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Friday, October 9th, 2009

Hittin' the pavement

Watkins man Urban Grevenkamp's been making customer house calls for nearly 50 years

By Shelley Grieshop

Urban Grevenkamp of Celina looks through a catalogue of Watkins products prior t. . .

Urban Grevenkamp spends nearly every afternoon ringing doorbells and peddling household goods in a fashion rarely seen these days.
The embroidered letters on his beige baseball cap and red jacket identify him as a "Watkins" man. But it's his smile and lovable personality that gets the 86-year-old salesman in the door, his customers say.
"My family grins when he comes. I just can't describe how incredible this guy is," says Laura Harshman of Willshire.
In July, 86-year-old Grevenkamp will mark 50 years as an independent associate for the Minnesota-based company, which has sold items such as spices and household cleaners for more than 140 years.
Grevenkamp, a Cassella native, began his career as a Watkins man on a part-time basis while working at the former Mersman Furniture Co. But soon he left the factory to "be my own boss," he says.
"I always wanted to have a business of my own. Of course there's only one fringe benefit with this - you work 'til you die," he says with an ornery grin. "There's no lay-offs."
He admits age has slowed him a bit and his hearing isn't as good as it was, but he still happily serves nearly 900 customers. He can no longer drive the 50 or so miles he covers each afternoon and has turned over the wheel to a retired friend. His wife, Alice, also does not drive.
Harshman says she first met Grevenkamp 13 years ago when her family moved to their current home outside the small village. She'll never forget his first words: "Are you the lady of the house?"
"He told me he was a salesman and had a book with all kinds of items that I could purchase from him, and that he only came twice a year," she recalls.
She remembers leafing through the catalogue while Grevenkamp recited each page by memory, she says.
"I was so intrigued that he knew every item before I turned the page that I had to go through the book again before I could purchase anything," she says with a laugh.
After nearly five decades of service to the Mercer and Van Wert county area, he still uses the same rubber stamp he purchased as a rookie salesman. The aging stamp reveals only the last four digits of his phone number - the only numbers area residents had to dial years ago to make calls.
Grevenkamp, a 1941 graduate of the former Maria Stein High School, truly believes in the products he sells. That part comes easy, he says. He grew up surrounded by Watkins items.
"I was about 3 when I cut my hand pretty bad and my parents put Petro Carbo salve on it," he says, adding the Watkins' brand ointment "healed it up pretty good."
Once he sold a box of the salve to a local doctor, he added.
In 491/2 years he's never been asked to reimburse anyone for a product they didn't like, he brags.
Grevenkamp, the father of four grown adults, says he's not pushy and he believes his customers appreciate that. Despite the ongoing recession, business is good, he says.
"I'm having my best year ever," he adds.
He believes sales are up because more people are buying ingredients to cook at home instead of going out.
Grevenkamp says he may retire after reaching the 50-year milestone. Resting and spending more time with grandchildren and great-grandchildren sounds real good some days, he says.
"My time's running out, but I just don't like sitting around doin' nothing," he says.
Thinking back over the years, being a salesman definitely was his niche, he says.
"There's nothing I've ever done that I like doing better than this," he adds.
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