Gina Schaefer never expected to get into the hardware business. But when she and her husband bought an apartment that needed to be fixed up and there were no local hardware stores, she decided she’d open up one of her own.
“I always wanted to own my own business... so the opportunity just presented itself... and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” Schaefer said.
That was in 2003. Today she owns nine thriving hardware stores in and around the Washington D.C. area, serving a total of 1,200 customers a day.
'Where's the guy?'
But starting a business – especially in a field usually dominated by men – had its challenges.
“We laugh about it in hindsight, thinking about some of the guys that would come in that would want some product help and would ask: 'Is there a man that I can talk to?' 'Where’s the guy in plumbing?’ ‘Where’s the guy that runs the store?’” she recalled, adding “We also joked that if you go to a convention and you walk down a convention aisle, the vendors don’t talk to the women that are there.”
But over time, that gender bias dissipated.
“There are lots of folks who come in – male and female – who have never had to fix their toilet, for example, and they just want advice on how to do it," Schaefer said. "And if you can make them comfortable and be confident in that answer, they’re not worried about whether or not you’re a man or a woman."
She credits her success to a number of factors.
Each of Schaefer’s stores is affiliated with Ace Hardware, a 90-year-old, multi-national U.S. corporation that lends its name to independent hardware stores. Schaefer says that gives them credibility, and more.
“So they give us that buying power, and then they wrap a whole lot of services around it, whether it be training, store layouts, planning, financial organization; all types of programs that they wrap around the co-op.”
She also credits her employees for her business success. She said she pays above average wages and provides health insurance and other benefits.
“What we really decided is that we wanted to be a great place to work,” she said. “We wanted people to be able to raise their children by working here. We wanted them to enjoy coming to work because they knew that their employers really valued their skill set.”
People make the difference
Gina Schaefer talks with employee Brian Cole.
One of those valued employees is Christina Amaya who has been with the company for six years.
“I like it here," she said. "They respect you. They’re very considerate of everything, of you as a person, instead of you as just an employee, and I like that very much because it makes you feel important.”
And happy employees translate into satisfied customers, like Chris Bolanos who visits the store on a regular basis.
“I think I come back more for the customer service than anything else,” he said. “Products you can probably buy anywhere. But customer service you can’t replace.”
Schaefer hopes to open in more locations as the demand for urban hardware stores continues to grow.