2020 Community Service Beacon Award

  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Aubuchon Hardware—Westminster, Mass.

    By Chris Jensen

    Aubuchon Hardware, a Century Club retailer founded in 1908, operates 104 stores in New England and upstate New York.
    Aubuchon Hardware, a Century Club retailer founded in 1908, operates 104 stores in New England and upstate New York.»

    Aubuchon Hardware was founded in 1908, so this is not their first pandemic and definitely not the first crisis the Century Club retailer has faced.

    “We’re a fourth-generation, family-owned private business and there has been a remarkable tradition handed down from my great-grandfather to me,” says President Will Aubuchon IV, one of seven family members in senior roles. “We are all committed to leaving things better than we found them and it’s important to do things the right way. There is a resilient culture in the family—we are in it for the long haul.”

    The company operates 104 Aubuchon Hardware stores in five New England states plus upstate New York, so they have a lot of different communities to serve during challenging times.

    Aubuchon drafted a special message and recorded a video to explain the company’s COVID-19 response, offering encouragement through the difficult times and emphasizing their focus on helping employees and customers. He also shared many more messages internally with their 1,500 employees such as this video thanking them for their dedicated effort.

    “It was quite scary in those early days, because so much was unknown and the communities were relying on us as an essential business,” Aubuchon recalls. “Our key message was to stand behind our employees. Safety is our number one priority, because the community depended on it. We rallied around doing important work in our stores and following our core values of taking care of each other.”

    Aubuchon has seen a huge increase in BOPIS (buy online pickup in store), which is complemented by its curbside service.
    Aubuchon has seen a huge increase in BOPIS (buy online pickup in store), which is complemented by its curbside service.»

    Safety First

    Like all retailers, Aubuchon developed new safety protocols without a playbook and then had to roll those out to 104 stores. “We installed hand sanitizer stations for each store at the beginning at a huge cost. We had to get PPE, gloves, safety glasses, even face shields, making a huge investment in masks for all employees,” he explains.

    They developed procedures for social distancing and wiping down all surfaces. They invested in an outside cleaning service for all stores seven days a week, which led to deep cleaning in the stores. To simplify the challenge of operating in so many different towns and states, they followed the most stringent requirements and enforced company-wide wearing of masks and temperature checks, urging associates to stay home when sick.

    Their focus on safety has paid off, according to Aubuchon, who reports that so far they have only had one positive case.

    All Aubuchon employees were issued masks early to provide an atmosphere of safety.
    All Aubuchon employees were issued masks early to provide an atmosphere of safety.»

    Maintaining full staffing was definitely a big issue at the beginning. “We erred on the side of caution initially. We were proactive at reducing store hours and hired temp positions to support team members dealing with the extra demand,” Aubuchon says, adding that they are not at full staff yet but are back to regular hours.

    One of the first goals was to get employees to use their paid time off, recognizing that they were starting a marathon crisis. The company also more than tripled what they would normally pay out for recognition pay bonuses. “It is very difficult to be a hardware store employee this year due to the virus concerns. Our stores are a place where you feel supported. We’re in this together—that’s a core value,” Aubuchon says.

    Large signs were used to encourage social distancing.
    Large signs were used to encourage social distancing.»

    At the beginning, pandemic-driven unknowns quickly turned into a windfall for Aubuchon Hardware. “So many people and businesses are suffering—there are winners and losers—but the independent hardware channel has been on the winning side,” Aubuchon notes.

    “Sales are strong, especially lawn and garden and paint,” he adds. “We’ve had a very significant increase in average ticket size and a meaningful increase in customer count, which has been hard to come by. When you have both in a positive trend it produces significant gain.”

    Aubuchon Hardware has invested heavily in e-commerce for many years, so they were somewhat prepared for the tremendous surge in web traffic and BOPIS (buy online pickup in store). “Our web revenue is up 1,500 percent for the year,” Aubuchon says. “We’re launching contactless curbside service, so customers can just check in online when they arrive without calling.”

    Aubuchon points out that the company handled its own distribution for 90 years, getting out of operating a warehouse a few years ago. “Through this pandemic, it’s been a challenge for all distributors to keep goods flowing and we didn’t have to wrestle with that,” he says. We would’ve been lower on the totem pole with vendors.”

    He adds, “Orgill is a great partner. When we were in distribution, they were always very responsive if we had supply challenges. We grew significantly in our relationship. Orgill offers a lot of innovative and forward-looking programs.”

    The company Facebook page found fun ways to promote awareness of new services and safety protocols, like posting pictures of “hero” employees wearing capes.
    The company Facebook page found fun ways to promote awareness of new services and safety protocols, like posting pictures of “hero” employees wearing capes.»

    GIVING BACK TO COMMUNITIES

    The Aubuchon Foundation was started in 2008 by the third generation of the family. “We tip our hat to our vendors and wholesale partners for supporting us this year despite not being able to have our annual golf tournament. We can still make a meaningful difference with our support,” Aubuchon says.

    In 2019, the company started challenge grants. Each store would pick a local nonprofit to support and challenge customers to join the cause, with the Foundation matching donations up to $5,000. “Customers were very generous and we ended up donating $105,000 to local charities,” he says.

    In 2020, they made a proactive decision to support five different COVID-19 relief funds and donated over $100,000 to those relief funds throughout the various communities they serve in the Northeast.

    “Winning the Beacon Award means a lot and is a great honor for the whole team,” says Aubuchon. “The award is in recognition for all our dedicated employees who answered the call to serve the communities we operate in during challenging times. On behalf of our entire team, we want to thank The Hardware Connection and the sponsors for this award.”

  • Beacon Award for Community Service — ToshCo—Gustavus, Alaska

    By Chris Jensen

    Tosh and Cassia Parker, who own ToshCo-Icy Strait Wholesale in the remote Alaskan town of Gustavus, have put in a herculean effort to keep their community stocked with food and essential items during the pandemic.
    Tosh and Cassia Parker, who own ToshCo-Icy Strait Wholesale in the remote Alaskan town of Gustavus, have put in a herculean effort to keep their community stocked with food and essential items during the pandemic.»

