By Chris Jensen
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.
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.
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.”
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.”