Apex Tool in talks with Bain Capital
Apex Tool Group, the makers of Crescent wrenches, Lufkin measuring tapes and some Craftsman brand hand tools, is in final negotiations with Bain Capital, according to a report by Reuters and other media outlets. The private equity firm that was co-founded by U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney has reportedly offered more than $1.5 billion for Apex, which is a joint venture between Danaher Corp. and Cooper Industries. Each has a 50% stake.
Negotiations are not public, but sources close to the deal said Apex prevailed over Platinum Equity LLC and American Securities LLC in the auction for the maker of industrial hand and power tools.
The joint venture, which has facilities in more than 30 countries and employs 7,600 workers worldwide, has about $1.2 billion in annual revenues, according to its website.
In what major metropolitan area does the nation’s largest independent hardware store call home?
One would think New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. One would be wrong.
The answer is Hartville, Ohio. And if you haven’t been there recently, you now have a valid professional excuse to make the trip. That’s because Hartville Hardware is not only one of the most interesting experiments in destination retailing of any stripe, it’s the “in” destination for home channel marketers, manufacturers, competitors and distributors to learn how imagination and sheer space can alter the perception of home improvement retailing.
At 305,000 sq. ft. total and 245,000 sq. ft. of retail space, Hartville Hardware, a Do it Best member since 2001, describes itself as the largest independent hardware store in the country.
Inside the massive seven-acre facility, customers find a log cabin, a drive-through lumberyard, a farm and pet area, and a fully constructed home — an “idea house” of all-American-made products.
Wayne Miller is the VP of Hartville Hardware and the grandson of the family business’ founder. Home Channel News asked him if a small town like Hartville could support the nation’s biggest independent home improvement store.
“I guess we’ll find out,” he said. He quickly added several reasons to be optimistic. First, Hartville, Ohio, may be small. But it’s conveniently located between Akron and Canton. “There are a lot of people within 20 miles of us,” Miller said.
But more than that, the new store — it opened its doors in April 2012 — operates in the same proximity as the Miller family’s restaurant, banquet hall and indoor/outdoor flea market (marketplace.)
“We kind of say, ‘Make a day out of it,’ ” Miller said. And people have listened. Since the move and conversion from a business that measured about 100,000 sq. ft., sales are up more than 30%, he said.
Compared with Home Depot or Lowe’s, Miller said Hartville has more products (about 75,000) in deeper categories — housewares, for instance, farm and pet, and a large outdoor-power-equipment store. “We also have our technicians here, which they don’t,” he said.
The drive-through lumberyard was designed by Portland, Maine-based Johnson Design Services to maximize convenience and efficiency.
The DIY customer accounts for about 75% of the business, with 25% from the pro.
The centerpiece and feature point of the store is probably the idea house, an 1,850-sq.-ft. home constructed from all-USA-made products — or almost all. Miller said the idea for the house came after they learned of a builder’s efforts to use all USA products. “We thought: ‘Why don’t we try to do that?’ ”
The idea house shows the customer products made in the USA, and also available and in-stock at Hartville Hardware, he said.
The idea house “is the Cabela’s Mountain of Hartville Hardware,” said marketing manager Christa Domer, referring to the elaborate taxidermy display and photo opportunity generally found at the sporting goods retailer. “We just wanted to show people that you can do this in your home.”
According to Miller, the family studied several top-notch home improvement retailers before launching their Hartville mega store. “We spent four or five years traveling around the country looking at great retailers out there,” he said.
Among them: Stine Lumber of Louisiana, Builders Warehouse in Nebraska, and Jerry’s Home Center of Oregon.
Wayne’s brother Howard is president of the family business, which originated as an auction barn back in 1939. The company entered home improvement in 1972. So far, Miller said the store is exceeding expectations. “We ended up having to hire more people than we had originally planned,” Miller said.
But successful retail is a never-ending journey. “After 40 years on the old store, we never had it perfect,” Miller said. “It will probably take us more than a year to get this one perfect.”
