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Heart of the Handyman

Co-founder of Home Hardware turned a small-town store into a national success.

Four words, four notes, three chords—"Home Hardware, home of the handyman"—conjures images of red-shirted sales staff plying a variety of hardware items ranging from paint and plaster to hammers and screwdrivers.

The heart of this billion-dollar enterprise beats in the guise of a modest, unassuming, bow-tied executive in the small town of St. Jacob's, Ontario.

"I came from humble beginnings," says Walter Hachborn, the man behind what began as a means of providing "mom and pop" hardware stores with stock to a network of about 1,000 stores in every province and territory in Canada. "I came from a home without much food to eat or clothes to wear, but lots of love."

Walter was there first on many business innovations now considered standard practice by home improvement stores in this country.

Walter's hardware career began in the back room of Hollinger Hardware as a 16-year-old stock boy, where Walter learned to wear a bow tie because the dirt and grime of the hardware store would render a necktie unpresentable. By the time Walter joined the staff, Gordon Hollinger not only ran an efficient retail operation, he had branched out into the wholesale business, supplying area merchants.

"I was the warehouse worker and, when the retail store was busy, I served customers," recalls Walter of his early days at Hollinger Hardware.

Walter has been away from the hardware business for only three years, when he joined the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps in 1943. But even his army stint proved beneficial—as a staff sergeant Walter was the warehouse foreman responsible for stores and vehicles at the base in London, Ontario. What he learned about warehousing came in handy as Home Hardware developed.

"Hollinger Hardware operated successfully until 1949. Gordon Hollinger died in 1948 and his wife in 1949," recalls Walter. Henry Sittler, the manager of the wholesale side, lawyer Arthur Zilliax and Walter put together a successful bid to buy the business.

In the years following the Second World War, there were dramatic changes in the industry.

"When I started in the retail store, it was still a very rural area where we sold a lot of farm products. I remember when Kitchener, Ontario, only had 10,000 people," said Walter. "Canada changed after the Second World War. It became more industrialized and urbanized."

By 1963, the booming Hollinger Hardware and other independent hardware stores faced increasing competition from retail giants such as Woolco, Zellers and K-Mart. More than 1,000 independent hardware stores closed between 1955 and 1965.

"We wanted to help the independent businesses survive so we researched the types of systems in Europe and the United States," says Walter. "We seemed to be encouraged towards the dealer-owned co-operative system, which eliminated wholesale profit."

The research resulted in a meeting of 122 hardware dealers in Kitchener, 108 of whom elected to form a co-op. They appointed a steering committee, which became the first board, and elected Walter as president and general manager. In Home of the Handyman, a company history, Walter describes how, after the initial organizational years, a new name and identity was needed. A friend of Walter's designed several logos and in November 1967 Home Hardware became the new company name.

Home Hardware quickly became a leader in the hardware industry. When Walter was named the Hardware Retailer of the Century by the Hardware Merchandising magazine, the magazine stated: "Simply put, Walter was there first on many business innovations now considered standard practice by home improvement stores in this country. Some innovations were (Walter's) own, some were borrowed from U.S. operations, but everyone else in Canada seems to borrow something from Home Hardware."

Two key innovations garnered Walter the award: the concept of the dealer-owned wholesaler and the creation of the single retail image complete with slogan, logo and red jackets. "Walter followed through on his vision to communicate his ideas and rally people around him," concluded Hardware Merchandising.

Walter retired as general manager in 1988, after more than 50 years in the business. While he's passed on the day-to-day operations, the board asked Walter to remain president. He still drops into the office, where he knows many of the staff by name.

In Home of the Handyman, Walter is described as "always (being) available to his staff, day or night. Should trouble or sickness or accident befall a staff member, Walter is usually one of the first to respond to the distress and lend his support." Known throughout the industry as a "people person" Walter had the uncanny ability to remember not only the names of his 1,000-plus employees but also their children.

Family and community were also important elements in Walter's life. He married Jean in 1947 and his three children—Susan, Elizabeth and William—have carved out careers in the investment, fundraising and education sectors. For more than 15 years, Walter was a member of the Woolwich Township planning board. He also served on the advisory board of the Elmira High School and on the board of governors for what was to become Wilfrid Laurier University—including a six-year term as treasurer beginning in 1971.

A Christian faith has played a large part in the octogenarian's life and business. Active in St. James Lutheran Church in his home town, Walter has served on the church board (where he chaired the building committee), the executive board of the denominational synod (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) and as treasurer and president of the Luther League of Canada. He carries his faith beyond the church boardroom into the corporate boardroom.

Walter demonstrated how he melded belief and business at the annual MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Association) conference in November 2000. "(Walter) drew parallels between MEDA's efforts to relate faith and business and his own role in the hardware trade," reported the MEDA-published Marketplace magazine.

"We have more than 2,000 suppliers, so we bump into all kinds of people," Walter told Marketplace. He added that in the retail trade the right "Christian decision" is usually also the right business decision. "If you have faith you have to find a way to practise that faith—not just on Sundays but all week long."

Robert White is editor of the Christian Current Golden Triangle and managing editor of the Christian Current network.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, April 2003.

Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2003




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