Although customer service remains the top way to differentiate and compete in the ever-changing world of retail, retailers are adapting to other challenges in the industry and coming out ahead. The following pages feature some of Canada’s top home improvement retailers and LBM dealers who share their experiences, successes, and challenges.
Read about dealers in the economically challenged oil-provinces that have seen double-digit growth, using the resources they get from their banners and buying groups to enhance the customer experience and increase sales.
Other retailers have seen success for many years, with second and third generations building on the success of parents and grandparents. From small town hardware stores to big city box stores, these retailers prove that with focus and persistence, success is attainable in the exciting world of home improvement retailing.
(Editor’s Note: At the request of some of the banner groups, please note that inclusion in this feature does not signify a qualitative standing within the banner group. Retailers featured were chosen because they represent the many successful retailers within each group.)
In 1986, Brian MacLean bought a building centre. His children – Ben and Shawna – were young and grew up in the business, helping out where they could, pushing the broom at eight- and 12-years-old for $2.50 an hour.
Today, Ben MacLean and his sister, Shawna Knight, own and run the 15,000 square-foot store in Wasaga Beach, ON. Their father, Brian, has retired.
In 2013, they joined Castle Building Centres Group Ltd. One of the main reasons they joined Castle was the rebates, says MacLean. "We wanted to keep our own rebates. One of our previous buying groups had a loyalty program where we had to buy so much through the group or we wouldn’t keep our rebate. We also like the pricing and independence we have with Castle. Their hardware solution partnership with Orgill is big for us as we do a lot of hardlines."
The pair say the store is successful because they like to think of themselves as specializing in products categories such as paint, decking, and kitchens. Special orders are also a key part of the business.
"We’ve been here 30 years, so the store is part of the town," says Knight. "We’re right in the heart of town, so we’ve been the local hardware store for many people that whole time. People have watched us grow up and we’ve watched their kids grow up."
The permanent population has grown from 3,500 to 20,000 over those 30 years and that has also contributed to the store’s success.
Wasaga Beach is a tourist destination and the population doubles in the summer and on weekends. This cottage community is a big part of the store’s market. Knight says customers come to the store instead of buying at the big boxes in the bigger cities because they like to shop local.
"We’ve also got a good core staff here that really communicate well with our customers and that shows."
Knight thinks of the store as sort of an essential service for the community. "We provide security for people with their homes. We’ve got the tools and materials they need to make their home their own."
MacLean says he finds it satisfying to work with customers to "show them new products and get them the things they need."
Wasaga Beach Building Centre has a website with eCommerce capabilities. They are getting orders from across Ontario on that platform. They send out monthly flyers via eMail to their subscriber list. They also offer a monthly door buster program that is very successful. "We get support through Orgill with that," says MacLean. "We do other regular flyers and we’re constantly improving the website and trying to do more on social media as well."
As for consumer trends, MacLean says he has noticed that people are not quite as price conscious as they used to be. "They’re starting to spend a bit more on higher quality products and not always looking for the cheapest product. That’s especially the case in composite decking, where the price is five or six times traditional decking."
They also see that trend in the way people are renovating kitchen and baths. "It’s not just a vanity anymore. It’s a showpiece," says MacLean. "People are investing more in their homes."
For people looking to enter this industry, Knight says, "Fasten your seat belt.
"There’s a lot of variety from the inspiring to the challenging. There’s variety with vendors and products and just with the day-to-day. One day it’s fast paced and the next you have some breathing room. But that keeps it nice and interesting."
In 1983, Robbie McKay bought a share in a small hardware store in Turner Valley, AB, just two kilometres outside Black Diamond. It’s was a 1,600 square-foot store with 95 per cent of sales in lumber. In 1992, he bought out his partner and owned the store outright. For 25 years, he ran the store located in the foothills Alberta.
In 2007, McKay built a new store in Black Diamond. That’s the store he runs today. He’s been with RONA since 2004. It was the relationship with RONA that inspired the idea of a new store and location. He chose the banner because he wanted to have a national image with a merchandising and marketing program, but he also wanted to have input in all aspects of the business.
Today, his 12,500 square-foot store sits on four acres and is contractor-driven with 75 per cent from the back end. However, he says hardlines are definitely a big part of his business now too.
He started in the industry working for Co-op in high school. He still loves it because of the people – his customers, his staff, and his suppliers. He also enjoys the challenges of retail and strives to get better at what he does every day.
