Jim Lehrer, the owner of Brownsboro Hardware & Paint in Louisville, Ky., received the 2019 Retail Beacon Award for his years of dedicated service to the industry. However, his career as a hardware retailer came early and late.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Jim was hired as a teenager to mow the grass at a nearby lumberyard, Home Supply & Building Materials. He soon earned a role on the sales floor as he worked through high school and continued to work summers while in college.
After working to establish himself as an award-winning field sales representative for several hardware wholesalers, Jim rose to become general manager of Our Own Hardware, where he oversaw all sales, merchandising and operational functions for the regional co-op.
When Our Own merged with Hardware Wholesalers Inc. (now Do it Best Corp.) in 1997, Jim took it as an opportunity to re-evaluate his future path. As he traveled around the Midwest helping Our Own members transition to the new co-op, he visited Brownsboro Blue Grass Hardware in Louisville, which was for sale.
After a career spent consulting with hardware owners to improve and grow their businesses, Jim saw an opportunity to put his knowledge into practice and invest in himself.
In 1998, Jim and his wife Marilyn bought what was then a floundering hardware store five miles east of Louisville. It was, as he says, an all-in moment—they took everything they had, including their retirement savings, to buy the business.
They renamed it Brownsboro Hardware & Paint and set about recasting the store as a vital neighborhood resource. “The store was very underperforming and short on inventory. From day one we expanded the hours, added inventory and did a lot of marketing,” Jim recalls. “By adding products, staff and expertise, we were able to grow the business.”
Jim discovered he liked being a hardware retailer and he was good at it, setting an example for staff and knowing when to lean on Do it Best for help and programs. He adds, “I put together a business plan and tried to anticipate what would happen, but the most important thing is people. Customer service is the key to our success,” he says.
There is a wall in the store meeting room where all Brownsboro Hardware employees have to sign a commitment to customer service. “It’s important to build your business on customer service, which is what separates us from the big boxes and the internet,” Jim points out.
Brownsboro Hardware & Paint quickly became a destination for grills and barbecue accessories, which is now their largest category. They will assemble and deliver grills for free, and even haul away the customer’s old grill as a way to go beyond their competitors. The business progressed nicely, but Jim always saw Brownsboro Hardware & Paint as more than a single store. The opportunity to act on that vision came in 2009.
That opportunity came when a landlord visited Jim with a proposition. The hardware store on his property in Prospect, Ky., was struggling and would soon be out of business. He wondered if Jim would be interested in taking over the space, which was about five miles from his store.
“I was excited, but I’d only do it if Marilyn was in,” he added, recalling their first all-in moment more than 10 years before. “I must have caught her at a weak moment, because she said, ‘Yes.’”
As Jim assessed the store in its current condition, he determined there was little to salvage. Soon, new lighting and flooring were installed and a fresh coat of paint covered the walls. With Do it Best’s help, the store was fully merchandised. The Prospect location quickly began earning customers’ loyalty and establishing the store as a valued community resource.
“Do it Best has been a great partner in building my business the past 21 years. When we opened the second store in Prospect, they were instrumental in getting that store turned around in just four weeks,” Jim says.
In that first year as a hardware store owner in 1998, Jim’s hardware sales were about $350,000. Twenty years later, his all-in approach has more than paid off. Brownsboro Hardware & Paint now has two locations with 39 employees and generates $4.9 million in annual sales.
Jim has always given back to the community and he found another way to give back to the industry. He began serving on the Do it Best board of directors in 2010, serving two terms as board chair and helping the co-op navigate through the recession and transition its executive leadership from Bob Taylor to Dan Starr.
“I very much appreciate this honor and I’m humbled by this recognition,” Jim says. “It would not have been possible without the incredible support of our customers, community and, of course, our staff, who are like family. Brownsboro Hardware & Paint is successful today because of what we’ve all built as a team,” he adds.