The Lord of Loans: How Cleveland payday-loan pioneer Allan Jones was propelled to fame and fortune

The Lord of Loans: How Cleveland payday-loan pioneer Allan Jones was propelled to fame and fortune

February 5th, 2015 by Alex Green in Business Around the Region

Cleveland, Tenn., businessman Allan Jones bought Hardwick Clothes for $1.9 million.

Photo by Angie Herrington /Times Free Press.

ALLAN JONES

Age: 62

Title: Founder and CEO of Check Into Cash (1993) and Jones Management Services (1996), Chairman of Hardwick Clothes (2014)

Businesses:

Check Into Cash
Loan by Phone
Bald Headed Bistro
U.S. Money Shops
Buy Here Pay Here USA
The Village Green Town Center
LendingFrog.com
Hardwick Clothes
The Village Bake Shop
The Village Barberettes
The Legend of Tall Betsy
Jones Management Services
Jones Airways
Jones Properties


Education: Graduated from Cleveland High School (1972), member of football and wrestling teams; Studied business at Middle Tennessee State University (1973), left at age 20 to help with family business

Personal: Married (Janie Jones), with five children (Will Jones, Bailey Jones, Abby Jones and Courtney Jones Pendergrass)

Community involvement:

Planted hudreds of trees in Cleveland, area schools
Funded scholarships to Cleveland State Community College for Bradley County high school graduates
Gave $4 million for University of Tennessee aquatic center
Gave $1.3 million for Cleveland High School wrestling center
Contributes to Higher Calling Wrestling Club to help youth wrestle
Helped recruit coaching staff for Cleveland High wrestling
Gave $30,000 to National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum
Gave $500,000 to University of Tennessee wrestling
Gave $100,000 to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics
Funded TSSAA wrestling finals broadcast
Founded MainStreet Cleveland
Wrote tree ordinance and created tree board in Cleveland
Donated to Cleveland Public Library
Created Tall Betsy goblin and and attraction
Bought and preserved Craigmiles Hall in Cleveland
Donated for Pangle Hall at Lee University

Of course Allan Jones was the first baby born at Bradley Memorial Hospital in Cleveland, Tennesssee, on New Year's Eve 1952. From the beginning, destiny seems to have picked him out of the crowd.

Jones grew up as a middle-class kid in Cleveland but has since built an empire of sorts in his hometown: a lord with a hilltop manor and an entrepreneur's golden touch. He's larger than life, in many ways more like the industrial giants of the 19th century than a small-town businessman who grew up during the Cold War.

Jones knows all this. He has a keen self-awareness about his place in the world. He doesn't take himself too seriously or try too hard to be an inconspicuous modern multimillionaire. He'll pause a conversation to "take a leak." He bought the largest stuffed alligator ever killed in Florida when his favorite team, the University of Tennessee Volunteers, beat its archrival, the University of Florida Gators, one year.

Allan Jones is a philanthropist, a wrestling fanatic, a sharp businessman and a risk-taker. He's also the godfather of payday lending and the savior of America's oldest suit maker. Some people love him and some people hate him. Some people want what he has and despise him for having it. It all goes with being one of the richest people in Tennessee.

He's been called a robber baron by political pundits because his payday loan and car dealership franchises — Check Into Cash, Buy Here Pay Here, U.S. Money Shops — often depend on a low-income or financially struggling clientele, making short-term, high-interest loans that are capable of dragging the poor deeper into debt.

Jones is considered by many to be a 1 percenter who made his fortune off the 99 percent. In 2005, BusinessTN magazine estimated his net worth at about $500 million, putting him among Tennessee's Top 20 most wealthy people at the time. A profile published the Huffington Post a few years later pegged his companies' after-tax profits at $20 million a year.

He's been skewered in national media outlets, called "odious" and "repellent," not to mention greedy and racist. He's been lampooned for the extravagant life he lives while his customers scrape by, paycheck to paycheck. But Jones lives outside the lines, and outside the neat boxes his critics and fans try to put him in. As his critics assail him, Jones turns around and gives millions to the University of Tennessee and his alma mater Cleveland High School for athletics, to Cleveland's Lee University for a new building, to improvement projects in his hometown.

In 2011, four years before Tennessee launched a program to allow graduating seniors the chance to get two free years of community college, Jones committed to funding two years at Cleveland State Community College for any graduating senior in Bradley County.

In 2014, Jones spent $1.9 million of his personal fortune buying Hardwick Clothes, America's oldest suit maker, which had been losing money for years and was finally forced into bankruptcy. A shutdown of Hardwick would have meant 200-plus Cleveland workers losing their jobs and an American — or more importantly, a Cleveland — institution going under. Jones spent millions hiring a blue-chip team to lead Hardwick and to purchase new equipment to bring the factory floor up to date.

He jokes that because of him, Hardwick is now losing more money than ever.

But Jones is no mere free-spending jester. And he is by no means a rookie. He doesn't really think Hardwick is going to fail. He believes in his investments. He believes in Cleveland, and its people — the intangible spirit of the city.