Last year, despite the local economy, his store saw a 10 per cent increase. He says that’s because of the great people at his store who have been with him for many years. "We all like our jobs," he says.
He says it is also a result of taking pride in the store and its appearance. The store has also adapted to the local needs. "We’re not like a RONA down east. We’re in ranching country here, cowboy and cattle country, and we sell product for our market.
"We do big business in farm posts, barbed wire, rail fences, hog farm ranch equipment, and cattle handling equipment. We sell rough lumber for corrals and pre-built horse shelters and sheds.
"We also have a rental department and a greenhouse out back. We also offer a lot of little cowboy knick knacks."
McKay says he tries to create excitement in the store. "I want to show people I’m getting better every year. What I mean is, as you run a business, you get better at it. You have better staff and better merchandise. You get better at knowing what to sell in your store – you skinny one thing down and expand something else."
It’s also important to keep the shelves full and help people get in and out quickly, he says. There’s a big box down the road, so he has to create reasons for people to shop at his store.
The strongest category is lumber because of the large contractor ratio. To stand out, McKay only stocks ‘four square’ select lumber. "It’s more money than the other stores, but we’ve had great success with it because people want better quality lumber and it’s getting harder to buy."
Wood stoves are a big seller at Black Diamond RONA and McKay claims to have the largest stock in Alberta. He keeps one burning at the front of the store during the cold months.
The retailer also offers special orders and is able, when it has to, to get something within one day.
Ultimately, McKay wants to create a great experience for his customers. "Bricks-and-mortar versus the internet is like a book versus an eReader," he says. "When I read a book, I like to feel the cover. I like to smell the pages; I like the feel of the pages. I think that’s why there is a technology delay in our business. We try to make it so that when you come in the store it’s like reading a book. Everybody is in a good mood and happy to see you. People can slow down and see and feel the products. They can discuss their project with a live person. We want you to have a good experience here that you can’t get online."
At The Home Depot in Calgary Beacon Hill, AB, it’s business as usual, despite what the economic forecasters say. The spring weather is getting people in the mood to start fixing up the inside and outside of their homes.
"We’re doing very well in the Calgary market and we’ll be bringing on another 300-plus associates," says Kathryn Audet, store manager. She says this is the busiest time of year and instead of focusing on forecasts, her team focuses on every customer that comes in.
"Through the course of the year, the projects always transition and we have something for everybody. We’re still getting people doing larger projects. We can assist them in the large projects and small projects."
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the store. Audet has been at the location for 2½ years. She has been with the company for nine years.
"I came into home improvement from fashion retail," she says. She was looking for a bigger challenge and joined the company in a management training program. "The thing that drew me to this company is that it is a values-based organization; Home Depot is always looking at ways to give back to the community. This is a key priority and is really important to me."
Some recent projects the store has been involved in include a drive for the local food banks. The store collected 5,000 pounds of food. Last fall, associates helped at the Inn from the Cold shelter for homeless families. They renovated living spaces, kitchens, halls, and more. Also last year, the store raised $60,000 for the Boys and Girls Club initiative around homeless youth, which was a 20 per cent increase over the previous year. "Whenever I have a charity project, I usually have more volunteers than I need, which really speaks to the people that work for Home Depot."
Audet says the store is very much a neighbourhood store. "We have kids that started doing workshops with us when they were two- and three-years-old and now we’re seeing their younger siblings coming in, so they’re really growing up within the store."
Adults also partake in workshops such as tile installation or, a popular spring workshop, decking installation. "Our customers come to us and they have doubts as to whether they can do a home improvement project. We give them the knowledge and then they realize they can do it. Many come back with pictures of their amazing projects."
Great customer service is the reason behind the success of the Calgary Beacon Hill store, says Audet. "Customer service is a priority for Home Depot – whether it’s for the DIY customers or our contractors – everyone will get an excellent customer service experience. The level of service we provide really drives our customer relationships. They want to come to us. They want to be in our store because they know that we’re going to take care of them."
For customers who don’t want to ‘do it themselves,’ the store offers a variety of installation programs. "All of our installers have been background checked and we know they do good quality work."
As for consumer trends, Audet says she’s noticed customers are coming in more knowledgeable than ever. "They’ve gone to our website; they’ve used the Home Depot app; they’ve done research," she says. "When they come in, they already have a ton of background as to what they think will work for their project. Then they come to us for our experience to help them fine tune it."
