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February 10, 2016 | Tom Ballard

PART 4: Cowell says “Shop at Home was an entrepreneur’s dream”

Paul Cowell(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth article in a five-part series about local entrepreneur, minister and philosopher Paul Cowell.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Paul Cowell sold Book Warehouse in the early 1990s and Shop at Home network a few years later.

About the former, he says simply, “I tried a lot of things, and some worked. Shop at Home was an entrepreneur’s dream. You could try anything. We were auctioning long before eBay.”

One might suggest that the pastor turned entrepreneur had a pretty strategic sense of what could be successful.

“The year I bought it (Shop at Home), sales were $3 million,” Cowell said. Just a few years later – April 1993, they were $26 million. The network specialized in loose gems and sports memorabilia, but there were also a few intriguing offerings.

The down-to-earth Cowell, who has a great sense of humor, told us his favorite product ever sold on Shop at Home was something named crapolite. What is it, you might ask? The answer is petrified dinosaur dung.

“We sold $45,000 worth in two weeks before we ran out,” Cowell said. How was it branded? The answer was as a “rare fossilized paperweight” for secretaries to give their bosses.

In 1993, investors from Nashville and Brownsville bought Shop at Home and moved it to Music City.

“Their idea was to increase revenues and everything will catch-up,” Cowell explained. “I was holding everything together with a rubber band and piece of string.”

The new owners bought all new equipment and increased revenues to $400 million, but were still losing money. Scripps eventually bought Shop at Home and fairly soon sold it to Knoxville-based Jewelry Television.

Since 1994, Cowell has turned his attention to realizing the vision he first had in 1963. It is embodied in the Whitestone Country Inn, a AAA 4-Diamond bed and breakfast located on 600 acres on the shores of Watts Bar Lake.

“It was 34 years from making my first notes to the opening of Whitestone,” Cowell told us. “I had the dream, but it looked like it was not going to happen.”

The dream was a world class inn and retreat venue that would be “free for missionaries, discounted for pastors, and rented to others.”

There was one unsuccessful effort in 1981 when it appeared that the State of Tennessee was going to sell Norris Dam State Park Inn. Cowell spent a year making plans for a retreat at the site, only to have the state reverse course.

The Innkeeper, who still serves as pastor for Whitestone’s chapel, notes 1,500 pastors a month are leaving the profession. “They are my heroes,” Cowell says. “We have to take care of them.”

In July alone, the Whitestone Inn hosted 138 missionaries.

Along the way, Cowell also helped start the Christian Hospitality Network, a global network of inns giving discounts to pastors and missionaries.

NEXT: One example of the philosophy that Cowell lives, breathes and encourages.

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