Hardware Industry Loses a Great Leader, Don Hasson
By Chris Jensen
Don Hasson had two families that he cared greatly about: one comprised his wife Cathy, children Taylor and Carrie, his step-children, grandkids and other relatives. The other family was his hardware family—the customers and employees he interacted closely with in his role as president and CEO of the family hardware distribution company—House-Hasson Hardware Company, a Century Club distributor based in Knoxville, Tenn., that was co-founded by his grandfather in 1906.
Don lost his battle with COVID-19 on February 15 after being hospitalized for one-and-a-half months. He was 70 years old. Despite his valiant efforts, he was unable to recover from the effects of the virus and the continued immune system suppressants attributable to his successful lung transplant a year and a half ago.
Don grew up working in the family business, with his first trips to the seven-story brick warehouse building on Western Avenue in Knoxville starting when he was five years old. One of his first responsibilities was building bicycles, a task he took seriously. He worked his way up through the company, working in many different departments before being named president in 1986 at the age of 35.
He would end up spending exactly half his life in that role, becoming the third generation of his family and the fifth president to head House-Hasson Hardware Company, which he led to become the industry’s largest independent regional hardware distributor. The 1972 University of Tennessee graduate followed in the footsteps of his father, James; his uncle Jack; and his grandfather and company co-founder, C.S. Hasson, who formed the company with Sam House in the year the Wright Brothers’ patent for a flying machine was granted. Don followed their example by working to expand the company, improve its facilities and enlarge its sales force to accommodate the needs of a growing base of customers.
While he quickly proved his leadership abilities in his new position, Don went on to play a key leadership role in the home improvement industry. He served as chairman of the International Hardware Distributors Association in 1994, president of HGA in 2009 and was a past president of the Southern Wholesale Hardware Association. He served several stints as chairman of Distribution America, the national buying group to which House-Hasson belongs.
House-Hasson was not immune to the pressures facing distributors as the home improvement market reached its mature phase in the mid to late 1980s. While many regional distributors were forced to close or sell their operations, House-Hasson was embarking on a growth cycle that continues to this day.
With Don’s visionary leadership, in 1991 the company added 30,000 square feet to its warehouse space. At the time, the company served retail customers in eight states: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
In 2002, House-Hasson picked up eight field sales reps as well as the former president of Wagner Hardware, a regional distributor in Ohio. The company had expanded into Ohio the previous year by picking up sales reps from The Kruse Company. House-Hasson had previously acquired other local and regional distributors including Paris-Dunlap Hardware in Gainesville, Ga., in 1988 and Sheffield Hardware in Americus, Ga., in 1997. Capitalizing on this type of opportunity throughout its history is how the Hasson family has managed to grow the family wholesale business in an industry where consolidation and competition are constants.
Jim Kaiser joined the company in 1986 after the demise of his former employer, Belknap, and he served as sales manager and later vice president of sales from 1988 until his retirement in 2003. He credits Don’s steady leadership with helping House-Hasson survive and thrive in an industry where the dealer-owned co-ops and the big-box stores were beginning to command the lion’s share of attention. “We didn’t grow in leaps and bounds, but in small steps. We didn’t promise things we couldn’t deliver,” Kaiser says.
More recently, House-Hasson acquired Persinger Supply in 2007, Moore-Handley in 2009 and Long-Lewis Hardware in 2015. When House-Hasson bought Moore-Handley, it was actually buying a larger company. In 2019, House-Hasson spent $2.5 million to purchase inventory from Hardware Distribution Warehouses while also hiring eight key HDW salesmen. By adding new salesmen, territories and customers from other wholesalers, House-Hasson has been able to enjoy a sustained period of growth. The company now serves customers in 22 states.
Don also saw the benefits of expanding internationally, and under his direction the company began servicing customers in Bermuda, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, Aruba, Grenada, U.S. Virgin Islands, Curacao, Antigua and the Cayman Islands.
