Retail Beacon Award — T&M Hardware and Rental—Ellwood City, Pa.
By Chris Jensen
Tim and Mary Post bought their first hardware store on their wedding anniversary in 1991. They lined up the kids sitting on the dock behind the store and snapped a timeless family photo. Twenty years later, Tim and Mary opened up the local newspaper to a surprise. There on the page was a familiar photo. Each kid was lined up across the dock at their first store, only now they were all young adults. The photo was captioned, “Twenty years ago my father bought my mother a hardware store for their anniversary. Happy anniversary mom and dad, both in business and in life.”
As Tim puts it, “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Today, the Posts operate six T&M Hardware and Rental stores in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Do it Best members have taken an interesting path to finally discover what they were meant to do—serve their community as hardware retailers.
GETTING THE ENTREPRENEURIAL BUG
Before the Posts could start building their chain of successful hardware stores, they had to gain some life experiences and grow as life partners. Although Tim’s first dream was to be a physical education teacher, he ended up working for a national industrial supply distributor. Mary’s background was as an elementary teacher.
Tim found he was good at his job, while his company discovered he had a knack for turning around distressed branches. Transfers first to Chicago and then to Los Angeles involved uprooting their growing family, while giving Tim lots of on-the-job learning and confidence.
“Working for a commercial supply distributor, I gained a good understanding of the business for when we bought our first store,” says Tim.
It was while they were out in Los Angeles in 1986 or 1987 that Tim first thought of a goal to have his own business. He set in motion a plan, transitioning to an outside sales rep job closer to family in Pittsburgh. “In addition to calling on clients, I probably visited 50 or 60 hardware stores to see if this is what we wanted to do,” he explains.
“We began a journey with his career turning around distressed branches. We became each other’s confidantes,” Mary says. “Tim was driven more by family to provide for four kids, while I was confident that I could research and find roles that worked for us together.”
TAKING THE PLUNGE
The couple started to search for the perfect location to open their store. The search came down to a choice between three struggling hardware businesses. Tim and Mary decided to go with the most underperforming store. It was in a bleak situation and on the verge of closure with little hope of survival.
“I always felt if we could take the bleakest store, it would be easiest to make the most dramatic difference,” says Tim.
The Posts felt they could save it, so they invested their entire $65,000 retirement savings into Tim’s most important turnaround project. They closed on the store on their wedding anniversary.
Tim had spent years collecting advice about how to run a successful store and he knew one key was to stock it with in-demand merchandise. Their newly purchased store had about $95,000 of outdated inventory on dusty shelves when they took it over.
In an effort to secure the staple products they now needed, the two traveled to Chicago for the True Value market. They came up with $67,000 of products they wanted to buy. They had already emptied their retirement savings. They tried to cut down to the bare minimum but only shaved off $8,000.
In frustration, Tim threw all the work in the trash and ventured out for some air. They ended up at a Denny’s restaurant, where a pivotal moment turned out to be their salvation. Tim and Mary opened their Denny’s menu and something about the tagline on the front cover of the menu made them erupt in laughter: “Moons Over My Hammy.” To this day, whenever the business is becoming too stressful, they take themselves back to that breaking point.
At the market the next day, Tim boldly convinced Mary they needed to sign up for a $22,000 computer system to organize the store’s inventory. They weren’t going to give up. The compromise for the computer system became integral to their success.
Tim never had any doubts the store would be successful. “On one of my first days in the new store we just bought, a gentleman came in who was a chemical plant buyer. He asked if I was there to close the business. I said no, I’m here to grow it. He ended up working for us later.”
Mary adds, “We learned to rely on each other, particularly in the early years. One of the things we determined early on, when one of us made a decision the other supported it. We knew they had made it in the best interest of the business or the family. We never tried to purposely sabotage the other but reconcile the issue so we could move forward.”
In the fall of 1993, Tim’s older brother, Roger, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It proved to be another pivotal moment in the evolution of their business.
As Tim recalls, “I had been working another job since 1991. Roger was staying with my sister, who was one and a half hours away. I’d visit every week, traveling up and down the highway thinking about how the store was stagnant, because we had difficulty finding people who would make decisions and stick with it. I finally realized life is too short and there’s no guarantee.”
Tim’s brother passed away in February 1994 and with that tragedy came a new resolve. Tim and Mary both quit their jobs and went all in with their dream to build a successful hardware business.
EXPANSION AND GROWTH
Tim and Mary’s decision to invest more time in the store quickly paid off. In the first year of managing the store full time their sales doubled.
In 1996, they added 2,500 square feet for rental to go with their 5,000-square-foot store. In 2000, they got into party rental. “I said we’re creating a three-legged stool: hardware, rental and commercial/industrial. If one segment goes down, another goes up,” Tim explains.
In 2001, they switched their co-op affiliation to Do it Best and Tim and Mary renamed their store T & M Hardware & Rental Inc. They felt it was a good reflection of their partnership.
After 13 years of growing their single store, Tim and Mary took on another turnaround project. The store they purchased in Harmony, Pa., was close to bankruptcy, but they were confident they could build it up.
