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Going Back In Time; Premier's John Darden, APRO's Rental Dealer of the Year, Forges 30 Years Of Connections
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What I lost in hair I gained in wisdom. One thing I've learned in 30 years is to take it a little slower and try to be more sound in our judgment.
John Darden, Premier Franchisee, APRO Rental Dealer of the Year

John Darden - Listen to RTO Online's podcast interview with John from Premier's 2007 convention in Miami, Florida. Send a message to John Darden

John Darden is a quiet family man from Charlottesville, Virginia who looks more like a high-school principal than the man who has played a key role in shaping the rent to own industry since 1976. Darden was recently named the Association of Progressive Rental Organization's (APRO) Rent to Own Dealer of the Year for 2007 for what Larry Carrico, president of the association, called, "The love of the game."

"In 1976, I was unemployed and my wife and I had just had our son Christopher," Darden told RTO Online in a recent interview. "I answered an ad in the paper for an area manager at Remco. I worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day for $660 per month - and I thought I was in heaven."

During his subsequent journey through three decades of the RTO business, Darden's career intersected with both the pioneers of the 1970s, and the industry leaders of the new century.

Darden was hired at Remco in 1976 by Joe Arnett, currently Vice President of Sales for RTO giant Rent-A-Center. "At that time," said Darden, "Joe had gone to work for Curtis Mathes and that was also when Willie Talley was starting to develop ColorTyme."

"I knew very shortly after I got into the RTO business that this was where I would make my career," Darden recalls. "I built a close relationship with Willie Talley and, within a few years, he decided he wanted to put my wife Donna and me in business."

With Talley's help, Darden opened the first ColorTyme in Charlottesville. "When we came here in 1980, nobody had ever heard of Rent to Own," Darden said.

Despite the challenges, the Darden's ColorTyme grew quickly and John soon hired an energetic young man, who was tending bar in Charlottesville at the time, as a manager trainee. That young man's name was Trooper Earle, now the CEO of Premier Companies, parent company of Premier Rental Purchase, Premier home Furnishings Premier Wheel Rentals and U-Getcha Cash. "I guess it can be said that if it hadn't been for that first ColorTyme in Charlottesville, Trooper Earle may not have gotten into the rental business," said Darden.

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Eventually, John and Trooper partnered and opened 16 ColorTyme stores until he hit what he refers to as a "mental wall" in 1995 and took a five year break to get into the publishing industry.

John re-entered the RTO industry slowly. First as a store manager, then a regional for a local chain. In November of 2005, Darden, his son Christopher, and friend Mike Hubbard opened the first Premier Rental Purchase in Virginia. "I was in the first group of ColorTyme dealers that got five year jackets and I see a lot of similarities between the way Premier is growing and what I saw in ColorTyme in the 80s."

Word spread quickly among his old customers that John was back - and they returned in droves. "Its a testament to how you treat people," says John. "I'm blessed to still have customers I had in 1980. Their children, and now their grandchildren come into the stores."

Darden says humbly that the loyalty he earns is not unique. "I know many dealers who experienced the same thing. This business is 100% relationships." Darden said not everybody is cut out to be a people person. He encourages such people to be owners or investors, but to stay out of the store. "If you're going to be the person who handles the operations you have got to be a person who believes in building long term relationships."

"I've had an opportunity to go back in time."
John Darden
Send a message to John Darden

John is looking at branching out into other areas like custom wheels, but he plans to be a bit more cautious this time around. "It used to be that you opened stores as quickly as possible," he said. "What I lost in hair I gained in wisdom. One thing I've learned in 30 years is we should take it a little slower and try to be more sound in our judgment."

The Dardens are the definition of a family business. Son Christopher is a partner, daughter Jamison is the company's banker and the Darden's daughter in-law's law firm represents his company. "My wife has been my partner since the beginning," John said. "Donna is assistant director for a private school in Charlottesville for learning disabled children, but I constantly seek out her advice."

John, always active in local politics, was there when Virginia passed one of the first sound rent to own laws in the 80s. While he doesn't see the current political climate as impending doom, Darden recommends remaining politically vigilant. "Its not a panic situation, but it's a very serious situation," he said. "We need to work, particularly with APRO - our leaders on the national forefront. We shouldn't stick our head in the sand and pretend it will go away on its own."

Darden says it's all about educating legislators on the new face of the rent to own industry. "When you go into a traditional rent to own store today, it's not the rent to own store of 20 years ago," he said. "Unfortunately, I think a lot of negative things that surface every so often are things that actually happened far in the past."

"When you're a growing industry, you're going to make some mistakes and it's always the unusual things that get noticed. Most rent to own dealers are honorable, family oriented individuals that want to serve the public."

Darden says the industry should focus on educating legislators on today's rent to own industry instead of focusing on defending the past. "When the true story of the rent to own industry is told to legislators, when we talk about the thousands of people that we serve today, it's an eye opening experience for them."

Some might say that, after 30 years, starting over would be unthinkable. Quite the contrary according to John. He sees a bright future for himself, for his family, for Premier and the 50,000 people who make up the rent to own industry in North America.

"I've had an opportunity to go back in time," John said. Though he doesn't say it, one gets the sense that John went back in time to give his son Christopher those same wonderful experiences that made him who he is. Who knows, Christopher may have already hired the next CEO of a national rent to own chain.

Send a message to John Darden


RTO Online is the official channel for Rent-to-Own Industry News and the only independent source of news for the rent-to-own, rental-purchase, lease-purchase trade. RTO Online (Rent to Own Online) represents the choice of the entire RTO Industry for trusted information, as it happens.

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