During the 1990s, House-Hasson survived a shakeout that saw many independent distributors sell or close their operations. Don attributed several reasons to his company’s lasting success. “First, House-Hasson has a strong financial base. The company has been run conservatively and it has a good strong balance sheet, including no bank debt. Additionally, the company has invested heavily in technology, including early computerization of all office and distribution functions,” he said.
Don had an early lesson in the importance of computers, as he outlined in an interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 2013. By the mid-1970s, hardware distributors had migrated to computers to manage their catalog sales. Using a labor-intensive system with punch cards and card readers, all orders had to be sent via phone lines to one company in Columbus, Ohio—Management Horizons Data Systems, which handled all the processing across the industry.
As Don tells the story, a married couple who had been at House-Hasson for years left the company in 1975. Unfortunately, he ran the computer department and his wife ran the catalog department. All of a sudden, Don had to learn how to run the computer department, which necessitated lots of trips to Columbus, Ohio. The end result, however, was that by 1978 House-Hasson had a state-of-the-art computer system and expertise that Don would use to keep House-Hasson’s retail customers competitive against the encroaching big boxes.
Another pivotal moment came in early 1980, when the 74-year-old company and 140 employees moved into a new headquarters and warehouse in the Forks of the River Industrial Park in Knoxville. That facility has expanded numerous times since, with the latest expansion last year being 100,000 square feet of new warehouse space that brought it to 500,000 square feet. The company’s Prichard, W.Va., distribution center was expanded by 50,000 square feet in 2018.
Under Don’s guidance, House-Hasson began introducing radio frequency order picking in its warehouse in 2004, allowing workers to process orders electronically and scan bar codes of merchandise as they are picked.
Don was a hands-on leader who was intimately familiar with every department of the company. Employees were aware that Don knew as much about their jobs as they did, which was why his suggestions for improvement were so readily followed. He was decisive and had a knack for making the right decision at the right time.
Don shared what he felt were the two biggest moments in company history. “I would say building a new warehouse in Knoxville in 1980, which was a huge milestone. And the second was the purchase of Moore-Handley in 2009. That was our single largest acquisition and it wouldn’t have been possible without the second warehouse in Prichard. We also added 15 good salesmen with that deal,” he pointed out.
When asked the key to House-Hasson’s ability to survive and thrive for so long, Don responded, “We constantly reinvested earnings into the business. We built net worth and net earnings over 100 years. Eliminating debt so we are totally debt free is one of our greatest assets.”
When Don was asked what business lessons he learned from his father and grandfather, he replied, “The main tenets were to keep the company strong and be conservative in business practices but be aggressive in the market.”
Don recently explained how the company has been able to progress by adopting the right technology at the right time. “One of our great strengths has been the use of technology and implementing technology in our businesses and in our retailers’ businesses. Our website helps customers do a lot of things like order merchandise, look at purchase history, change retail pricing and set order quantities. It’s a very effective and affordable way for small stores to operate efficiently,” he said.
Don was a visible presence at House-Hasson’s three annual dealer markets, greeting customers and inquiring about their families and businesses. He often said he learned the most by visiting stores and finding out what was on customers’ minds. House-Hasson dealers say one of the things they liked most about the company was the fact you could call up Don Hasson and share feedback directly.
Don was immensely proud of his family’s longevity in the hardware business, and he was equally proud to see his two children—Taylor Hasson and Carrie Hasson—carrying on the tradition by representing the fourth generation of the Hasson family to be involved in the business. Both have been appointed to the board of directors. Taylor is vice president of marketing, while Carrie is the human resources manager. In an interview last year, Don said, “I am really pleased to have Taylor and Carrie involved in the business. Both are doing really well and they continue to grow in their roles.”
An Industry Leader
Jonathan Mize is the fifth-generation president of Blish-Mize Company, which is a fellow Distribution America (DA) member celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Jonathan had followed in the footsteps of his father, John Mize, who retired in 2018 after working for the family business for 56 years. Jonathan remarks that it was a sad day when he learned of Don’s passing. “He and my dad were good friends for years, but especially since DA was established in 1999. They would look around the industry for deals together,” he recalls.