He also believes in luck.

But, most of all, Allan Jones believes in himself.

***

Jones developed a strong work ethic early in life.

In sixth grade, he took on a paper route. At 4 a.m. each morning, he left home on a bicycle with a pile of Chattanooga newspapers and worked his territory for about three hours. Then, he'd return home, maybe picking up his fishing gear and dipping a line in the water before school started at 8 a.m.

"My mother hated it," he says.

On rainy days, she drove him around to throw papers, and she eventually learned the route herself. Sometimes she would sneak into Allan's room in the middle of the night and turn off his alarm, allowing him to sleep-in while she drove his paper route.

But Allan hated that.

"I would be furious," he says.

He loved the idea of working, and he wanted to emulate the first families of Cleveland industry, the Hardwicks and the Rymers. The Hardwicks had their stove and clothing factories, the Rymers owned a company that made appliances. S.B. "Skeet" Rymer inherited the Dixie Foundry company from his father, and during his lifetime led the company through the transition to appliance giant Magic Chef. Rymer's success captivated young Allan Jones, and Jones developed a laser-like focus on the local industrialist, so much so that he neglected school and his grades started slipping.

"My daddy thought I was stupid," Jones says. "I wasn't paying any attention to the sixth grade. I was paying attention to Skeet Rymer."

Jones struck up a friendship with Rymer's son, Brad, who was Jones' age. Jones was a frequent visitor at the Rymers' house and even showed up at Skeet Rymer's office from time to time. "Allan was very enterprising," says Brad Rymer. "Allan and I were both kind of enterprising. We were a little unusual in our group."

Jones was a welcome friend to Rymer, who was shunned by many kids in school because of the notoriety associated with his last name. "I'm very proud of the heritage now, and it's very meaningful to me," he says. "But frankly, that did not make me popular."

It wasn't long before Jones was wrangling his friends, Rymer included, into his youthful entrepreneurial visions.

"He always seemed to have a level of ambition and determination beyond what a normal guy would have," Rymer says. "The sky was the limit with him."

One year, Jones approached the group with an idea: He wanted to put together a group of guys and pick up Christmas trees left on the side of the road after the holiday. "Allan was concerned that they all get disposed of properly," Rymer says. "He's always been concerned with trees."

The group did pick up and trash the trees, but the next year, Jones wanted to double the number that got picked up. "That was just typical Allan," Rymer says.

He says Jones always wanted to double what others thought could be done. It was always "never say quit, never say can't, never give up," Rymer says. "I guess some things never change."

Jones' fascination with Skeet Rymer ran deep. He even remembers the way Rymer's office was laid out.

"His office didn't have carpet and had a steel desk. I admired that," Jones says.

He remembers the Rymers' riding lawnmower: a 1961 Cub Cadet, "the Cadillac of mowers." In a nod to his boyhood aspirations, Jones once bought himself a Cub Cadet. And not a 2014 or 2015 model, but a 1961 Club Cadet, an exact replica of the Rymers'.

When Jones was young, a member of the Hardwick family lived in his neighborhood, and drove a navy blue, 1963 split window Corvette.

"That really wowed me," Jones says.

The entrepreneurial fuse inside Jones ignited during those formative years, as he observed Rymer and the Hardwicks. Jones saw another way of life. He was born to a successful businessman in his own right, his father was the owner and operator of a local credit reporting and debt collecting agency. But Jones began elevating his aim.

"That was the first time I realized there were people more successful than my dad, I guess," Jones says.

Last December, Jones was away from home traveling; and while he was gone, a delivery was made to his house. It was a navy blue, 1963 split-window Corvette.

***

In April 2010, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" spent a portion of her show talking about payday lenders.

"They don't call themselves loan sharks, of course, they call themselves payday lenders, which makes them sound less like cartoon villains but doesn't really change what they actually are," she said.

Maddow singled out Allan Jones.

"Unlike his customers, Allan Jones is not exactly living paycheck to paycheck," she said.

In 2011, a Daily Beast writer named Gary Rivlin profiled Jones, unkindly.

"Jones gets extra points on the loathsomeness scale for giving the country the payday loan industry," Rivlin wrote.

But Jones doesn't shy away from the wealth that Check Into Cash has brought him. And he believes it's a business that fills a need, helping those with money needs bridge the gap between paychecks — and yes, at a high interest rate, because these are higher-risk transactions.

On his website, Jones' biography begins with the founding of Check Into Cash in 1993. It tells how he left Middle Tennessee State University at 20 to help his father run the credit bureau business back home and how he eventually took over, and grew, the family enterprise.

Jones' bio includes how he sold the credit bureau — for a profit — and later started Check Into Cash.

"[Check Into Cash] has grown into the third largest payday lending company in the nation and become a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise," the bio states.

The bio also says the payday lending industry "proved popular with customers and profitable for Mr. Jones."