Home Depot is also capable of designing projects for customers. "We have some of the best technology out there to design their deck, garage, or kitchen. We can make sure they have everything they’re going to need to make their project successful.
Audet says the home improvement retailing industry is a very dynamic industry with a lot of changes on a daily basis. She recommends anyone who wants to get into this industry needs to make sure they love the customer. "There are new products every day and constantly changing shopping patterns, but if you put the customer first, then you can be successful."
Lowe’s opened its Burlington, ON, location in February 2014 as one of two new concept stores. The 117,000 square-foot store has environmental features such as Thermoplastic Polyolefin (TPO) roofing, which has reflective points and reduces heat; low flush fixtures which reduce water consumption by roughly 30 per cent; automated building energy management for lighting, heating, cooling, etc.; and high efficiency heating and cooling systems.
"The store is also designed to create a more open space," says Ramona Paul, the store manager. "We have wider aisles and lowered racking that gives the store a home show feel.
Interact With Product
"The store is very fashion forward. We’ve grouped the products in a way that allows the customer to interact with the product, especially in the faucet and vanity areas. For example, you can take a piece of tile and put it on the floor by the vanity and really get an idea of what the project will look like."
The other side of the store has the hardlines: rough plumbing, electrical, hardware, tools, and lumber. It’s set up with those products together to allow contractors to walk in, grab what they need, and walk out.
Currently, seasonal is a very strong category for the Burlington store. "Customers are really focusing on bringing the indoors outside and we have a great selection that allows them to do that." When they first walk in the store, there is a large seasonal pad that displays a colourful and large variety of products.
Fashion bath is another successful category. "As mentioned, it is an interactive category with a variety of displays that allow customers to envision their final project."
Paul started in the home improvement retailing industry in 2000, when she joined the Building Box as assistant manager. She ran the flooring, home décor, paint, and lighting departments. After one year, she was promoted to store manager.
"I was attracted to selling projects instead of just items," says Paul. "I enjoy helping people love where they live. It’s about being able to listen and understand what they are looking for and helping them to envision it, and a whole relationship begins to foster."
In fact, it’s this building of relationships that sets her store apart from the competition, she says. "Our team continues to educate and push themselves to learn and they work very closely together. It’s not just one person who works with a customer, they use each other’s expertise.
"Customers come in and compliment the team and talk about how detailed they are. The team brings their patience and commitment to customer service with them every single day."
Lowe’s offers its employees ongoing training and vendors also support their products.
Team members can stay informed on what’s new in their department through different channels, says Paul. And, there is a seamless communication with the head office and merchants. "For instance, we have a weekly president’s call where stores speak openly and share feedback about specific topics with the intention of senior leaders understanding where teams can better support the business."
Paul says Lowe’s is also particularly good at omni-channel retailing. "Customers can go on the web, on their phone – they don’t have to be in the store to look at our selection or buy products.
"Our technology is all about ease for the customer and operational efficiency for us."
As for consumer trends, Paul says the home has become an expression of people’s lifestyle. She believes that is why the outdoor living category has become so popular, because people are turning their homes into a place where they can have a ‘staycation.’ "They’re entertaining more and really learning to love where they live. They bring the neighbourhood together in the home and like to showcase the work they’ve done. They’re coming in for much more than just fixing this or replacing that. They’re coming in for full projects."
Paul says in this "great industry, the most important thing is the commitment to the customer. People who work in this industry need to be able to listen, be patient, and accept change. They also have to be at their best at every single moment of the day and be excited to see every customer."
Hewson Brothers Supply Limited was established in 1983 in Brantford, ON, by members of the Hewson family who were professional contractors. They were Armstrong Ceilings distributors for contractors since 1966, but decided to open a supply business where they could sell to the public in 1983. In 2013, they acquired Prestige Acoustics, in Waterloo, ON. Both stores focus on the acoustical category specializing in Armstrong ceilings, steel studs, drywall, insulation, and specialty products. Currently, David Hewson and his son, Len, own the company.
Len Hewson was the first member of the family to concentrate solely on the supply business as he joined Hewson Brothers fulltime in 1995. After receiving his business administration degree, he decided he wanted to take the company to the next level.
