HARDWARE STORES

These sisters mean business

In southern Louisiana, Melaco Sisters Hardware & Supplies lifts a community

BY Ken Clark

Melaco Sisters Hardware in Cut Off, La., isn’t the only thing named for the sisters Vanessa Melancon Pierce and Lauren Melancon.

There’s the LB Vanessa, a 190-ton vessel with 20-story-high legs that drive deep into the sea to create a platform for building and repairing oil and gas rigs. There’s also the LB Lauren Frances, with even longer legs and one of the largest liftboat cranes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Liftboat ‘Vanessa’

Vanessa and Lauren know the offshore drilling business. Their grandfather pioneered the industry, and they took over OffShore Liftboat Inc. when their father retired. Last year, with the energy industry facing stiff challenges, and with the family business looking to diversify (and also looking for better deals on parts) they considered buying a hardware store.

“It kind of started as a joke – ‘let’s just buy this hardware store,’” said Vanessa. “And we ran that by a few family members, my husband, friends, coworkers, and nobody said we were crazy.”

The two sisters – novices to hardware retailing — purchased Kief Hardware, expanded it to 23,000 sq. ft. and opened the doors on Jan. 31. In addition to a complete remodel and a revamped footprint, the store is expanding into rental and an industrial-commercial department where the sisters can tap their experience and knowledge of the offshore oil and gas business.

Several key members of the Kief staff were retained, and the retailer also continued its distributor relationship with Do it Best Corp. “It was very important to us to keep the people who kept the previous store running,” Vanessa said. “Because they know the hardware business, and they know retail.”

And while the sisters are taking a “completely hands-on approach” to running the store, they also bring with them some advice they received from an oil industry veteran: “Just know what you don’t know, and be willing to learn,” she said.

“We’re kind of getting our feet wet in retail,” Vanessa said. “This is brand new for us. But it’s been fun.”

Cases of two sisters entering the hardware business are rare. Rarer still are sisters in the energy services industry. “We’re coming from a business where my sister and I own the only woman-owned and operated lift boat company in the country, a predominantly male driven business from all sides,” Vanessa said. “We had seriously been immersed in a truly male-driven, good-ol’-boys-club kind of industry. It was a constant test of, ‘do you really know what you’re doing?’

“Coming into hardware was very different. And the first time we went to the [Do it Best Market], we walked in and, yes, there were a lot of men. But then, we also saw women and children, and hardware seems to be more of a family business,” she said.

Vanessa said one of the great rewards, so far, of running a hardware store is the day-to-day immersion in their home town – especially as it shows signs of economic recovery.

Cut Off is about an hour and half drive south of New Orleans, a community immersed in commercial fishing and off-shore drilling, and the hometown of Bobby the “Cajun Cannon” Hebert, the former New Orleans Saints quarterback.

“We love the community,” Vanessa said. “It is a small community. We take care of ourselves, take care of each other. And when things got bad in the oil field, it really affected our local economy.” The store allows the sisters an opportunity to participate in the revival of the business district of Cut Off, without leaving home.

“We don’t have to leave town to talk to our customers,” she said. “At Melaco Sisters, our customer base is our community. We’re working in the community where we live and that we love and where we were raised.”

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