Gary Johnson knows what it's like to battle the big guys of retail, having founded his hardware store on St. Marys Road in Columbus back in 1986, just as Walmart was beginning to grow in the market and with the city experiencing growth in general.
Today, the "big box" competitors include Lowe's and Home Depot, even more Walmarts -- including a supercenter destined for Victory Drive in south Columbus next year. And, of course, the Internet is trying its best to eat every brick-and-mortar retailer's lunch.
But Johnson, 67, who brought his son, Seth, 35, into the management fold about a decade ago, has learned how to not only survive, but thrive. That includes building a bigger and better store across the street from his old one in 1991, at 3863 St Marys Road. He also added a U.S. Postal Service station to add traffic, while also expanding the physical size of his store for more inventory, storage and a large repair shop.
"The thing that's amazing is we've gone from a $200 investment in the business and a $40,000 inventory at that time to a $1 million inventory now," said Gary, 67. "The people in this area and, at that time, CB&T, kept us in business."
It hasn't been easy, but during an interview recently with the father and son, it's apparent that competition and tough economic times don't deter them. The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with the Columbus residents about their jobs and what it takes to keep on keeping on.
They recently were honored as Small Business of the Month by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
How did you start out and get to this point in time?
Gary: Let me tell you, this store is an exercise in desperation. I was a senior sales manager with a large distribution company in Kentucky. I sold wholesale hardware for Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company. I was a salesman here before that. At that time had about $100 million in responsibility (and) over 100 salesmen and a customer service department that I was in charge of. I was the youngest person to ever hold that position in the history of the company. But I decided the thing was not like I wanted it.
So I came down here just like any middle manager. I had no money. I had a wife that was home taking care of the kids. I was a middle manager; they just work hard and don't make a lot of money.
So we moved here with the idea that I was going to buy a hardware store across the street. Let me tell you, because I was young and stupid, I thought I could do anything. I bought the store, and a gentleman sold it to me on time. My equity in this company was the $200 that I put in the till to start it. Then I owed him money every month. It was a mom and pop.
There were two older gentleman that were working there. But I started and I couldn't even afford anyone to come help me. So those two gentleman helped me; they worked for $5 an hour. I worked the first five years without a salary. Praise God my wife found a job with the school district. She was a math and English teacher. That gave us a little bit of income. We had what little equity we had in the house in Louisville, and we started renting a house in Hunter's Point subdivision.
We really scraped by for the first five years. It was really though. If you're in business, you understand that you have to have a fire in your belly for the business, because if you don't, if you try to milk it, if you try to take out money at first, you will go under like a rock.
Did you know that at time?
Gary: No, I was young and stupid. (laughs) I did not take the money out. We rolled that over and over and over, and tried to build the inventory. The inventory, when we first started, was about $40,000. Basically that's what he sold me was the inventory on time.
So we stayed there for about three years and the sales had gone up so much that we knocked out a wall over there next door. It was in Holly Hills Shopping Center, and we went into about 2,900 feet. We stayed there until '91, again trying to let the inventory increase.
In 1991, this (property) became available through Mr. and Mrs. Frank Nicholson. This was family property. Mr. Nicholson was one of the two that originally came to work for me. He worked there at the store, along with Mr. Burkhead, who I had purchased the store from ... When we originally built the store, it was 8,000 feet. We have built on three times since we moved in. Two years ago, we built the building in the back, which is a shop and warehouse space for other things.
How have things gone through the years?
Gary: We have always grown here. The way we have grown is by utilizing advertising to bring people in and then, hopefully, after they see what we have, then they'll want to come back. We give excellent service. My people are long-term people. I have always paid considerably more than the average retail in Columbus because I wanted to keep these people. Once they're trained and you've determined that they're really good people, then you want to keep them. So we've always paid more and we've tried to have benefits to rival our competitors.
What was your competition early on?
Gary: The boxes. Other hardware stores were not the competition. Since we've gone in, there has been a store up in Starmount Shopping Center come in and go out. There's been one at Edgewood, which was Handy Hardware, and he went out two years ago. Hamilton (ACE Hardware) went out.
But we're here for the long run; we're here to stay. Our customers have kept us here. They make a choice everyday as to where they want to go to spend their money. I have been asked several times if I think the Walmart on Victory drive is going to be a factor. We've had a Walmart on Buena Vista Road. The same people (customers) that made the decisions then are going to make the same decisions all over again, and if they decide that we're going to stay here, we'll be here. We have lots of friends in the neighborhood. I'm also on my third generation that I know of waiting on these people, which gives me a great deal of satisfaction to wait on the children of the children.
What has been the key to your staying power?
Gary: One of the reasons that we've been able to stay here is because of diversification. We have niches. One of our niches is more parts. We also have the big z-turn (zero turning radius) mowers. These are major purchases. Either one of those, people will drive 25 or 30 miles away to get them, and they do on a regular basis.
I have always worked on the footstep principal. I tried to put in things that will drive footsteps, aka the post office here. We have a contract post office. We took 500 signatures up to the post office asking that a contract station be put here. That was just after a contract station went out at Starmount Shopping Center ... The post office has been good to us and, hopefully, we have been good to the neighborhood and the post office. We've had it since, I think, '88.
You will be asked to take charge of the company someday, Seth. Have you absorbed everything from your father?
Seth: Sure. I've heard all of this many times over, so it's been well drilled into me. (laughs) There's a lot of things my dad has passed along to me overtly and some by osmosis. I watch what he does and some of the stuff probably sinks in subliminally.
I was talking to one of our potential vendors. He was doing some sales calls and I said one of the things dad's always taught me is you try to get people through the door, try to build footsteps up. Build traffic. And you're going to retain customers as long as you do your job and market your product well and conduct yourself morally and with integrity. People are going to stay with you.
