Eighty-one-year old Walter Hachborn shows up for work every day, still passionately committed to his dream. He is founder and president of the largest group of independent hardware dealers in Canada, widely known as Home Hardware. Most Canadians recognize the brand because of the company's fleet of bright yellow trucks with reflective paint that cross the nation's highways and back roads.
Hachborn believes in the quality, service-focused independent business and has devoted almost his entire working life to personally demonstrating how — through vision, leadership and the right people, including a terrific team of drivers — independents can compete in a world run by conglomerates.
For years, Canadian businesses have been ripe picking for U.S.-based multinational companies. In the past three years, 62 major Canadian companies disappeared from the Toronto Stock Exchange Index — most because of takeovers by U.S. competitors. In light of this trend, Home Hardware stands out not just for its business survival, but for its value-driven culture, which has produced prosperity and livelihoods for thousands of owners and employees alike.
Founded in the mid-1960s, the company began at the darkest hour for independent Canadian hardware dealers. In the previous 15 years, more than 1,000 hardware stores had gone out of business. The big brands were moving in and eating up the little guy's margin.
At the time, Hachborn was a junior partner in a successful retail/wholesale hardware store in St. Jacobs, Ont. He knew that absent a dramatic change, his store would disappear. Leading a team of managers to visit U.S. companies for ideas, Hachborn returned to Canada convinced that some successful models operating “down south” could be adopted in his home market.
The key to his plan was setting up a continuous supply network of goods to local independent stores, but eliminating the wholesalers' profit and passing the savings to the dealer-owner. Hachborn sold the idea to an initial group of 25 dealers, and by l964 126 dealers were on board for the launch of Home Hardware.
Although the rest is history, there was anything but “rest” ahead for Walter Hachborn. The number of dealers grew dramatically, and today, there are over 1,000. Revenue for 2002 was over $3-billion Canadian dollars, generated by the retail sales of more than 55,000 different products distributed through four distribution centers across Canada.
From the beginning, Home Hardware's private fleet has been a core component of its success. Deliveries began in l964 with a single half-ton Ford pickup. Today the company has over 110 leased power units, 350 trailers and 48 sets of B-trains. The 105 drivers are all long-term employees; turnover is less than 1%.
Trucking manager Gerry Gerber has 25 years of experience with Home Hardware, 18 years as a driver. He is also a Certified Driver Trainer and personally conducts courses in defensive driving, not only to improve driver performance, but also to sustain close relationships with them. This careful attention to and care of drivers, along with excellent pay and benefits, helps ensure that deliveries are safe, on time, and made at least once a week to every dealer/partner store location in Canada, some of which are located more than 1,500 kilometers from the nearest distribution center.
“Trust is everything for us,” says Gerber. “Our founder still believes that a handshake is good enough to make a deal — that's how we lease our trucks, for example. It's old-fashioned, of course, but our people relate to it and feel like they want to be part of what it stands for.”
Gary Petty is President and CEO of NPTC. His column appears monthly in FLEET OWNER.