His Cleveland mansion, dubbed Creekridge, is a testament to the fact that Jones is fabulously wealthy, and that he doesn't care who knows it. It sits on 400 acres atop a ridge north of the city and overlooks the enormous home of LifeCare Centers of America founder Forrest Preston — and not by coincidence, some say, citing a friendly rivalry between the two.

Jones' home famously includes a private football field where the University of Tennesssee at Chattanooga football squad held a scrimmage game in 2004. It also includes his many cars and his horse stables.

Jones' public Facebook profile features hundreds of photos of him and his family leading a Gatsby-esque lifestyle.

Jones feels he has nothing to hide. He says the payday lending industry is immensely popular with consumers, if not with consumer groups.

At the end of the day Jones is a self-made man. He inherited the credit bureau business from his father, but he started the payday lending business on his own, and through years of six-day work weeks, grew it into the empire it is today.

While critics dissect the ethics of Jones' business, they often either gloss over or discount his business acumen.

"Allan really understands the consumer," says John "Thunder" Thornton, another East Tennessee entrepreneur and friend of Jones. "He understands how a consumer thinks."

Thornton has gained success in his own right, building a carpet manufacturing factory and selling it, then starting Thunder Enterprises, Inc., a real estate and investment company. Thornton knew Jones back when the two were in high school, Thornton in Maryville, Tenn., and Jones in Cleveland. Both were wrestlers. "Allan was a great wrestler," says Thornton. "I was a wrestler, but I was far from great." Joe Decosimo, founder of Chattanooga-based Decosimo Accounting, fostered the relationship between Jones and Thornton.

Thornton says Jones is funny, curious, a dedicated family man and possessed of a brilliant business mind.

"I think what impresses me is he's really a visionary," says Thornton. "He saw the opportunity with Check Into Cash, and he grew that business fabulously. His own intuition has served him extremely well."

Thornton says he can pitch a business idea to Jones and have an answer within minutes. "He gets right to the heart of the matter, fast," Thornton says.

Thornton observes Jones is also a genuinely inquisitive person, always exploring new ideas and people.

"He really enjoys asking people questions," says Thornton. "I don't care if it's he and I sitting down at the Waffle House with the short order cook back there. He'll fire questions at him."

Thornton says he and Jones share similar business philosophies, at least in terms of taking risks. Neither likes being asked, when pitching a new idea, why it has never been done before.

"I don't know, Mr. Banker, why don't you go ask them?" says Thornton. "But I'm going to do it."

When taking risks, "you can't have a fear of failure," he says.

Thornton says Allan Jones is successful because he has gone where others didn't think to go, and he's done what others didn't think to do.

"There's nothing wrong with being daring, different and first," he says. "I think he embodies that."

***

Allan Jones owns and operates more than a dozen companies. Most are payday lenders, or involve some aspect of the industry, but Jones also owns the Bald Headed Bistro restaurant, The Village Bake Shop, The Village Barberettes salon, The Village Green Town Center shopping center, WOOP FM, Jones Properties and Jones Airways.

While these hometown enterprises are small potatoes compared to his lending businesses, they do represent diversification at a point in history when some states a cities are tightening rules on payday lending. Just last month, Chattanooga city officials announced a push designed to limit growth of payday lending establishments.

Jones rents out his yacht and his jets. He recently acquired a large stake in Cleveland's airport and moved his jets there, out of Chattanooga.

Jones' latest business acquisition is Hardwick Clothes. Not long into his tenure as chairman of the company's board, Jones successfully wooed some of Hart Shaffner Marx's top people south to work at Hardwick. Hart Shaffner Marx is based in Chicago and is nearly as old as Hardwick. The brand was worn by Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Bruce Bellusci, a Hart vice-president, became president and CEO of Hardwick, and when the dust of the hires settled, Jones went back and plucked some of Hart's top salesmen. It's not unlike the tactic newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst employed when he arrived in New York in the 1890s and bought rival publisher Joseph Pulitzer's best writers out from under him. Jones says the comparison is on point.

Jones is familiar with America's great tycoons and industrialists. He loves history. He's learned from the teachings of people who made it, and people who didn't. When you don't know anything about manufacturing, find people who do and get their help. When you don't know anything about fashion, find people who do and hire them. That's what Jones has done at Hardwick.

But "part of business has to do with luck, too," he says.

One recent morning at the Hardwick offices, Jones was wearing the prototype navy blazer that he is working to perfect. Jones says the company will focus on one item at a time and eventually build a catalog of the best men's clothing in the country.

He has taken a personal interest in the details of Hardwick's clothes.

While showing the highlights of the new Hardwick blazer, Jones asks that the prototype buttons be brought in. One was brassy, like the yellow gold Rolex on his wrist.

"See that?" he says, holding the two side-by-side.

The other button had a darker, flat metal finish with black hatching around the curvy "H" icon in the center. Jones didn't like either button. He imagined a color and texture somewhere in-between.

"People think because you own it, you always get your way," he said. "I don't always get my way, and when I don't get my way I get mad.

"But I make sure to get my way 51 percent of the time."


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