In 2005, the company decided to join buying group TORBSA Limited. Hewson says he "likes the way the group operates. It’s fully transparent and with timely information being key in this business, we like that TORBSA makes it readily available. They also have a good relationship with suppliers and offer a lot of events for fellowship and business networking. It’s been a great fit for us."
He says TORBSA also has a technology program that helps them stay up-to-date. "Every two to three years we get something a little more cutting edge."
If he had to attribute the success of the store down to one thing, Hewson says it would be the dedicated employees. "We have many people that have been employed here for quite some time and our focus on the customer makes us successful. We are 90 per cent contractor-based, so the ability to service them is the most important thing."
He says contractors want timely deliveries and stocked inventory. "The process shouldn’t be a bother for them. We should have the materials on hand and have them on site by the date and time requested."
Hewson was able to measure the loyalty of his customer base in a way that not many can. In January 2015, he got a security call in the middle of the night telling him there was something going on at his Brantford office. "I thought it was a break in. I arrived to the office to see five fire trucks and smoke coming out of the building."
No one was hurt, but it did mean they had to rebuild the business. "What struck me the most at the time was that our employees and customers really helped us out. They were fantastic through the whole process. You worry because if a customer goes somewhere else, you run the risk of losing their business, but they stuck with us and supported us in any way they could.
"From the time I started this business it has grown. Since the fire, we realize just how much we’ve grown and how we have established strong relationships with our valued customers"
As part of the rebuild of the building, Hewson has renovated and made the offices into ‘office-showrooms.’ Each office showcases a different product so customers can see how they look installed and what options are available for ceilings and accessories.
The main rebuild is complete, but they’ve decided to add a 4,000 square-foot addition.
At this point, Hewson says he will continue to align the two stores – Brantford and Waterloo – by bringing in new accounting software and running both on the same system.
He says the biggest challenge is that "the competition is fierce out there. What we sell you can buy anywhere. So, you have to set yourself apart."
Earlton Country Store Inc. is located on the site of a former feed and supply Co-op and tractor dealership. In 2000, it was turned into a small hardware store and then, in 2004, the Gerber family acquired it.
Sam Gerber, his father, and his brothers expanded the product lines and made it a hardware and building materials supply dealer with an agricultural side to the business. They built a warehouse and yard to accommodate the LBM portion of the business.
In 2012, Sam Gerber became sole owner.
Around that time, he decided to expand and renovate. He was a member of TIMBER MART and decided to expand the banner with its planogramming and merchandising.
"I changed the storefront, doubled my main square-footage for retail, brought in more displays, and added sales offices," he says. "We wanted to utilize every opportunity the banner offered."
As he improved the environment, he also improved his staff. "We have a very strong team," he says. He believes in having the type of relationship with the staff that gives them the incentive to take pride in their job and the business. Then they will make a difference on an individual basis to the consumer. It is this relationship with his staff and customers that makes him love this industry.
"In a small community like this, customer service and establishing strong customer relationships will bring repeat business back. Word of mouth – people sharing their personal experience doing business with the local business that’s supporting local community – goes a long way."
Right Product Mix
Gerber also believes in having the right product mix and offerings to support his community.
"We’re in a farming community and surrounded by logging industry and a couple of gold mines, so it is a very strong stable community in many ways," he says. He has a "huge diversity of products" for an agricultural community that loves hobbies. He also offers peripheral items such as ‘Cardlock’ cards that unlock 24-hour gas pumps and bill customers automatically. "It all gives people another incentive to come here."
Gerber also brings in newer products and offers a wide selection through special order. "Roughly 25 to 30 per cent of our gross sales in a year are special orders." He’s currently updating his website, which already allows eCommerce, to offer more of the special order products. It should be live in the fall.
ERP systems offer a tremendous advantage for the store’s different channels. The system allows the store to integrate other software and customize it to its needs. It allows the store to have its own online app where regular customers and contractors can have access to their account and pull up information such as invoices, statements, pricing, and quotations. They are able to use it to request a quote or delivery too.
Another element to success is community involvement, says Gerber. "There’s high value in community involvement and it goes hand-in-hand with receiving community support."
Gerber says if he were to give advice to someone entering the business, it would be that they need to be certain that they love the retail environment.
He also says they should make sure they choose the right buying group to meet their needs. For him, TIMBER MART offers the freedom to be a strong independent against the box stores. It provides an extensive marketing program which he utilizes to the fullest extent with promotions and flyer programs. He also values its private label program and loyalty programs which include Air Miles and the TIMBER MART card. "I also very much appreciate the negotiations they do for me as a dealer."
