In San Francisco, a hardware holdout with heart
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."
Indie Award contest races to finish line
A handful of hardware stores are in the running for the coveted Independent We Stand “Independent Small Business of the Year Award,” also known as “The Indie.”
The industry candidates – all of which so far survived the nominating, voting and vetting process of the contest – could possibly win a $50,000 grand prize package, if they beat out the 25 contenders.
The hardware stores with a chance to win the Indie Award are:
• Carr Hardware of Pittsfield, Mass.
• Cornell’s True Value Hardware of Eastchester, N.Y.;
• Hardware Hank of East Grand Forks, Minn.;
• Petersburg Hardware; and
• T& M Hardware & Rental of Bellevue, Pa.
The above dealers are up against some stiff, independent competition from the likes of the Mountain Valley Brewery of Axton, Va.; Chic Geek Apparel of La Mesa, Calif.; and Afterwards Books of Edwardsville, Ill.
The winner will be announced Dec. 13.
The contest is now in its seventh year. Independent We Stand writes: “Our mission at Independent We Stand is to inspire small business owners to discover their local roots and help consumers understand the importance of supporting them.”
Here’s San Francisco’s businesswoman of the year
The slogan – or brand promise — of San Francisco hardware and building supply dealer Center Hardware says a lot about the company: “Whether you need a single light bulb, or bulbs for the entire Bay Bridge, we have your back.”
And that approach to customer service and inventory capacity has led to recognition from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which presented Center Hardware’s Chief Operating Officer Jamie Gentner with the Businesswoman of the Year Award.
The award was part of the chamber’s 26th annual Excellence in Business (Ebbies) Awards.
More than a quarter century ago, the Chamber created the Ebbies to honor San Francisco businesses for their innovation, to celebrate their vision, and publicly appreciate their contributions to their employees and our community.
“The Ebbies recognize companies and individuals that reflect our city’s vast geographical, professional and individual differences. But together we are the collective engine fueling our local economy, keeping our city strong and helping to create a culture that is so uniquely San Francisco.” said Tallia Hart, President & CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “This year’s winners reflect that diversity, representing small business, entrepreneurship, technology and the non-profit sector. Our honorees are using their passion and persistence to develop solutions for some of the biggest problems our city faces, and pushing San Francisco’s vibrant economy to greater heights.”
In addition to Jamie Gentner, other winners of the 2017 Ebbies awards include:
Building San Francisco Award: Mercy Housing
Businesswoman of the Year Award: Jamie Gentner of Center Hardware
Economic Development Award: SPUR
Innovation through Technology Award: SafeBreach
Small Business of the Year Award: Zebra Awning Company, Inc.
Sustainability Award: Omni San Francisco Hotel
Excellence in Business Award: Lyft
Here’s how Center Hardware describes itself on its home page: “A local, family-owned business, Keith Gentner and his daughter, Jamie, now run and operate Center Hardware. The father-daughter team is committed to continuing Center Hardware’s esteemed reputation and extensive product lines that have served the Bay Area for generations.”