    Tosh Parker, who along with his wife Cassia owns ToshCo-Icy Strait Wholesale in Gustavus, Alaska, made national news earlier this year when it was revealed the lengths he went to keep their remote small town supplied with food and other essential items when the supply ferry shut down. He simply used his own 96-foot supply boat and made the arduous 14-hour journey himself every week. Click here and here to read more about this amazing story from CNN and The Hustle. We interviewed Tosh Parker about his fiercely independent and resilient business.

    What makes your store unique in the marketplace? We are the only grocery, hardware and lumber store in our small town of 450 year-round residents. There are no roads in or out, so everything has to come in on a boat or in a plane.

    What is the history of the business? We started the store 10 years ago with $3,000 in inventory from Costco. The local grocery/hardware store at the time was charging nearly $12 for a gallon of milk when you could buy a gallon of milk 50 miles away (by air) in Juneau for $3. I figured there had to be a better way, so we built our own shipping company to bring products into town.

    How long did you have to make the 14-hour commute by boat to provide supplies? We’re still doing it, believe it or not. We were definitely surprised it struck such a cord and received so much coverage. I suppose in the midst of seemingly endless bad news it was something positive for people to latch onto and that’s why it resonated. Even though the state ferry started running again, COVID reductions, breakdowns and major budget issues have made the ferry so unreliable that we’re still having to run the landing craft every two weeks to fill in. This winter the ferry will be shutting down for a couple of months due to budget issues from COVID, so we’ll be out there yet again making sure the town stays supplied. It’s going to be another long winter.

    Every week or two throughout the pandemic, Tosh Parker has made a 14-hour boat trip to Juneau to bring back food and whatever else the community needs.
    Every week or two throughout the pandemic, Tosh Parker has made a 14-hour boat trip to Juneau to bring back food and whatever else the community needs.»

    What impact has the coronavirus had on your business? Sales are down because a major part of the local economy is tourism. While we only have about 450 year-round residents, our population normally swells to 1,000-1,200 in the summer with multiple lodges, summer residents and independent tourists. That didn’t really materialize this year. The lodges and summer residents are a big part of our annual sales.

    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, what steps did you take to provide the community the relief they needed? Essentially, we scrambled to source scarce products from all over the U.S. to make sure we had enough for the community. When none of our suppliers had toilet paper, we started calling companies with large warehouses and buying their personal business backstock if that’s what it took.

    What measures have you adopted to keep the store sanitized and customers safe? We were one of the early adapters of Lexan dividers between our customers and staff, even before most stores down south started installing them. We also created physical barriers to help maintain separation wherever possible and of course increased our sanitation protocols. We look forward to the day when we can rip out all the obtrusive barriers and dividers and have normal interactions with our customers again.

    Making sure the store is stocked with fresh produce, meat and toilet paper requires long hours and lots of dedication, but ToshCo never lets the community down. The staff pulls phone and email orders long after the store closes and delivers to people in quarantine.
    Making sure the store is stocked with fresh produce, meat and toilet paper requires long hours and lots of dedication, but ToshCo never lets the community down. The staff pulls phone and email orders long after the store closes and delivers to people in quarantine.»

    What % of sales comes from hardware products and what are your top-selling hardware categories? The store is very small (9,000 sq. ft.) and hardware is our second-largest category after grocery. The top-selling category is plumbing. There is no city water or sewer here, so everyone has their own well and septic. That equates to a lot of plumbing to maintain between your well, pump, pressure tank, filters, softener, lift station, etc.

    How difficult has it been to source products, especially grocery and food items, from all over the U.S. during the pandemic? We are the only local place to buy food and sourcing it was difficult. That being said, the minute we caught wind of potential scarcities we went into overdrive sourcing goods from all over the U.S., even from non-wholesale companies who for one reason or another had some supply of their own. We were quick enough on the trigger to make sure we didn’t run out of most supplies during the frenzy of the pandemic. ToshCo never ran out of basics like toilet paper. Some locals were even shopping for items here and shipping them to friends and family down south who couldn’t get them in major metropolitan areas, so we honestly fared fairly well here considering.

    How have you stepped up your delivery service to provide products to people under quarantine? Alaska instigated both interstate and even intrastate travel bans early on and those who could travel were mandated to quarantine upon arrival. In addition, many residents went into self-imposed quarantine and wouldn’t leave their homes. That became incredibly challenging, because people would email orders and our already overworked staff would have to pull all of those orders, coordinate payment and coordinate delivery. If we’re out of an item the staff would have to contact the customer and try to work through a substitution. Hardware was especially difficult. It was incredibly time consuming and I remember one time looking at the email as orders were flooding in having no idea where we would get the manpower to pull them all.

    ToshCo sells groceries, hardware, lumber and other essentials in about 9,000 square feet of space. It is the only place in town to buy groceries.
    ToshCo sells groceries, hardware, lumber and other essentials in about 9,000 square feet of space. It is the only place in town to buy groceries. »

    The staff stepped up and made sure the orders got filled and between my wife Cassia (who’s really the one keeping the store going now), myself and the staff, we would run around for hours after closing making home deliveries. We also created a drop-off point on the front porch of the store, where customers could come and pick up their orders once they were pulled if they weren’t in travel-restricted quarantine. That helped alleviate some of the pressure of home deliveries of every order. We’re still doing some home deliveries today, but fewer than in the beginning.

    How have you used Facebook to keep customers informed about availability of grocery, hardware and LBM products? At times we will use Facebook to let people know when the boat will be arriving and a sampling of some of the items we were able to source. Recently, we’ve started a Facebook series to give people some insight into what’s all involved in making this work in such a remote environment, which we plan to continue for a few months.

    ToshCo employees wear face shields to stay safe.
    ToshCo employees wear face shields to stay safe.»

    Have you been able to maintain full staffing? So far there have been six positive cases in Gustavus. I took a test six days ago and am still awaiting the results of it, which makes it difficult to coordinate work when you don’t have confirmation. Thankfully, no family or staff have tested positive and we’re doing everything we can to keep our staff safe. We have been able to keep 100 percent of our staff during this period.

