/gallery” and has honored its founding purpose to “provide a unique variety of curated gift options for your gift giving needs.”
Upon entering Plum Nelly, shoppers can expect to encounter tables and shelves overflowing with locally made goods. From glassware and pottery to candles and soaps, jewelry and décor to teas and seasonings, any gift giving need can be met, complete with the perfect greeting card. Daniels invites customers to sample a bit of Chattanooga history as they browse the historic shop for a unique gift or treasure for their own home.
Plum Nelly is continuing to celebrate half a century of success with events and artist pop-ups throughout the year, culminating in a celebration in October, along with limited-edition anniversary merchandise available for purchase. Looking to the future, Daniels hopes that the shop will “continue to grow and add wonderful artists and remind people we are here” as she builds upon the work of the women before her and keeps an artful legacy alive.
Top Image: Catherine Daniels, Owner
Image #1: Wauhatchie Glassworks, Local Artist
Image #2: Flier for Clothesline Art Show
Honest Charley Speed Shop – 75 Years
Photos Courtesy of Honest Charley Speed Shop
From seeing the advent of the tow truck to playing host to big names in vehicle production, Chattanooga is well acquainted with the automotive industry. An unassuming brick garage on Chestnut Street, Honest Charley Speed Shop brings its own monumental feat – and milestone anniversary – to the table of Chattanooga’s auto history.
The speed shop was founded in 1948 by its namesake, “Honest” Charley Card, and revolutionized the sale of auto parts for hot rods. At the time, parts were largely made in individual garages and sold from the backs of trucks at races. Seeing a need for organized and accessible parts sales, Card created a catalog featuring hand-drawn pictures of products, and in doing so, the first mail-order speed shop in the world was born. Hotrodders could dream up their custom build, order parts from Honest Charley’s catalog, and then receive their order through the post office.
“Honest Charley basically started the mail-order speed shop industry as it is today,” says Corky Coker, current owner of Honest Charley Speed Shop and the Coker Museum, which resides at the same address. “At its heyday, Honest Charley would mail hundreds of thousands of hand-drawn catalogs to customers all over the United States. Many businessmen and hotrodders followed Honest Charley’s concept, which created a huge network of speed shops all over the United States.”
While today, big box stores dominate auto parts sales, Honest Charley has continued to succeed by adapting with the times. The shop now specializes in collector car restoration and custom work on hot rod builds. “The spirit of Charley Card as an entrepreneur lives on at Honest Charley Speed Shop. Although we no longer sell a lot of parts, we are still selling some very special parts and restoring cars for collectors and fellow hotrodders,” says Coker. “Honest himself adapted, and we continue to.”
Behind these skilled services is a team that simply loves cars and helping others enjoy them as well. Coker pays homage to “the great folks who have put their heart and soul into Honest Charley through the years. Some have long gone, but some are now retired and still cheering us on! We are extremely grateful for them all.”
The shop regularly engages with the local community and keeps history alive by restoring vintage vehicles to their original glory and is open to the public as part of The Coker Museum Tour. Honest Charley Speed Shop will celebrate its 75th anniversary by carrying on its legacy of servicing car lovers – and taking its 1923 Ford Highboy for a spin.
Image #1: Corkey Coker, Owner
Image #2: “Honest” Charley Card, Founder
Chattanooga Theatre Centre – 100 Years
Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Theatre Centre; Top Photo by Jeremy Campbell
One of the oldest continuously running community theatres in the nation, Chattanooga Theatre Centre (CTC) began with the idea of an inspired local. At the beginning of the 1920s, Othneil Brown proposed the creation of a nonprofit community theatre to his theatre-loving banker, E.Y. Chapin. Their vision caught on and resulted in more than 150 letters being sent to influential Chattanoogans to solicit their support. The movement was successful, and in December of 1923, the Little Theatre was incorporated with Chapin as its president and the purpose of “assisting and promoting the study of drama and dramatic literature and entertainment, the cultivation and development of dramatic talent, and the organization and presentation of dramatic entertainments.”