Alliston Home Hardware Building Centre in Alliston, ON, is owned by Dan and Emily Moulton and Kim Ytsma. Ytsma’s family moved to Alliston in 1993 and purchased the store, which was a Beaver Lumber at that time. When Home Hardware Stores Limited acquired Beaver Lumber in the early 2000s, the store changed its banner to Home Building Centre. Then, in 2009, it became a Home Hardware Building Centre to further grow the retail side of the business.
In January 2015, Ytsma’s mother, Joyce, decided to retire. Dan and Emily Moulton bought out Joyce’s shares to co-own the store with Ytsma. Dan and Emily also own a successful Home Hardware Building Centre in Hanover, ON, which they purchased in 2012.
Both stores and their owners have won many awards including the North American Retail Hardware Association Young Retailer Awards for Ytsma (2013) and Dan (2016). In 2015, the Alliston store won Top Gold for its area from Home Hardware and the Alliston Business Excellence Award. The Hanover store is a three-time gold award winner from Home Hardware from 2013 to 2015.
Dan Moulton says the success comes from the excellent people they have in both organizations, the success of Home Hardware Stores Limited, and the excellent staff at the Home office. "And we work really hard," he says, "at offering a great shopping experience for our customers. We have full shelves. We have great-looking ends and bases. We’re a new exciting place to shop that hopefully customers, every time they come in, will see something a bit different."
The store’s most popular category is lumber and building materials, as the back end has always been the building centre’s core business. However, over the last 16 to 18 months the team has put a lot of effort on building the retail side of the business.
"We have been focused on the product offering on the retail floor," he says. "We’re working on the way the merchandise and stock is attracting the retail customer and the female consumer."
And the changes are leading to results. "We moved from 36th position to 22nd in paint sales in one year in the entire chain," he says. "We’ve increased our average basket and total customer count. Our turns in the power aisle’s merchandise have significantly improved. Our ends, bases, and wings are much more shopped because they’re full and grouped together properly."
Like Ytsma, his family has been in retail for many years. His grandfather was – and father currently is – a Canadian Tire dealer.
Both the Moultons and Ytsma now have children of their own. Ytsma says her seven-year-old daughter is already showing signs of a career in retail. "She would love to work cash and often wears her red Home Hardware shirt."
Their philosophy is that they really believe in driving sales, controlling costs, and managing margins. "Doing those three things has enabled us to create a successful and sustainable business. We also believe it has led to a better shopping experience," he says.
"We try to create a culture that encourages openness, a safe environment for people to work, and a place where they will enjoy coming into work. We strive to achieve this daily in both our stores. When you have excellent front line staff, your customers are well served. We are certainly grateful for our teams."
TSC Stores LP caters to consumers who enjoy a country lifestyle. It specializes in products for farm and country home improvement, working the land, and outdoor hobbies. Established in 1966, it is a Canadian-owned and operated retailer with 50 locations in Ontario and Manitoba.
Bob Axtmann is the store manager of TSC Guelph. Although he started with the company in 2005, he has been at this store since 2015. He fell into the industry at university when he worked for the local co-op. He found he enjoyed the retail side of things over working with the crops and feed. After that, he moved on to TSC Stores.
Axtmann says he likes working at a corporate store as opposed to owning his own store. "There’s a lot more flexibility. As a large corporation, we can do things that a single store owner couldn’t do – be it financial or logistic or size. With corporate, we’re able to purchase enough to get good deals for customers and it is all administered through our head office."
When he joined the company, TSC Stores was just starting its expansion. "I opened four new stores, including organizing the store and hiring the staff."
The Guelph location has also recently undergone a complete renovation, including an addition of a side compound which has made more room for bulky items and lawn and garden products.
Axtmann likes the varied product selection aimed at hobby farmers, contractors, and local factory workers. "There are not many places you can actually get work boots and plumbing fittings and dog food and cat food and lawn and garden stuff all once," he says. "You can come in here to one spot rather than having to go to three or four different stores to accomplish the same thing."
Apparel Strongest Category
His strongest category is apparel. "It comes back to the customers that we have. We have a pretty wide mix of contractors and factories in town and everyday guys as well. They couldn’t get clothes to work in. We’re definitely not a fashion destination, but we are a place where they can get work clothes, shirts, winter coveralls, and work boots.