    What sort of community service involvement does ToshCo have in a typical year? ToshCo sponsors many local events from softball to fireworks. Some of those didn’t happen this year, but we still put on a large fireworks show for the town on July 4th to help raise spirits a little.

    Talk about the role Orgill has played in helping your business be successful. Orgill has been really fantastic to work with. Of course, they experienced many of the same shortages every supplier did, but whatever they did have was delivered on time and correctly. Of all of our vendors, Orgill is by far the best at accurately delivering exactly what we ordered if it’s in stock.

    What does it mean for your business to be honored with the Beacon Award for Community Service? It’s certainly an honor to be recognized. For us it’s just another day taking care of our community and we certainly didn’t seek any accolades for doing it. It’s just part of the job.

    Tosh Parker’s 96-foot barge, dubbed the Claim Jumper, heads to shore with its valuable cargo.
    Tosh Parker’s 96-foot barge, dubbed the Claim Jumper, heads to shore with its valuable cargo.»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Island Home Center & Lumber – Vashon, Wash.

    By Chris Jensen

    Earl Van Burkirk has owned Island Home Center & Lumber in Vashon, Wash., for 32 years.
    Earl Van Burkirk has owned Island Home Center & Lumber in Vashon, Wash., for 32 years.»

    Vashon Island is a short 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle—a city that has been hit hard by the coronavirus. When stay-at-home orders were issued early on, Vashon Island residents focused even more on shopping local instead of venturing to the mainland.

    “We’re the second-largest store on the island, and people here are very eager to support local,” states Earl Van Buskirk, who was born and raised on the island. He has owned Island Home Center & Lumber for 32 years.

    Owner Earl Van Buskirk (front left) focused on employees first before deciding the best ways to support the community and keep customers safe.
    Owner Earl Van Buskirk (front left) focused on employees first before deciding the best ways to support the community and keep customers safe.»

    Putting Employees First

    When the pandemic hit, Van Buskirk had to quickly make some adjustments, even as business was taking off. He decided to take care of his 50 employees as the first priority in order to provide better service for the residents who needed them. They implemented new cleaning routines to keep staff and customers safe, doubling the outside cleaning service that came in. They put up plexiglass shields and encouraged employees to wear masks and gloves.

    With all the new policies and procedures implemented, Van Buskirk further encouraged his employees to set an example as leaders in their community. “I encouraged my team to wear masks early on. Most did, then it became required. A few weeks later, it was required of customers,” he points out. “We’ve given out several thousand masks and had very few who refused to wear them.”

    Keeping his team informed has been a top priority, and Van Buskirk tried to communicate stability. He emailed them twice a week to make sure they were updated on policies, procedures and the latest CDC guidelines. He talked to his five department managers throughout each day. He allowed employees who did not feel safe at work to stay home.

    “I had one employee who’s susceptible and wanted to stay home and four people that worked from home via remote computer access doing purchasing and coordinating sales for contractor sales,” Van Buskirk points out. “We’re doing our best to protect our team and our customers.”

    When the coronavirus hit, Island Home Center began to see contractor sales decline dramatically. However, as those sales declined, retail sales began to soar for the Do it Best member.

    “In mid-March, the state shut down contractor business, so that side dropped 45-50 percent for three months,” Van Buskirk explains. “Our contractor business came back in late May and we almost made up the decrease in June and July.”

    He adds, “Our retail customer counts were up 10-12% in March and April and our average ticket went up 40 percent as people were buying a lot more stuff. Our garden center and paint business were way up.”

    Since Van Buskirk received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, he was able to continue paying all his employees even during the lull in contractor business. He has also paid out three bonuses so far for employees who have worked through the pandemic.

    During the stay-at-home order, Vashon Island residents were forced to shop local for essential items like cleaning supplies.
    During the stay-at-home order, Vashon Island residents were forced to shop local for essential items like cleaning supplies.»

    EXTENDING A HELPING HAND

    To prioritize safety, the store figured out how to conduct a “touchless sale.” Customers can call or order online and pay for their order before they reach the store. Employees then package their order and load it into their car without customers having to set foot in the store. Transitioning to Epicor’s iNet platform will make the e-commerce and inventory control process go even smoother, Van Buskirk says.

    Island Home Center is more than a retail hardware store or a pro lumberyard, and Van Buskirk is constantly looking for places to fill needs. “Because of our location, we can do things that yards can’t do on the mainland,” he says.

    They are big on housewares and sell a lot of unusual items such as feed for animals, apparel, sporting goods and fishing supplies. The store also sells beer, wine and liquor, which has been up 200 percent since the pandemic.

    When local first responders were in need of masks, they donated a large quantity of their own stock. When their island needed a location to administer drive-through testing, Island Home Center donated tents so people could get tested without having to leave their cars, along with propane tank heaters and propane for the medical team. The store has hosted several blood drives in the parking lot.

    “We support Rotary, do a lot with the local schools and churches, give to kid sport teams in the community and help the food bank as much as possible,” Van Buskirk says. “During the pandemic I’ve had local restaurants cater meals to our team.”

    Owner Earl Van Buskirk has made sure the needs of island residents are met.
    Owner Earl Van Buskirk has made sure the needs of island residents are met.»

    CONTINUING TO GROW

    With 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse for LBM, Island Home Center will do between $12 million and $13 million in sales from 35,000 SKUs this year, according to Van Buskirk.

    The business was doing $350,000 in annual sales with three employees when he bought it back in 1988. It had been in the same family for 65 years, so Island Home Center is coming up on its 100th anniversary. Van Buskirk had previously spent 18 years at a wholesale LBM company based in Seattle, so he had been in hundreds of lumberyards over the years and learned what didn’t work from the failing ones and what does work from the successful ones.

    He has been a Do it Best member for 28 years, and says the co-op has done a good job sourcing products for them during the pandemic. “Do it Best is our first and best choice for most products and has been very good for my business over the years,” Van Buskirk says.

    “I’m 74 years old and I’ve never seen anything like this pandemic,” he adds. “Very unusual times. I feel fortunate that we’re an essential business.”

