In San Francisco, a hardware holdout with heart

Center Hardware proves that there’s more than tech that makes the city tick.

Center Hardware celebrated its new San Francisco location.

These are exciting times for Center Hardware in San Francisco. The industrial supply and neighborhood hardware dealer with deep community roots has set up shop in a new downtown location – in the Dogpatch neighborhood. And it’s bringing a renewed commitment to being part of the city it serves.

There are no shortage of challenges facing this urban institution of hardware and building supply – a high-cost of living, employee expectations fueled by a raging tech industry, and changing generations inside and outside the store. But Center Hardware, a non-branded Ace Hardware dealer continues to grow by supplying customers with products that others are unable or unwilling to provide.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has taken notice of the store’s importance. It recently bestowed the “Businesswoman of the Year award to Jamie Gentner, chief operating officer of Center Hardware, and daughter of owner Keith Gentner. She spoke with HBSDealer about a wide range of topics, including the city, the business, and her father’s encyclopedic knowledge of parts.

• On receiving the Businesswoman of the Year award:

“It was a complete surprise. And it was actually kind of a nice nod toward non-tech industries. [Other finalists represented the construction and waste management industries]. I was happy to be a finalist, I can’t say why I won, but I’m hoping it’s just a recognition of small business continuing to have a place in San Francisco, and a recognition of how small businesses are part of the fabric of the city.”

• On running a hardware store in San Francisco:

"San Francisco is in a renaissance -- many things are thriving in manufacturing, development is booming. It can be a lot to keep up with. We are constantly evaluating our inventory and talking to our customers about what they need and how we can get it. We are delivering all day. Some things are challenging, as it is for anyone running a brick and mortar store today, but it makes us work harder and smarter. The forced interaction is what helps shape our direction because the customers help dictate that. Our independence gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility and with all our decision makers on site, we often get to call an audible that earns us huge thank-yous from our customers.

"We also get the benefit of having a diverse staff who thrive in our atmosphere. They're tool nerds, ex-construction people, makers, artists. They span four generations together and draw from many different experiences. We're lucky to have them."

• On Center Hardware’s strength and independence:

“We’re on the cutting edge of constantly doing our homework. We’re staying ahead of trends. We don’t carry any junk in our store. Our three choices are good better and best.

"The reason we can compete with the chains is because of our independence. All of our decision makers are here. We can decide if we want to source something for one person, and that happens. And for special orders. Wow, we can actually pull this off for you, hold on. Give us four hours. We have that flexibility,"

• On maintaining a way of life, and serving a community:

"Many of our competitors have closed, or relocated, or said, ‘you know what, we’re done.’ It’s hard to do business in san Francisco. When I look around, I think, ‘Wow, we’re one of the last shops left.’  This is actually pretty important, if we close, where are our customers going to get this stuff?"

• On her father, Keith Gentner, store owner:

"This store would not be what it is without him. It’s his vision that changed it into this commercial industrial powerhouse. And he’s the one that reshaped it. A lot of everything we do is a testament to the fact that he is the nerd out there reading product catalogs and parts book. He can source things that nobody else even knows what they are. He’s an incredible encyclopedia."

• On the variety of customers and projects:

"There is a Lowe’s in town, but Lowe’s doesn’t do exactly what we do. We specialize in sourcing and dealing with facility engineers and the city agencies and business to business.  We still have that walk-in neighborhood business, and we’re benefiting from the maker community and industrial art. It’s a beautiful thing to watch that happen, as people rediscover tools and hardware. We do everything we can to support entities like SF Made (manufacturing) and other businesses."

"We get to do fun stuff too... At the time, Mythbusters were in here a lot. We’ll deliver to movies or shows filming in San Francisco. We do the holiday lights with San Francisco International Airport and the renowned gingerbread house at the Fairmont Hotel. All the burners are here before Burning Man. We get to do all kinds of interesting things because of this diverse, creative city. I love the fact that we’re an equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. Everybody comes here, and it lets us participate in a lot of conversations."

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