Though the Great Depression presented challenges to the theatre’s growth, by 1935, the Little Theatre was producing more plays than ever before. The Chattanooga Times praised its fortitude, writing, “Chattanooga has not forgotten the less tangible but important needs of cherishing and developing the sources of art and culture. The Little Theatre is a factor in the things that go on to make and keep alive consciousness of being something more than cogs in a bewildering industrial machine.”
The Little Theatre continued to prosper and in 1962, had become one of the largest artistic organizations in the area. Its growth necessitated a new location, which was constructed in Northshore that same year. The 1980s saw the advent of the theatre’s ongoing youth program, which included drama and dance classes in addition to performances. By the end of the twentieth century, audiences were exceeding 50,000 per year.
In 1996, the theatre debuted its new and current location, and rebranded as the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. With an ever-growing community of support, the center is now among the largest community theatres in the country. CTC attributes much of its long-standing success to a devoted team of volunteers who make it all possible. “Whether someone volunteers as an usher or house manager, prepares costumes, stage manages, or serves on our board of directors, … the gift of their time and talents are directly responsible for this organization’s success,” says Rachel Carroll, marketing manager at CTC.
The theatre is celebrating its centennial year with a special lineup of shows representing each decade of its history as it continues to create space for shared experiences and be a community leader in promoting diversity, equity, representation, and inclusion. Carroll shares, “We are committed to building a culture that we all wish to be a part of, and we believe that when the wider community is truly represented in all that we do, the Chattanooga Theatre Centre will be stronger than ever as we enter our second century.”
Top Image: 2023 Production of “The Color Purple”
Image #1: Cast of “Dear, Me” the Little Theatre’s First Production
Image #2: Rodney Van Valkenburg, Executive Director
Unum Group – 175 Years
Photos Courtesy of Unum Group
Tracing back to mid-nineteenth century New England, Unum Group has a storied history. The insurer originated with the 1848 charter of Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded by Elisha Pratt with the guiding philosophy of “finding a better way.” Its first policy – a life insurance contract for $5,000 – was sold to Pratt himself. The fledgling company revolved around providing accessible insurance to farmers, professionals, and businesses during a time when many did not have access to such financial benefits. That same spirit of helping others was at the core of Provident Life & Accident Insurance company, which opened its doors in 1887 in Chattanooga and was long led by the Maclellan family.
The two companies joined forces in 1999, changing its name to Unum Group in 2007. Today the insurer continues to advance its purpose of “helping the working world thrive throughout life’s moments” by meeting the needs of employers and their employees. Across its various products and services, Unum Group protects over 45 million people and their families and partners with 181,000 companies to strengthen workplace benefits. Headquartered in Chattanooga, the company employs 11,000 people across the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, and Ireland, coupling organic growth and expansion with a series of mergers and acquisitions. Unum Group continues to distribute its products and services through the Unum and Colonial Life brands.
Over the past 175 years, Unum Group has endured throughout the wars, economic downturns, pandemics, and the constant evolution of society and the workplace. Current President and CEO Rick McKenney says investing in its capabilities and people has helped the company adapt, along with a “relentless focus on anticipating and serving the ever-changing needs of our customers.” He adds that since its creation, Unum Group has been a “constant presence in the lives of our customers, communities, and employees. Our resilience and a caring spirit navigate us through every unprecedented shift.”
Last year, the company achieved a record performance with plans to continue to break new ground in the benefits business. “In 2022, we paid $8 billion in benefits to those facing challenges, and we’re proud to be there when people need us the most,” shares McKenney.
Acknowledging Unum Group’s legacy of paving the way as a long-standing industry leader, he lists a few of its many accomplishments over the years: “We were the first to introduce disability insurance and offer group life coverage through the workplace, and among the first to help companies navigate today’s complex employee leave environment.”
McKenney says, “Our 175th anniversary is a special opportunity to celebrate our people, customers, successes, and strong culture, while recognizing the efforts we’re making to chart a course for the future.” He adds that he is particularly proud of Unum Group’s rich tradition of giving back and the strong partnerships the business and its employees have with local communities. As the company moves toward its bicentennial year, he adds, “Our plans for the future center on protecting more people with the right products and services for generations to come.”