    Van Buskirk was surprised and honored to hear Island Home Center was named a Beacon Award winner for 2020. “Any time you’re recognized it means your team members are the reason. We’ve had our challenges this year, but they’re the ones who make my business be successful and that’s why my company has won an award,” he says.

    Plexiglass shields were installed early on to keep employees and customers safe.
    Plexiglass shields were installed early on to keep employees and customers safe.»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Miner’s Ace Hardware—Grover Beach, Calif.

    By Chris Jensen

    Paul Filice is president of Miner’s Ace Hardware, with nine locations in California.
    Paul Filice is president of Miner’s Ace Hardware, with nine locations in California.»

    Dealing with a pandemic is especially challenging when you operate nine stores in nine distinct California communities. However, Miner’s Ace Hardware—which has been operated by the Miner family since 1956—has found a way to shine while in the midst of an expansion project that is doubling the size of its Los Osos store.

    “We have families who have shopped our stores for generations. Miner’s is a local fixture and part of the neighborhoods and communities it serves. Our mission is to be a place where employees want to work and customers want to shop and we take this very seriously,” explains President Paul Filice, whose father-in-law Mike Miner is a second-generation co-owner. “In fact, we still have our first employee we hired working in our hardware department—Wally Lewis has been a part of the team for over 62 years,” he adds.

    With hardware stores deemed essential, Miner’s Ace quickly discovered customers were using the time during the shutdown to work on home projects such as painting, planting gardens and organizing garages. “We experienced both an increase in customer count and average ticket,” Filice says.

    The store’s safety policy was posted at the entrance, end cap headers and register areas.
    The store’s safety policy was posted at the entrance, end cap headers and register areas.»

    OPEN AND HERE TO HELP

    When the coronavirus hit, Filice’s first thought was how to remain safe with nearly 500 employees spread across nine store locations. “We allocated all our stock of cleaning supplies, wipes, hand sanitizer and other PPE to our teams in order to remain open. Second, we allowed our staff to purchase any product we had before it hit the sales floor. Any time we receive essential product the business took what it needed to remain safe and open, then the employees had a chance to get what they wanted, then we reached out to local hospitals and eventually schools,” he points out.

    Filice adds, “We communicated, ‘We are open and here to help’ early in the shutdown when there was so much uncertainty regarding who was open and at what capacity they were operating.”

    Within a day or two they had giant banners up with their “here to help” message along with emails, social media posts and print ads. Customers responded with messages of gratitude on Facebook.

    “We realized that in this time of isolation people needed to still feel connected—our nursery, associates and stores were able to provide this for our customers and community,” Filice says.

    All Miner’s Ace stores adopted a long list of safety measures designed to keep employees and customers safe. One employee was stationed at the front entrance offering masks and cleaning/collecting carts, beside a large sign that noted face coverings were required. Plexiglass shields were installed at every register and help desk. Social distance and directional floor stickers were put in place, with hand sanitizer near the entrance, at work stations like the paint desk and at each register.

    In addition to requiring all employees to wear face masks and cleaning/disinfecting high-touch surfaces throughout the day, Miner’s Ace enforced queueing when its stores hit their safe social shopping capacity. Introducing curbside pickup service also helped them manage in-store customer traffic.

    Keeping up staff morale has been a constant goal since the beginning. “We have worked hard to let our team know we appreciate their hard work and dedication. We have lunches delivered to the stores and have provided ‘Hero Pay’ to staff,” says Filice.

    Miner’s Ace has monthly prizes and parties the stores throw for their staff. “Every year we have a giant company picnic, but this year we had to cancel the event. In lieu of the party, we are going to have lunch delivered to the stores along with a company t-shirt, hat, backpack and some other swag to celebrate our team,” he points out.

    The Miner and Filice families have maintained the tradition of family ownership. From left to right: Giacomo Filice, Amy Filice, President Paul Filice, Celia Filice, CEO Mike Miner, Angelena Filice, Susie Miner and Bethany Miner, director of human resources.
    The Miner and Filice families have maintained the tradition of family ownership. From left to right: Giacomo Filice, Amy Filice, President Paul Filice, Celia Filice, CEO Mike Miner, Angelena Filice, Susie Miner and Bethany Miner, director of human resources.»

    GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY

    Once the pandemic hit, Miner’s made a shift in its community service initiatives and focused on the needs of students as they entered into a period of distance learning. They donated $30,000 to local schools to buy tablets and mobile hot spots for students in need.

    “We are all active in many parts of the community, serving on boards, coaching sports teams, involved in PTO/PTA associations and Rotary. It’s what makes small town America a great place to raise a family and wonderful spot for a hardware store,” Filice says.

    Safety masks became very hard to get, if not impossible. “We were a bit surprised when some of our B2B customers that were medical facilities were asking if we could supply them. This is when we started to realize the situation was a bit desperate. We were able to get several large shipments secured. Once they came in, we became a source for our local medical community. We made several large mask donations to local hospitals and medical facilities from our supply,” he says.

    Miner’s Ace made large donations of masks and other essential items to local hospitals and medical facilities.
    Miner’s Ace made large donations of masks and other essential items to local hospitals and medical facilities.»

    As the shutdown dragged on, Filice says they became aware how lucky they were to be deemed essential. Restaurants in particular were hit hard. “We ran a couple of different promotions on our social media in which we purchased $100 gift cards to local restaurants. We asked our customers to let us know what their local favorite restaurant was in hopes we could help start a conversation that would highlight local restaurants,” he says. “It was a big success. The local restaurants were extremely grateful for both the promotion they got online and the gift card purchases.”

    A local farm, Talley Farms, reached out to Miner’s as they were developing a local harvest box program and wished for their stores to be a pickup site. “We went from a few boxes a week per store to hundreds of boxes, with some stores needing to have pickups on two different days,” he says. “Not everyone that picks up their harvest box makes a purchase, but some do, and it is a great way to get people to walk our store, see our displays and product.”

