She rocks hardware

JoAnn Virag, owner of Millwood Hardware, discusses her rise in the family business.
JoAnn Virag in her hardware store
JoAnn Virag, owner of Millwood Hardware, in her store.

“Women are happy there is a woman in the store they can talk to. Many stores are intimidating.”

Meet JoAnn Virag, the owner of Millwood Hardware, a Do it Best dealer, in Millwood, New York.

“I went to college as a four-year break before I started working full time. I knew I was going to take over the business. My dad started to look for a second location after I graduated. He found it, and at the age of 24, I took over the original store.”

Even though she had been working there her whole life, she wasn’t sure she could do it.

Virag said she used to call her dad a lot to ask questions. And then she remembered one day….

…. she realized she had not called him at all that day.

“When I was young, I was so shy that I only asked a customer if they needed help because my dad made me. I used to silently say to myself ‘please say no, please say no,’” said the hardware owner.

“We are a local hardware store. We have been here over 50 years. My dad first opened a store in Ardley, New York, more paint oriented. Probably because his father was a painter.”

Then he moved to Millwood and was an original tenant in the new shopping center. The store was less than 2,000 square feet.

When his next-door tenant moved out, he took over their space, she said. At one point he was lucky to have the opportunity to buy the building and eventually took over everything but the deli on the other side.

JoAnn Virag dad and sisters
Owner JoAnn Virag’s dad with her and two of her sisters doing construction work with him. “I am the girl in the middle.”

He then proceeded to put an attic on the building which provided him with 7,000 square feet of storage. She said that today they have a 60/40 ratio of homeowner to contractor business.

“I am the second oldest of seven. I always loved working in the store. The tools, the hardware, always intrigued me. On my dad’s one day off a week, he built our family home. And from a little girl I always loved being his helper – handing him tools and getting him what he needed,” said Virag.

Only men whittle?!

“When I was young, the industry was very male dominated. I remember going to trade shows and most of the booths had pretty woman in short skirts and men in suits. My dad used to love that people would overlook me and tell me to never mind he already gave an order. And he would proudly say: ‘She has her own store.’

Her dad was never one for the telephone, she said. So, when Virag was young, he would ask her to make business calls for him – place orders, ask questions.

“And these poor people would hear this young female voice on the phone. I remember being asked if, ‘I had permission to place an order?’ Or ‘did my dad know I was ordering this?’ Or ‘was there an adult there they could talk to?’”

For many years she had customers come in and look for a man to help them.

That mostly subsided. She said she has been there so long now, that people just know.

“Within the last year I actually had an older woman come in and ask if there was a man in the store to ask about whittling wood. I asked her why a man and she said, ‘only men whittle.’”

Challenges today now include the online shopper.

JoAnn Virag team
JoAnn Virag with her team, Joseph Schultz on left, and Quinn Mathews.

“They like to call or come in and ask for my help, expertise, knowledge and experience, but then go online and buy it,” said Virag.

“One day I had a snow day. And my Dad woke me up and said I had to walk with him to the store. Of course, I did, it was an adventure. Never days off when you are family.”

Surprises, challenges

“I’ve won over so many customers,” she said.

Despite the advent of e-commerce and price competitiveness, she said, it has been incredibly rewarding to have a loyal customer base, “to have created a sense of community here and to have a wonderful customer base that is committed to supporting me and my small business.”

Besides the positives, challenges came along the way too.

“Making the decision to change franchises was perhaps the largest business decision and change since taking over the store. Understanding and balancing tradition and sentimentality with current margins, business growth and preparing for the future,” said the owner.

“Researching options, weighing the pros and cons and ultimately moving, and saying goodbye to some old and trusted colleagues was both scary and exciting.”

The hardware owner offers tips for other readers taking over the family business and being woman owned.

“Make sure it is what you want and it’s because you love it, not out of a sense of obligation,” said Virag.

“Be an expert. Eventually, customers started waiting until I was available to help them and stopped asking for ‘the man.’”