By Clint Parker
Weaverville – Businesses are not just impersonal entities but businesses are made up of people. People who hire people. People who work for people and the relationships that are built while they work. However, businesses do come and go as the economy changes and local businessman Howard Cole knows that fact first hand. It was brought to his memory after coming across a card in a drawer. Here’s the story.
Long before Cole started his regional amusement company, Cole Vending in Weaverville, with his brother, Jimmy, he was just another employee with south Buncombe County firm Fishburne Equipment Company. Cole was in the electrical department at Fishburne fresh off a stint with the US Navy. In the Navy, he was on the Aircraft Carrier USS Bon Homme Richard and the USS Constellation where he’d learned his trade in Electronics. In the mid-20s Cole found himself heading a department of mid-aged to older men. For Cole, the age gap wasn’t a problem. “I gave them the respect that they had earned and due men of their age.”
Back in the day when tobacco was king, so was Fishburne Equipment Company with their tobacco presses which were famous worldwide. What’s a tobacco press? The machine is crucial in the processing, storing and transporting of tobacco.
Frank Fishburne, the founder of the company, ran the company to be the industry standard. Fishburne even went as far as to get a patent on a circuit design – a feat Cole said was really unheard of when it came to circuit design.
“My dad invented all that machinery and had over a hundred patents worldwide,” said Bill Fishburne, son of Frank Fishburne and former chairman of Fishburne Equipment Company. Fishburne was the last chairman of the company eventually selling off the remainder of the company to a German firm. “My dad kept inventing things he was an inventor.” He added he was always in court defending his patents.
Cole installed and worked on that patented circuitry during his time at the company and learned to the system well, but he eventually moved on to work at another area company, Steelcase. It was while he was working there that he received a call from his old employer.
Seems that another tobacco company had infringed on his old company’s patent and Fishburne needed his assistance. Cole was asked to testify in a high profile legal case as an expert witness, and he needed to fly to Washington DC to give a deposition to Fishburne’s lawyer.
Cole said he was more than happy to help his old employer and said yes to the deposition. The lawyer in the case was so impressed with Cole’s knowledge of tobacco presses and the circuitry he let his other expert witness go and when to court with Cole. The case eventually landed in front of a judge in the US Federal Court in Asheville where Fishburne Equipment won and successfully defending their patent.
According to Cole, he went back to work with a good feeling of helping out his old employer. A few weeks later he received a card from the founder’s wife thanking him for his help. After reading it, Cole said filed it in a drawer and forgot it until just a few years when he was cleaning out that drawer.
Cole took the card out to reread it. When he did, a piece of paper dropped out. He unfolded it and discovered it was a check for $200. “I could have really used that back them,” Cole said laughing as he looked back on the oversight. That mid-1970s’ $200 is now worth about $1,300 in 2019 dollars.
Told about the story Fishburne said, “What a nice story! That is a great story! I hope Howard Cole is well and doing ok. We had an awful lot of really, really good talented people that worked there. I was the one that had to shut the company down and let me tell you that was heart-wrenching.”