Sales forces: Do it Best points to growth
One of the challenges facing independent hardware stores in late 2012, as an election looms and uncertainty reigns, can be classified under the headline: “Good problem to have.” Specifically, it’s the challenge of managing a business through an upswing.
Bob Taylor, the CEO of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based hardware co-op Do it Best Corp. — a longtime proponent of the cash-flow-is-king approach to retail management — says the adjustment to improving business conditions can be a challenge to independents in the hardware business.
Some of the themes expected to play out at the co-op’s Fall Market in Indianapolis is the ideas of transition and growth.
“There is that understanding where you’re moving from an era — the 1990s and early 2000s — and in some degrees managing growth. The focus today is really more about creating growth. You can’t let the economy or anything else be an excuse. You have to go find ways to create opportunities and help your members find those opportunities and take advantage of them.”
Although it’s a good problem to have, managing through a growth spurt or a comeback requires a steady management hand.
“If you turn it around and you’re coming up off the bottom where business is increasing — sometimes in significant steps and with a reduced line of credit and purchases bumping up — it’s a caution sign to watch and be very vigilant on that right now,” he said. “You can be chasing yourself.”
Taylor, in his first formal Home Channel News interview since being inducted into the Home Channel Hall of Fame during the National Hardware Show in May, offered advice for managing growth. It’s more important than ever to communicate with your lending partners. “Help them understand the business and the dynamics and what’s going on out there in the marketplace,” Taylor said. “Particularly for those members more closely aligned with the building site of the industry, which are seeing some of the very welcome jumps in the business.”
The co-op itself is expecting to see some increases in business conducted at the upcoming Fall Market in Indianapolis, which officially kicks off Oct. 13 after a couple days of preliminary educational sessions. Attendance at markets has been running flat or down in recent years. (“Keep in mind the years we went through,” Taylor said.) Attendance was down in May, even though actual business activity increased by about 8%, according to the co-op.
But an early reading about five weeks ahead of the upcoming October market shows double-digit percentage increases in store attendance and an even higher increase in total badges.
“It’s a dramatic difference,” Taylor said. “We’ll have to see, but it’s a great early sign that maybe we have turned a corner.”
The October event will be the first without veteran executives Dave Dietz and Dave Haist, who retired officially over the summer, and who were replaced by new VP finance Doug Roth and new COO Dan Starr.
Taylor describes the transfer as smooth.
“As much as you appreciate the contributions of guys like Dave Dietz and Dave Haist, the real tribute to both of them is that it’s a non-event,” he said. “They both have done such a great job in assisting with the transition. It’s been seamless.”
Meanwhile, several projects related to the co-op’s Extreme Growth initiative are moving forward:
“This is a continuing evolution, and one that we’ll continue to put resources behind in the years ahead,” Taylor said.
• Retail pricing
Do it Best is bringing in competitive pricing information from Rival Watch in combination with the co-op’s internal pricing research to offer market-by-market intelligence to help members build their own pricing plan.
The co-op is activating an alert system to tell members when an item has been replaced or deleted in a planogram, so that retailer assortments can stay current.
• Aggressive recruiting
The co-op’s Performance Satisfaction Guarantee program is recruiting key retailers in a way that shows off the co-op’s confidence. If a company tries Do it Best and is not completely happy in its first three years, Do it Best will help the company convert back to its former co-op and pay an amount equal to 10% of the average annual warehouse purchases. “We don’t expect to pay out on that,” he said. The company has added 80 new members since the launch of its extreme retailing program. Taylor added: “We really want people who are running to us and not running from someone else.”
Summing up his attitude for his members, Taylor played the optimism card: “I think there is a realization that if I look back at our performance over the last five or six years, when you look at how close we were to the epicenter of the housing crisis and the challenge with the economy, and come through that period and this year marking this our ninth consecutive year with a rebate in excess of $100 million, you feel pretty good about the performance we’ve demonstrated during some very challenging times.
“And a lot of optimism looking forward.”