    Filice adds, “We are humbled to be recognized with a Beacon Award. Community involvement has been part of our recipe for years. ‘Give back to the community that enables our success’ is one of our core values and something that our business and family take seriously.”

    A long list of safety measures and cleaning protocols were adopted to keep customers and employees safe.
    A long list of safety measures and cleaning protocols were adopted to keep customers and employees safe.»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Akard True Value Hardware—Zionsville, Ind.

    By Chris Jensen

    Leigh Ann Akard, the third-generation owner of Akard True Value in Zionsville, Ind., found time during the pandemic to open a second pop-up store in the business’ original location on the Brick Street.
    Leigh Ann Akard, the third-generation owner of Akard True Value in Zionsville, Ind., found time during the pandemic to open a second pop-up store in the business’ original location on the Brick Street.»

    Leigh Ann Akard has so many community service initiatives going on throughout the year, that it’s a wonder she has any time left to run her two stores, Akard True Value Hardware and Akard’s Back to the Bricks Village Hardware in Zionsville, Ind. She has a big heart and a generous spirit and is not someone who can stand by idly when she sees a need.

    The third-generation retailer also has trouble saying no to the local charities and nonprofits that hit her up for support. Leigh Ann is not one to just write a check—she’s active, involved and blessed with infectious enthusiasm for each cause.

    Akard True Value lit up its store front with Christmas lights and tree in March, encouraging people throughout the town to do the same as a way to spread cheer as a stay-at-home order took effect.
    Akard True Value lit up its store front with Christmas lights and tree in March, encouraging people throughout the town to do the same as a way to spread cheer as a stay-at-home order took effect.»

    CARING FOR THE WHOLE COMMUNITY

    Akard’s has been supporting The Caring Center for a number of years, which provides food, clothing and other essential items to the needy. “They needed donations to support families in crisis, so we set up a tree in the store to benefit them. The Caring Center has been going crazy with food needs this year. Same thing with Hope for Heroes to support homeless veterans. We react when there’s a need,” Leigh Ann says.

    The main store serves as a collection point for Sew 2 Serve, with people dropping off masks and fabric to make masks. They have also held two blood drives this year instead of the usual one.

    One of Leigh Ann’s favorite groups to support is the HAWK Foundation, which provides free seasonal events to help families who have members with special needs. “Our VIP carnival for the HAWK Foundation had to be canceled, but we’re determined to make sure our Christmas event happens this year,” she says.

    Leigh Ann Akard started the “Be the Light” campaign to keep up the community’s spirits and to support local businesses during the pandemic.
    Leigh Ann Akard started the “Be the Light” campaign to keep up the community’s spirits and to support local businesses during the pandemic.»

    RETURN TO ROOTS

    Leigh Ann opened up a pop-up shop in early May that is a return to roots for her business. Her grandfather, JJ Akard, bought Zionsville Hardware in 1955, which was then located on the Brick Street, as Zionsville’s Main Street is affectionately called.

    Her father, Steve, purchased the business in the late 1970s and then moved it one mile away to a 25,000-square-foot space in the Boone Village Shopping Center.

    With the business celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, a fortuitous event happened. The store’s original space on the Brick Street became available, so Leigh Ann decided it made sense to open up a pop-up shop there as a salute to her family’s legacy.

    “My dad had to move to the current location to compete with the big boxes. Even though we’ve been there now a long time, people still didn’t know who we were,” Leigh Ann explains. “So, we had to come ‘Back to the Bricks.’ We didn’t get to have a grand opening or celebrate our 65th anniversary, but we’ve had more one-on-one contact with customers in this pop-up store.”

    The main store features a 25,000- square-foot sales floor that includes a standalone rental center. To Leigh Ann, the store is about giving kids and retirees a job and those employees become family. It has an integral place serving all the needs of the community, not just supplying hardware for projects. “You see what’s happening out there and ask how you can be involved,” she explains.

    Akard’s “Back to the Bricks” Village Hardware store has evolved into a neat way to commemorate the business’ 65th anniversary by returning to its roots.
    Akard’s “Back to the Bricks” Village Hardware store has evolved into a neat way to commemorate the business’ 65th anniversary by returning to its roots.»

    LEARNING TO PIVOT

    When the coronavirus hit, Leigh Ann wanted to make the best decisions for her staff first. When the stay-at-home order was issued for Indiana, Akard’s was short-staffed and swamped with customers who had nothing better to do than wander around the store for an hour. “People just lost their minds at the beginning. There are no best practices that are not hazardous. It’s like playing Russian roulette every day,” she says.

    She sat down with her management team two to three weeks in and said she wanted to reward the staff now—either a dollar amount or a three-day weekend. “You need to give encouragement at the beginning. That helped with morale. Then I made sure everyone got back- to-back days off,” she explains.

    Leigh Ann tried to use humor and post fun videos early on, but people were being so hateful with their comments that she had to stop. “Everyone knows what’s going on with masks and it’s a highly emotional issue. I finally took the approach to be where the customer is at with masks,” she says.

    Akard’s focused on social distancing and sanitizing everything, and they figured out on the fly how to offer curbside pickup and delivery. “We have the ability to shift and to pivot. COVID will take out those retailers that don’t know how to pivot, while stores that make changes will be better positioned to shine later on,” she says.

    “My word of the day is gratitude. We are so grateful to be an essential business during a pandemic,” Leigh Ann adds, “We try so hard to meet people’s needs and sometimes there’s no way to please everyone. We’re operating as normal as possible in abnormal times.”

    She said it was awesome to see her team work so well in such adverse conditions this year. “It’s like being on a treadmill and every day the speed and the incline picked up,” Leigh Ann points out.

    They implemented a full computer upgrade and installed a new phone system while opening a new store during a pandemic, despite the fact Akard’s is still short-staffed. “Epicor has been great to work with, and we’re positioned well now with our technology,” she says.

    “Winning the Beacon Award for Community Service is a huge affirmation that we’re doing a good job. I can’t think of a time this would be more meaningful. It shows our foundation was firm. We were just doing what we felt we should be doing,” Leigh Ann says.