In 2009, House-Hasson acquired Moore-Handley and immediately partnered with Blish-Mize to jointly operate the Hardware House private-label line of import products. “We became partners in that business until eventually we took over and House-Hasson became a customer of ours. It’s funny, but we referred to Don as Partner Hasson and he referred to us as Partner Mize. We were friendly business associates and shared the family ties of working for a long time in the family wholesale business,” Jonathan shares.
“We’re a survivor, just like House-Hasson is. We’re both providing a service to customers, who become like family. I know Don grew up in the business, visiting customers in stores. His father and grandfather instilled in him the importance of taking care of customers and employees, because you wouldn’t be around without them,” he points out.
Don served multiple stints as chairman of DA and he served as chairman last year, with Jonathan set to take over as chairman this year. “We were on a Zoom call with (DA President) Dave Christmas in December, and I was giving Don a hard time about our company being older than his,” Jonathan recalls.
“Don was very well respected in the industry and his employees had a great deal of respect for him. He continually expanded their distribution centers and found ways to keep growing the company. He always had good ideas that helped us improve what we had in place at DA,” he adds.
“I just heard from Mike Jensen (of Jensen Distribution), who was reminiscing about how he and my dad would get together at the old Hardware Show in Chicago with Don, Dave Cook (of L.G. Cook Distributors) and Howard Vaughan of Vaughan & Bushnell. They called themselves the Silver Spoon Club, but it was the shared experience they all had of knowing what it was like to run a family business in the hardware industry,” Jonathan shares.
“All of us at Blish-Mize pass on our condolences to Cathy Hasson and the entire team at House-Hasson. Don will certainly be missed by so many people in our industry. He was a great leader,” Jonathan says.
Dave Christmas, president of Distribution America, said, “Don Hasson was truly a giant in our industry. He dedicated his entire career to the success of the independent hardware channel. At DA, Don constantly drove us to develop programs and tools to help retailers across the country thrive in highly competitive times. In business he demanded excellence and for that he made us all better. Personally, he was a great friend and for that he made me better. Don’s absence will leave a tremendous void in our industry. As a result of his leadership, he leaves behind a talented and capable team at House-Hasson Hardware, his legacy will continue with their hard work and success. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of Don’s family.”
A.L. Thompson’s, a longtime House-Hasson customer in the Cayman Islands, announced their gift donation of 200 trees that will be planted by the Arbor Day Foundation in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon in memory of Don Hasson.
In a company statement shared by Executive Vice President Steve Henry and Chairman James Hasson Jr., Don’s brother, they noted Don built a strong team at House-Hasson to continue his work. “Don learned much from his father, whom he followed in the role of Company president, and his father always emphasized the importance of teamwork in providing goods and services across the Southeast and beyond. The Company will continue the work of Don and his predecessors under the leadership of Steve Henry, Bill Hauge, Pat McCutcheon, Taylor Hasson, Carrie Hasson and others, along with its highly accomplished sales force, warehouse and operations teams, drivers and administrative support group.”
Henry had been promoted to executive vice president and treasurer in 2017, and he has gradually assumed increasing day-to-day responsibilities for the company since then.
Don Hasson was predeceased by his mother, Elaine Biggers Hasson, in 2009; and by his father, James K. Hasson, in 2000. A sister, Sara, died at birth in 1948. He is survived by his wife Cathy and her kids Mia and Maria; son Taylor Hasson and his kids Andrew and Madison; daughter Carrie Hasson and her kids Cal and Jamie; brother Jim and sister-in-law Jayne Hasson; sister Nellaine and brother-in-law Leslie Sutton and their kids Rachael and Stephanie; nephew Keith Hasson (Betsy) and their kids Cooper and J.K.; and his step-grandchildren Xander and Evelyn.