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Byline: B.C. Jones
Jun. 26--John Cleek got an early start in the family appliance business.
When he made his first sale, he had to explain to the customer that he couldn't deliver the newly purchased goods; at age 15, he wasn't old enough to drive the delivery truck.
His responsibilities -- and utility as a truck driver -- increased gradually through high school and college, then took a sudden and unexpected jump when he was 23. His father, Elmo, died in a plane crash, and Cleek began running the family's store at 1000 W. Worley St., across from the former Nowell's grocery.
"Tiger" John, so called for loyalty to his alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia, was successful in traditional sales of TV sets and appliances -- until Columbia Mall opened in 1985.
Following three years of flat sales, Cleek implemented one of his father's key rules of business conduct: "Get bigger, get better or get out."
Realizing that a change in strategy was required to survive, Cleek cut his retailing back to a few pre-rented items and began offering a range of televisions, appliances and household furnishings on a "rent-to-own" plan that still confuses the public.
How can he offer goods to non-cash customers with "no deposit, no credit, no need for a loan," as his television ads proclaim?
To understand Cleek's business and his intensive efforts to protect it through state and national legislation, it's helpful to contrast it with installment-credit sales and credit-card purchases. These loan mechanisms allow the purchaser to finance the unpaid balance -- both principal and …