Their third store in East Palestine, Ohio, followed in 2008, which was not a turnaround situation. A family tragedy forced the owners to sell a store in pristine condition that had only been operating for 11 months.
Their fourth store came about in 2010 when the Posts realized the two hardware stores in New Castle had gone out of business and left the town without a hardware store. It would be their first ground-up location.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Tim and Mary’s four children—Samantha, Scott, Jenna and T.J.—all worked in the business while growing up and then left to pursue outside interests.
Scott returned to the business in 2012, but not before fulfilling a task for his father.
“I asked Scott to go to the Do it Best market as a prospective store owner. I wanted him to make sure he was certain this is what he wanted to do,” Tim recalls.
Taking over some of Tim’s responsibilities, Scott’s role is to oversee the rental business and grow their proprietary vendor programs like Stihl, Channellock, Yeti and Milwaukee.
Business was good and the family was content focusing on driving growth in the communities they now served. But then, as Tim recalls, “divine intervention” struck and T & M Hardware & Rental was about to get bigger.
Samantha, their eldest daughter, was working in Washington D.C. learning a range of marketing skills. However, she didn’t have a passion for the industry she was in. During a visit home, she asked her parents if there was room in the family business for her.
As luck would have it, the Posts had been approached a few weeks earlier about a hardware store that was about to be liquidated just outside Pittsburgh. They turned it down. But now with Samantha expressing interest in coming home, they purchased the business and moved Samantha into an apartment above the store she would now be managing.
“Samantha is involved with payroll, accounting, human resources and marketing, taking on some of Mary’s responsibilities,” Tim points out.
T & M Hardware & Rental’s business was in full swing and their sixth store brought their journey full circle. When Tim and Mary viewed this location, something seemed all too familiar. This hardware store was one of the stores they had considered for their first purchase 25 years ago. As they inspected this store, they looked back on all their success. The first time they considered this store, their sales were around $450,000 annually. In the ensuing years, their company-wide sales had reached nearly $7 million.
DEALING WITH COVID
In the year of COVID, the Posts have discovered another complication to operating stores in two different states—there are new rulings coming out every day for Ohio and Pennsylvania. Stay-at-home orders were addressed differently by each state.
“Early on we made the decision to institute policies across the whole company,” Mary explains. “Taking temperature in Ohio was the first mandate, so we were borrowing thermometers so each store could have one.”
Although employees were concerned about their family, Mary knew it was all of them working in the essential businesses who were at greater risk. “The first few weeks were the hardest because of the fear and then it got easier. We made sure we had enough masks, gloves and cleaning supplies—we didn’t want our employees to be afraid,” she says.
They were pleasantly surprised to discover the pandemic led to double-digit sales increases. “Big boxes had to limit people to 50 in mid-April, so we were slammed,” Tim points out. “We thought it would be busy for a few weeks, but it’s still going strong today.”
The Posts have always been community-oriented, getting as involved as possible with various nonprofit groups and organizations. “Whatever you need, come see us. We can commit time or hardware or rental products,” Tim says. “We’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years. We want to be part of something that makes a difference, where we can help out.”
In 1998, Tim spearheaded the development of the Kids Created Kingdom playground in Ellwood City, rallying the entire community and school kids behind a meaningful project that has left a lasting impact.
“Our philosophy is one of what do you need from us? If funds are low, we’ll write a bigger check. You want people to feel you’re approachable,” Mary says.
Community involvement has taken on a new dimension during the pandemic. The Posts were especially concerned about the devastating effect on local restaurants. They donated tents to some so they utilize for outside dining and stay in business. They also began buying lunch for their staff from a different local restaurant each week.
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM
Tim was elected to the Do it Best Corp. board in 2016, an experience that has given him a different perspective on his business and the industry.
“My mindset has always been to make sure decisions are made that are in the best interest of the family. That’s the same way to approach the challenges Do it Best faces. I can’t just be limited to what happens to our region. You’re dealing with all areas of the business on a much higher level. It’s been very helpful and allowed me to put some of those steps they’re taking into our business,” he explains.
There is no doubt in Tim’s mind that Do it Best has been very instrumental in their success. “At Do it Best, the company philosophy permeates over every employee. Not every company has that philosophy. We feel we have a partner that’s in it for the long haul for us,” he says. “The co-op programs and support from Do it Best have been a big part to make our business relevant to the community.”
Tim states that he is overwhelmed by the interest in their business and humbled to be considered for the Beacon Award. “This award does not define the end of our industry careers, but gives us a platform to look back and reflect on being part of a great industry where you can live out your dream,” he says.
Mary seconded her husband’s thoughts, saying, “We truly feel we have been blessed with the American Dream. The life we have led for the last three decades, taking a risk and investing in ourselves, our community and our family. We have been able to achieve this success with the help of so many employees, our co-op and bankers, who allowed us to do what we really love doing. This award is a great way to round out our family life, plus it’s gratifying to have two children who want to continue on the tradition.”