Is Jerome Oxman the world's oldest living entrepreneur? Considering he just turned 96, it's a pretty safe assumption.
Oxman started Oxman's Surplus back in 1961 -- and built it into a three-fold company: A store full of surplus equipment, clothes and just about anything military-related you can imagine; a free museum; and a military-themed cafe featuring hot dogs, chicken nuggets and MREs, the military ready-to-eat meals that soldiers eat on the battlefield.
And while his sons, Murray, 61, and Jason, 49, now serve as president and vice president, respectively, Oxman still comes in to oversee his mini-empire in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., with his wife, Miriam. Most days, Monday through Friday, Oxman clocks in from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., building his business just as he has since the Kennedy administration.
On June 25, in celebration of his 96th birthday, Oxman will give tours of the store and museum. A World War II veteran, who served as a master sergeant on duty in Iran, Oxman has plenty of stories from his years selling military to share -- like the time he paid 10 cents for cans he thought contained water, but actually turned out to be silver, which he sold for $200 apiece.
For this nonagenarian, the entrepreneurial life has been a long and rewarding one.
I'm betting the question everyone asks you is, "Why haven't you retired?"
I just can't retire. I'd go crazy. I really like the business. I thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing, and my wife takes very good care of me. My wife is with me all the time. She's a gem -- that's all I can say about her. We haven't had a quarrel in 64 years. That's kept me young, too. But we truly enjoy being in business. I absolutely refuse to retire. I like to keep busy, and that's what we do, and Murray and Jason have kept this business going, gung-ho. It's been a remarkable thing.
You're celebrating a big birthday, but you're also hitting another milestone this year -- you've been in business for 50 years. How did you get your start?
We first started in mail order, and we were requested by the public to go into regular retail, and we did. We had run out of the mail-order items anyway, so we opened up and started doing business. For some reason, there was magic right from the beginning. Kids loved coming here, and they wanted to work at Oxman's. It's unusual that a small store like ours has done so well, but we've had a wonderful time. A lot of the fun has been being able to supply what the customer wanted. So we just built our business on goodwill and treated our customers with kid gloves and a lot of friendship, and each time they left, they'd say, "I just love your store."
Music to every entrepreneur's ears.
Some years have been tough, but the tough times kind of peter out. You just have to get behind what you're doing and know that you can't lie back and rely on people coming to you. So you have to do some unusual things to draw in better crowds.
Unusual things? Like what?
Like holding contests for the youngsters -- and the adults, too. I used to go to all the aircraft companies and bid on little things that youngsters and older people like, and then I would price them so low that they couldn't help but buy them. A lot of them would say, "I didn't need that, but I bought it anyway." I was also the president of the Associated Surplus Dealers in Los Angeles for two years. That was one of the biggest surplus dealers in the country, and I got a lot of information on the industry, being the president.
Your sons now do a lot of the heavy lifting of the business. What are your responsibilities these days?
I'm going through our very first store, which is next door. We're going to be opening up again. We had moved from our first store into a large warehouse building that we're operating now, but we're going to reopen the first store, and I'm filling it with all kinds of gadgets that people love to go through and look at.
So you're actually expanding your business?
Yes. We'll have just about everything that you can think of. That's what keeps us going. I don't want to sit back and wait for success. I go get it.
Name: Jerome Oxman
Company: Oxman's Surplus
Location: Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Employees: Two full-time, three part-time
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/23/11.