By Chris Jensen
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.
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.
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.
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.