    Throughout the year, Akard True Value supports dozens of charities and nonprofits such as The Caring Center, which provides food, clothing and other essential items to the needy.
    Throughout the year, Akard True Value supports dozens of charities and nonprofits such as The Caring Center, which provides food, clothing and other essential items to the needy.»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service —Wholesale Lumber Company – Clint, Texas

    By Chris Jensen

    Joe and Jody Burks operate Wholesale Lumber Company in Clint, Texas, a family business started by his late father Tom in 1974.
    Joe and Jody Burks operate Wholesale Lumber Company in Clint, Texas, a family business started by his late father Tom in 1974.»

    Determined to come out of this pandemic as a stronger retailer, Joe Burks concludes that it’s all about planning, protecting the community and building trust. “It’s nice when your morals and business goals fall into sync without need for adjustment of either,” he says. “If customers and employees do not feel safe, it is going to have long-term consequences.”

    Burks and his wife Jody operate Wholesale Lumber Company in Clint, Texas, plus a second store six miles away in Fabens, Texas. His mother, Alma, owns the family’s original store in Socorro, which is managed by his younger sister, Jerri Burks.

    Jody, a retired fifth-grade math and science teacher, makes sure their customer service stays up to par. That has been more of a challenge during the pandemic.

    Joe made an educated guess early on that the coronavirus was here to stay for a while, and he wasted no time taking decisive action. “I started researching early and before we even had a case in El Paso, we had employees wear face masks,” he says.

    Around the time El Paso had its first case of COVID-19, they hired a full-time cleaning person dedicated to a continuous loop of disinfecting the high-use areas of the store. They intend to continue doing that even when the pandemic ends. “Having a clean store always makes an impression,” Joe says.

    You need big signs if you want to get people’s attention about something important, according to Joe Burks.
    You need big signs if you want to get people’s attention about something important, according to Joe Burks.»

    The Do it Best member started employee temperature self-checks, limited the break room to one occupant, installed a hand wash station at the store front, put in social distancing signage and floor markings, installed plexiglass shields at the cash registers, started keeping cash registers manned all the time and required all employees to wear cloth masks.

    Joe and Jody also revisited their sick leave policies and prohibited sick employees from coming in, making sure everyone knew the consequences for doing so.

    “Our staff is definitely uneasy about all these changes—it’s a lot to take in—but I made a point not to sugarcoat things. I worry for myself, my employees and the community,” says Joe, who holds weekly meetings with their 21 employees to keep them informed of updated policies.

    On the planning side, they updated their employee manual, added authorized signers on accounts, added to the pool of store key holders, started some cross training between jobs and wrote out an informal document of emergency “what ifs” to share with the staff.

    “When our first county stay-at-home order came out, we blocked half of our parking spots to limit peak traffic in the store and allowed only one person per vehicle in the store,” reports Joe. “During the biggest rush we had a person at the gate to let in one car at a time and would have 15 cars on the road waiting to get into the lot. It is much nicer having customers wait in line in their air-conditioned cars than elbow to elbow on the sidewalk.”

    Joe Burks made sure to keep his 21 employees updated as new procedures were enacted.
    Joe Burks made sure to keep his 21 employees updated as new procedures were enacted.»

    MASKING UP

    On the first day the CDC recommended the wearing of cloth masks, Wholesale Lumber Co. made them mandatory for everyone coming into the store.

    Joe had already spent several weeks gathering materials for masks. He had two ladies volunteer to make 1,000 cloth masks. They also came up with a low-tech mask made out of a blue shop towel, two rubber bands and four staples—several thousand of those were made. They set up an area to sanitize and then bag the homemade masks.

    “It is by no means an N95 mask, but some sources claim that as a nonwoven fabric it is superior to cloth,” he says. “And if nothing else, it does make a swell dust mask for those customers who still need those.”

    While the vast majority of their customers have been understanding of the need to wear masks, Joe says it’s easier to manage if you can hand them one.

    “With the level of service expected in a hardware store, social distancing can be hard on the sales floor. That customer who comes in holding a plumbing part still needs you to get close enough to look at it and tell him what he needs. I still stay on my crew about keeping their distance, but I think the cloth masks add an extra layer to that,” he adds.

    With safety protocols in place, Wholesale Lumber has found another way to make a difference in the community during the pandemic. “We’re going to do some small business grants to help make local businesses safer, supplying them with materials to handle a pandemic like sneeze guards. If you’re down to 25 or 50 percent capacity you’re probably not investing in projects like this, so there’s a need,” Joe says.

    Joe Burks says a complete remodel in 2018 has made his store better equipped to serve the community during a pandemic.
    Joe Burks says a complete remodel in 2018 has made his store better equipped to serve the community during a pandemic.»

    ADJUSTING TO THE NEW NORM

    Burks began working in the family business at the age of 10, and he is proud to carry on his father’s legacy. He is also trying to live up to the high standards set in the Clint store by his sister, Tina Bearden, who used to run that store before she passed away in March 2017 after a long illness. “She never met a stranger and brought out the good in everyone she met,” Joe says.

    Joe enlisted the help of Do it Best to give the Clint store a major facelift, spending 2018 remodeling the 45,000-square-foot facility. The space devoted to hardware doubled to 18,000 square feet, which proved fortuitous when the pandemic created previously unseen demand for products.

    “The remodel has put us in a much better position,” says Joe. “It widened aisles and gives a better flow of traffic. We’re getting ready to remodel the Fabens store and we may rethink a few things based on what’s happened during the pandemic.”

    According to Joe, business is absolutely exploding—up 57 percent in the second quarter. “It’s terrible to not want more business, but we’re at capacity now. Things are finally starting to calm down, but we had some growing pains,” he says.

    Now, the biggest challenge is finding enough lumber. “We’re in a low-income area and have people building their own house,” he explains.

    Do it Best has never been more of an asset to his business, Joe says, giving the Clint store the right upgrade and keeping his stores supplied during a pandemic.

    Burks says they are honored and humbled to win the Beacon Award for Community Service. “We’ve always been community-oriented. It’s really nice to be noticed that I was on the ball and started early while others were in denial about the virus,” he says.