You were asking earlier about Internet sales, and I think Amazon is probably the bane of every bookstore in the country and soon to be other stores as well, us included. My family and I were in Kohl's last night buying clothes. There's still some things in this world that you have to feel and touch and see prior to making a purchase decision. And if it's something as simple as a can of spray paint, you're not going to go online and buy that. You still have to have brick and mortars.
Has the Internet impacted you?
Gary: I'm sure it has. But basically a hardware store sells service and it's the service that (customers) need to make a decision and to repair an item. And we give advice. But that's what makes the difference. These other people that only offer price -- and we think our prices are very competitive; ACE keeps us very competitive -- but I'm just telling you the ones that only offer price are the ones that are going to get beat because somebody will always figure a way to sell it cheaper.
But with us, we not only have the product, but we can also tell you how to apply that product, what it's going to do for you, why it's worth the money, that type of thing. And (the others) don't do any of that.
Sound advice is a pretty big deal?
Gary: We've saved people (grief). There is no doubt in my life. We have people come in and say someone gave them advice. But they know not the first iota of what they're talking about. We have people come here that are going to do something that's going to harm them, their house, their children. So there is a little personal satisfaction when you save somebody from a bad situation like that. That makes us feel good.
What is your biggest challenge?
Gary: Let's talk about driving footsteps. There's power equipment. We're one of the major forces in this area in power equipment -- chainsaws, blowers, line trimmers, walk behind mowers, riding mowers, z-turn mowers. ... (They range from $3,000 to $12,000) This is some real money and people want some advice on these things. They go out to one of the big boxes and they can just look at a Toro mower. Those people, other than the price, have nothing to offer. We not only have advice on what would be the best fit for them, but we also have service after the sale. We do warranty work, but we don't do warranty on anyone's units except the one that we sell. And that's a big deal.
And it's about listening to your customers?
Gary: There is not much other retail on the south side of town. We listen, and if they tell us they need something here, we put it in stock.
For instance, a contractor comes in and puts in 50 houses. He's pretty much going to use the same stuff in each one of them because that gives him a cost figure. So because of those 50 faucets that he put in, I think I had better go ahead and put in the washers, the o-rings, the things that are going to repair that because there's none of that doesn't wear out. And when customers do need them, I've got to have it because I'm the local hardware store.
And it's also a matter of us being able to change quickly. In a week, we can have any merchandise in here and it's a permanent item. You've got to be agile on your feet. That's where we have an advantage (over the big box retailers). When I advertise something, you can rest assure that I've already checked what is out there in the market, what is the best price that anybody has run it at, and then I'm going to be way below that. Because people don't drive here for 5 percent (savings). They'll drive here for 25 percent. So I have to make sure that the difference in the price is so dramatic that they will drive here to get it.
Is it difficult to get good employees?
Gary: Our guys come in here, and they get an education out here with these shelves, and working with people. It's very gratifying for a 17-year-old kid to have 55-year-old men come in and ask them how to do stuff, and then tell 'em what they need to know, and them ask for them again when they come back in. It builds their confidence. When they leave here, they're a very confident person.
We have people that have gone on to become engineers. We have one that is shooting rockets down at Cape Canaveral. We've got one that's a lieutenant with the police department. He's got his Ph.D. in criminal justice. I've got one that went to Kosovo. One was a store manager at Lowe's. I've got one that's (a registered nurse) that went back to school to get his degree. That's what makes you feel good, that some of these people might not have done as well, and you've helped them to do better.What's the most rewarding thing for you?
Gary: The close relationship that I have with my customers, and helping customers when they have problems, because they have kept us in business.
Is Seth ready to take the reins from you?
Gary: He already is making most of the decisions in the business. I don't make any major decisions without calling him and asking what he thinks. And unless it's just something I know will hurt us, his decision will rule.
Let me tell you, this young man has added two-thirds of (additional) volume since he got here. It is through his innovation, his imagination, his ability to work with the customers.
Seth: Let me tell you, he was ready to fold up tent and go home until I came back. When he realized that I was on board, both of us have played well on each other's talents.
Greg: We complement each other.
How long, Gary, will it be until you call it a career?
Gary: How soon 'til my toes turn up. (laughs) I've been looking for that expiration tag. (laughs) I need some place to go to, and this is it. I come and open up the store in the mornings and he pretty much closes it in the evening.
Name: Gary Johnson
Hometown: Mayfield, Ky.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1966 graduate of Mayfield High School; and earned bachelor's degree in business with an emphasis in advertising from Murray State University in 1971
Previous jobs: In sales, including management, with the now-bankrupt Belknap Inc. in Louisville, Ky.
Family: Wife, Paula, retired Columbus Technical College math and English teacher who also worked in the admission's office; and two sons, Matthew, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Seth, who lives in Columbus
Leisure time: He sponsors international military students at Fort Benning, which includes taking them to things such as football games and Callaway Gardens or having them over at his house; attends Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church
Of note: The store has received awards from the city for its overall service and its service to the soldiers, and received recognition from U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop
Name: Seth Johnson
Hometown: Columbus, born at St. Francis Hospital
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1998 graduate of Columbus High School; earned his bachelors's of science degree in entrepreneurship and family business from Auburn University in 2004
Previous jobs: Always worked with his father at Home ACE Hardware
Family: Wife, Ashley, and two daughters, Abigail, 6, and Amelia, 2
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with his children and attending Morningside Baptist Church, where he is a deacon
Of note: Walked the entire length of the roughly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, with a short break 100 miles from the end to attend a friend's wedding