Six years ago, Diane Richardson was close to giving up.
The towing service that her husband, Gene, had built into one of the largest in the area was over a half-million dollars in debt, largely because of decisions he had made while struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.
When lawyers asked Richardson if she wanted to file for bankruptcy, she remembers thinking: “I did. I wanted it all to end. I was so fed up at the time, but the words that came out of my mouth were ‘No.’ ”’
Today, Arrow Wrecker Service is nearly out of debt and on solid financial ground, although not as big as before, Richardson said.
She credits her employees, family, outside help and a philosophy she says started with her husband for the turnaround.
“We got into this business to help people,” she said. “For my husband, that was quite a thrill – to help somebody.”
Richardson might have had something to do with it, too, coming up with a couple of low-cost ideas for promoting the business.
Gene Richardson started Arrow in 1977. Diane had worked as a portrait photographer and for a bank before joining her husband at Arrow.
Arrow moved into its current location – an old yellow house on MacArthur surrounded by acres of damaged or impounded cars – about 20 years ago.
Arrow has 22 employees and 15 tow trucks. The trucks come in three sizes, for light, moderate and heavy-duty work. Most of the work is towing vehicles that have been involved in accidents or simply broken down.
“People don’t call us because they want to, but because they need to,” Richardson said.
Arrow has a contract with area law enforcement agencies to tow and store vehicles until they are reclaimed or auctioned. That leads to visits by some unhappy people.
“This is often the first place they come after they get out of jail,” Richardson said. “My husband taught me that you treat them no differently than another customer. They’re your friend until they prove they’re your enemy. The gist of it is to get them out of here as quickly as possible.”
Without money for advertising, Richardson said she came up with the idea of painting an old tow truck like the character Tow Mater from the movie “Cars.” It sits outside the yellow house when not showing up at parades and other community events.
“We still get carloads of people stopping to take pictures,” she said. “Children love him. If we move him for one day, our phone starts ringing – ‘Where’s Mater?’ ”
Richardson had another truck painted pink in honor of the fight against breast cancer.
Richardson kept another advertising device: Wichita’s oldest time and temperature number, which was established in 1962 and which her husband bought in 1985. Even in the Internet age, the number (686-6621) gets about 2,000 calls a day.
“We’re shocked” at its popularity, she said. “When daylight savings time hits, that thing can’t hardly keep up.”
Richardson said the biggest changes in the towing business have been improved technology and stricter safety requirements for drivers. “We don’t have people breaking their back anymore.”
Her daughters, Sunny and Jessica, came to work at Arrow after their father’s illness was diagnosed. Gene Richardson now receives full-time care after several years during which Diane tried to take care of him while running the business. She said she learned it’s impossible to do both without help, a message she passes on to others as a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Richardson noted that she’s one of the few women who head a towing service.
“It’s kind of like putting a man to work in the bra department,” she said.