    The staff at Wholesale Lumber has stepped up to keep the store clean and sanitized.
    The staff at Wholesale Lumber has stepped up to keep the store clean and sanitized.»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Mazo Hardware—Mazomanie, Wis.

    By Chris Jensen

    As owner of Mazo Hardware in Mazomanie, Wis., Renee Zaman has found new ways to serve her community.
    As owner of Mazo Hardware in Mazomanie, Wis., Renee Zaman has found new ways to serve her community.»

    “I don’t like to do something without heart.”

    That is how Renee Zaman describes her mission as owner of Mazo Hardware in Mazomanie, Wis., which has been particularly evident in the year of the pandemic. All the good feelings that come with a hometown hardware store are embedded in the culture of Zaman’s store. She is lovingly known as “The Hardware Queen,” right down to the crown she occasionally wears for fun on the sales floor.

    The former pre-school teacher took over ownership in 2009 and infused her playful, spunky personality into the store operations. She is at the store seven days a week to answer any questions her customers may have and provide the support her staff needs.

    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it threatened the upbeat atmosphere at Mazo Hardware, but Zaman was determined to find a way to provide her community the relief it needed.

    Not only did she adapt to maintain safe business practices, but she went above and beyond to get even more involved in her community. The impact her essential business has had on the community has not gone unnoticed, and Mazo Hardware has become a symbol of uplifted spirits in Mazomanie.

    The team at Mazo Hardware follows Owner Renee Zaman’s lead with a positive, can-do attitude about operating during a pandemic.
    The team at Mazo Hardware follows Owner Renee Zaman’s lead with a positive, can-do attitude about operating during a pandemic.»

    IDEAS BEGIN TO SPARK

    When news of the pandemic began to spread, Zaman waited in anticipation for what would happen to her business. Hardware stores across the country were deemed essential, which meant she had a huge responsibility on her hands.

    Plexiglass shields were installed at all registers, although Zaman insisted on calling them their “sneeze shields” to bring laughter to the situation. They placed six-feet distancing placards on the floors and employees were asked to wear masks and gloves. They developed cleaning routines that involved sanitizing every area in the store hourly.

    As masks became increasingly difficult to secure, Zaman and her team thought of ways to make their own. They figured out how to fashion a mask with a vinyl shield made out of materials stocked in the store. A local doctor’s office, impressed by the design, ordered 10 for his own office. Mazo was already making a difference, but Zaman and her team didn’t want to stop there.

    Renee Zaman embraces her role as “The Hardware Queen” of Mazomanie, Wis.
    Renee Zaman embraces her role as “The Hardware Queen” of Mazomanie, Wis.»

    THE VOTE MUST GO ON

    Mazo Hardware was well underway offering curbside pickup and keeping their customers informed about their safe business practices through social media. They continued to drive traffic to their 6,500-square-foot store with fun quirky videos describing all the ways they were adapting to COVID-19. They created a safe environment for their employees and customers, but their community had even more important needs to be met.

    Mazomanie citizens were in the midst of the spring primary elections. Many voters wondered if there would be a safe place to cast their ballot in person. That’s when Mazo Hardware stepped in with a solution.

    One morning, Zaman entered the store to see her longtime employee Joe Kliebenstein. He had a prototype for a plexiglass configuration that could be used for so much more than their registers. As they began talking about their new “sneeze shields,” they developed an idea for a way to extend a helping hand to the community’s election situation.

    Mazo Hardware got busy producing plexiglass shields, then sold them at cost to eight polling locations so that voters could feel safe while they cast their votes.

    In the coming weeks, Zaman and Mazo Hardware continued to support their community.

    “I got an email from the local hospital and they needed PPE and other items. So, we donated masks, gloves, rain suits and sanitizing cleaner,” Zaman says.

    She adds, “People understand I care about them fiercely. I have a young single mom on staff and child care is very expensive, so we alter her hours creatively so she can still make a living.”

    At one point, Zaman was operating without 10 of her 16 employees. “I had to get by with two new people and one other person helping, with the phone ringing constantly. I worked nonstop for three months without a day off,” she says.

    With families looking for creative ways to spend time together indoors, Zaman strategically selected fun products and created specific end caps to prompt family fun activities. The store’s promotional videos remained silly, quirky and a good laugh for all their customers.

    Paying close attention to what was selling fast, Zaman had to work extra hard to find sources for in-demand items with her sales up 30 percent. “I spent a bunch of time looking through catalogs to find stock,” she says, adding that she relied on Do it Best as well as other sources to stay fully stocked for her customers.

    Drawing on her background as a pre-school teacher, Renee Zaman has forced herself to become more knowledgeable about the hardware business every day.
    Drawing on her background as a pre-school teacher, Renee Zaman has forced herself to become more knowledgeable about the hardware business every day.»

    A LASTING IMPACT

    Zaman had no dreams of one day owning her own business, especially a hardware store. “I’m not a detail person and I hate shopping. I made every mistake you can make,” she points out. “I had a consultant tell me we’d never make it and that I should file for bankruptcy. I figured it out, because I’m persistent.”

    She adds, “I’m using things I learned from my early childhood education. It took all of my skills such as be a good listener, ask questions and learn something new every day. I challenge myself to be more knowledgeable.”

    If one thing has been clear as Mazo Hardware has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that Zaman made sure she and her team never lost their positive, can-do spirit. They didn’t just see a need and provide it for their community, they lifted the community’s spirits.

    Zaman could not have foreseen the changes that were to come, but she proved no matter the obstacle, the team at Mazo Hardware would commit to putting a smile on their customers’ faces and being part of the solution.

    She is humbled and speechless about being honored with the Beacon Award. “Me getting this award matches the passion I have for this community. I’m not here to make money, but to help my fellow human beings. This award is the best reflection of what I’m trying to accomplish with the business” she says.

