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Family is charged up about Batteries Plus

The only batteries most people used regularly 12 years ago were in their watch and TV remote. Today, the average person might replace batteries in their cell phone, laptop, pedometer, toothbrush, garage door opener and mp3 player.

This increase in demand has enabled the father-and-son team of Jerry and Stephen Wiles to open six Batteries Plus stores in the Denver area, including their latest last month in Boulder.

"There are batteries everywhere; every place has them," Jerry Wiles said. He and his son attribute their success to lucky timing and a two-tiered business model.

"We got into the battery market before batteries were cuttingedge," Stephen Wiles said. When they opened their first two stores in 1995, the Wileses stocked four cell-phone batteries and two or three laptop batteries. Today, their stores carry hundreds of cell-phone batteries and more than 50 laptop ones, in addition to batteries for everything from hearing aids to elevators.

The first Batteries Plus store opened in Green Bay, Wis., in 1988. There are now 290 Batteries Plus stores and 170 franchisees, said Batteries Plus spokesman Chad Nason.

Jerry Wiles first heard about Batteries Plus in 1991 from a friend who was interested in opening a Batteries Plus store. Stephen Wiles worked in that friend's store for a few months to get a feel for the franchise before he and his father decided to open their own shop.

Jerry, his wife Clare, and Stephen Wiles formed Gold Peak Investments Corp. in 1994, through which they are the sole owners of the six stores. They tried to open a Boulder store four or five years ago, but couldn't find the right location. Today, they're confident that Boulder will prove to be a good market.

They declined to disclose how much the stores earned last year, but Stephen Wiles said they're making a healthy profit.

The average Batteries Plus franchisee invests $220,000 to open a store and spends four weeks in training. Only four other franchisees have opened six or more stores.

Batteries Plus sells to both retail and commercial customers. This two-tiered model works well because it provides a more stable income than retail alone. Last winter, when snowstorms kept retail customers at home, commercial customers who had to keep working kept the Wileses busy, Stephen Wiles said.

The Wileses work with about 3,000 commercial customers, who make up 35 percent of their sales. Their commercial customers include offices, hotels, pharmaceutical companies, churches and original equipment manufacturers.

Brian Ross is a purchaser for Wanco, a Arvada manufacturer that makes lighted highway and law-enforcement sign trailers, such as those used near road construction sites. Many of Wanco's products are solar-powered or battery operated.

"They've been able to supply batteries for us at a reasonable cost that we weren't able to get anywhere else," Ross said. "We're able to piggyback off their buying power."

Ross said that he's ordered $50,000 worth of batteries from Batteries Plus so far this year. Timeliness, price and availability make Batteries Plus one of Wanco's best suppliers, he said.

Batteries Plus doesn't just sell batteries. It also builds custom battery packs, installs batteries in gadgets such as iPods and the new iPhone that don't allow easy access to batteries, and does onsite battery inspections.

Mike Cole owns Alternative Communications in Mead and sells, installs and services telecommunications equipment. Some of his largest customers include local hospitals that have backup battery systems to keep their phones running during power outages or generator failures.

Cole replaces the batteries in uninterruptible power supply units that he services, but recommends that his customers call Stephen Wiles to schedule an on-site battery inspection to make sure that batteries in safety devices aren't out of date.

"What I've found is that most businesses want something that's simple, at a fair price and with good customer service. And we can offer that," Stephen Wiles said. Although most batteries can be ordered over the Internet, Batteries Plus stores have experienced staff on hand to help customers choose the appropriate battery.

Finding good employees has been the toughest part of running the business, Stephen Wiles said.

It takes a month to train a new employee so that they can be alone on the sales floor, and three months before most people are comfortable answering customers' questions, he said. As a result, the Wileses are always on the lookout for smart people to staff the stores.

The battery industry grew from a $22 billion market in 2005 to a $24 billion market in 2006. With every batch of new gadgets, there are batteries that go with them. "The biggest challenge is staying cutting-edge," Stephen Wiles said, but this growing market also makes it difficult for competitors to gain a foothold.

But, it wasn't easy for the Wileses either. "You start your own business so you can work halfdays - 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.," Jerry Wiles jokes. In the beginning, he was the office manager, accountant and bookkeeper while Stephen ran the stores.

Jerry Wiles last year went into semi-retirement and now works 30 hours a week. Stephen Wiles still works 55 to 60 hours a week, but said that it's much better than his previous 80-hour weeks.

"I get up every morning and remember the first five years," Stephen said. "You never take it for granted."