    Renee Zaman goes over new safety protocols with Assistant Manager Justine Myers (left) and Manager Yvette Peterson (center).
    Renee Zaman goes over new safety protocols with Assistant Manager Justine Myers (left) and Manager Yvette Peterson (center).»
  • Beacon Award for Community Service — Jabo’s Ace Hardware—Coppell, Texas

    By Chris Jensen

    Bill and Renae Jablonowski and their son Zach operate three successful Jabo’s Ace stores in the Fort Worth area.
    Bill and Renae Jablonowski and their son Zach operate three successful Jabo’s Ace stores in the Fort Worth area.»

    Some hardware retailers seem to have stumbled onto the path accidentally, while for others—like Bill Jablonowski—life’s adventures seem to keep pointing them toward the hardware retailing path.

    For Bill, who operates three Jabo’s Ace Hardware stores in the Fort Worth, Texas, area with his wife Renae and son Zach, his path started when he began working at Elliott’s Ace Hardware in Wisconsin while in high school. He ended up working there through college, then immediately applied for a job at Ace Hardware corporate after graduation.

    “Working at Elliott’s was great and I fell in love with the business. I grew up cutting my teeth in one of the best Ace stores in the country. I applied at Ace so I could follow my own path and not follow my dad to be a banker,” Bill explains.

    During Bill’s 16 years at Ace, he got involved in the Pace computer system, followed by roles as district manager, project manager, then corporate manager of business development. “I learned every aspect of opening a store,” he says.

    The stores required face masks early on and now sell designer masks for $48.
    The stores required face masks early on and now sell designer masks for $48.»

    PUT UP OR SHUT UP

    The seminal moment came when Bill was on his annual fishing trip with some buddies. “One of my close friends finally said, ‘Why don’t you stop talking about it and put your money where your mouth is and open your own store?’”

    Bill and Renae spent nearly a year trying to find the right location in Texas—to be close to family—then scraped together all their money to buy Coppell Ace Hardware in June 2005.

    “I knew I couldn’t do it without Renae. I knew we needed to draw females into the store and she could do that,” Bill says.

    Renae came from an insurance background, but she also had worked at Pier One. “I had merchandising and gift experience, so I had ideas to go beyond hardware,” she says.

    Renae’s creative knack for finding and sourcing products people want to buy would blend well with Bill’s knowledge of how to organize and operate a hardware store, but first Bill had to survive one more fishing trip.

    “We moved to Texas in June and then our fishing trip was two weeks later. I said I’m not going to change anything with the store for six months. But there’s nothing to do but think on a fishing trip. I came back and we’re tearing the store up—I was on fire,” Bill recalls.

    As Renae picks up the story, “He comes back and is going in five different directions with the layout. I had a vision of where we were going. Within two and a half months after the reset, we were in the black. The store was doing $1.8 million and now it’s well over twice that,” she says.

    In 2005, their son Zach was 14, so he got an early taste of retail life, followed by their youngest child Caitlyn. Their oldest child, Alyssa, turned into a cashier in the first store right out of the gate. Zach now oversees marketing for the business. “It’s been immensely gratifying to see Zach grow into his role with the company,” Bill says.

    Prominent signage reminds customers that Jabo’s Ace stores are open and essential.
    Prominent signage reminds customers that Jabo’s Ace stores are open and essential.»

    STRIVING FOR EXCELLENCE

    Bill and Renae knew they didn’t want to operate a typical store. “We’re never comfortable being normal. Our mantra is to continue to change within the store, always present something new to the consumer,” says Bill.

    They developed and expanded The Cove Gifts, which helped turn the store into a one-stop shop. Their primary mission is to ensure customers leave the store saying “Wow,” and carrying unique items and a broad selection combined with exceptional service is a good recipe for success.

    Once the Coppell store was up and running, Bill and Renae opened a ground-up store in Keller in 2007 that could be molded to their prototype, followed by the acquisition of a third store in Fort Worth in 2008. That store is now doing three times the volume.

    “One of the shifts was implementing more premium brands like Benjamin Moore, STIHL and Traeger,” says Zach. Big Green Egg followed in 2012, then YETI in 2014.

    Renae notes that they specifically seek out brands that give back to the community and also sought black-owned businesses. Adds Zach, “We’re proud to have black and LGBQT businesses. We want to be a store for everyone.”

    Staff wear shirts that encourage social distancing.
    Staff wear shirts that encourage social distancing.»

    ADJUSTING TO THE NEW NORMAL

    Like most hardware retailers, the Jablonowskis have found operating during COVID to be both a burden and a blessing. “Team safety is number one so the customers feel safe. We still do temperature checks on every shift,” Bill points out.

    They found a local source for hand sanitizer, while a neighbor was able to secure masks for them. “Everybody’s selling masks. You have to innovate, so we went for decor masks right away,” Renee points out. “Now some even have chains to hold it when you’re not wearing it. We sell $48 designer masks every day.”

    Business was flying high when the pandemic hit and now it’s flying higher. “Paint is up 80 percent. We have a huge grill department and that has exploded during the pandemic, because people are staying home,” Bill offers.

    “Cove Gifts carries something for everybody,” Renae points out. “Birthdays weren’t canceled. It’s helped fill the void. We’re the only ones with gift items beside the grocery or convenience store. We’re big on special orders, like a personal shopping service.”

    They changed how the business operated with curbside service, which has been very well received, according to Zach. “We upgraded our Wi-Fi to use Ace’s mobile app. Epicor’s technology is helping us operate more efficiently and productively,” he says.

    Internet sales are up 430 percent at the Keller store, while customer counts are up 15 percent across the three stores. Their overall business is up 36 percent. “Our employees were amazed at the bonus they got this year—some were in tears,” Bill says.

    From a community standpoint, they support churches, Keller Women’s Group, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and baseball teams. They held a curbside Egghop this year for Easter. Their biggest cause is to support the Children’s Miracle Network hospitals—they raised over $110,000 for CMN last year.

    Bill says it’s an honor to be recognized with the Beacon Award and they are very appreciative to be named. Adds Renae, “It’s an honor to serve our customers. We try to keep improving the stores for them.”

    Jabo’s Ace raised over $110,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network hospitals last year.
    Jabo’s Ace raised over $110,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network hospitals last year.»
Back to top button
Close