"We do really well in the animal category as well, whether it be pet food or farm animal feeds. And, we’re coming into a great time of year, lawn and garden season – another important category for us."
The store also carries shelves of mini-animal figurines which are very popular with customers. "It’s unbelievable the number of people that come in and buy the little animals for their grandkids or kids. It’s been a phenomenal success for us."
Customer service is the biggest contributor to the success of the store, says Axtmann. "We try to take a personal interest in what the customer is after and what they’re trying to do. We often become very creative to find a solution for them."
Variety On Job
He says his favourite thing about his job is the variety. "I could be helping somebody with animal feed one minute and helping someone with the parts on their mower the next." He also enjoys dealing with people. "It’s really nice when they come to you for help and they go away with a solution to their problem."
He tries to stay aware of new trends and products. "There’s always something new and you try to sell it and it may or may not succeed. But you have to keep up with everything that comes along. Our buyers are always looking for new ideas and products."
Axtmann warns people who want to get into the industry that they should be prepared to make a pretty major commitment both in time and focus. They should be fairly outgoing and like working with people, whether it’s customers or staff. "Ultimately, it’s all about the people," he says.
BMR Groupe Cormier originates back to 1940 when Joseph-Albert Cormier opened a little shop making windows and doors in New Richmond, QC. Bit by bit he started adding some building materials to his yard. He built a storage area which he continued to expand as people started asking for more hardware and other products. Finally, in the front of the shop he built a very small hardware store. He was located right on the railway, so he received everything by train right up to the ’70s.
Today, the company boasts three locations in Quebec: the flagship store in New Richmond and a store each in Maria and Bonaventure. All three stores are located in the Chaleur Bay area in the Gaspe Peninsula. All are owned by Joseph-Albert’s son, Jean-Eudes Cormier, and run by Isabelle Cormier, Jean-Eudes’ daughter, who is general manager.
The new Richmond store is the main store with 25,000 square feet of retail space and a 250,000 square-foot yard. It has recently been renovated and will have its grand opening in May. It houses the head office.
The Bonaventure store was opened in 1980; it was an acquisition of a small hardware store. It has 9,500 square feet of retail space and a 55,000 square-foot yard. Then, the Maria store was acquired in 2014. It’s retail area is 6,000 square feet and the yard is 22,000 square feet.
A Family Affair
The whole Cormier family works at the store. Isabelle’s mother, Jovette Cormier, sells plumbing and her brother, Mathieu, is in purchasing. Jean-Eudes’ also works all week, every week, says Isabelle.
Isabelle Cormier herself almost didn’t end up in the family business. She had lived in Montreal for many years when her father started asking her if she wanted to take over the business. "At first, I said no because I didn’t want to leave my life in Montreal. For six years I said ‘no, I’m not interested.’ I finally said ‘yes’ because my father was having a hard time finding a successor and I was afraid he would sell it.
"I got emotional; I did not want him to sell the company to a stranger. I was afraid it would be dismantled. My grandfather worked all his life and my father and my mother worked all their lives to build up the business. Suddenly Montreal didn’t feel that important."
She returned in 2010. With a background in business development, it was a natural transition. She had also worked at the stores when she was younger.
She loved it instantly. "I wasn’t sure I would. I was working in sales, but it was a different kind of sales. I was on the phone all the time trying to get meetings and knocking on doors. Now it’s so different. In retail, people come to you in your store and they want to have products and service. It’s such a different way of sales and I like it more."
She says retail sales is more intimate and personal and that’s what she loves about it. She also loves that she is physically active all day and gets to be creative in setting up the store.
When asked what’s behind the stores’ success, she says it’s due to a great staff that love what they do.
BMR Groupe Cormier has been with BMR LeGroupe since 1980. "At that time, they were about 75 merchants and we became one of the 40 shareholders," she says.
She has been working closely with the banner for almost four years developing the new concept for the New Richmond store. One of the improvements is a large design centre. The store originally had a small décor boutique, but it was so popular that it now employs six interior designers. This goes hand-in-hand with the store’s installation service. They employ in-house installers to manage the schedule and quality of the work.
Plumbing is one of the company’s hottest categories, and she says that is because of her mother, Jovette, who has converted the plumbing category into a specialty department that would give any big city box store a run for their money, she says.
Flooring is another big category for Groupe Cormier. She says its popularity stems from the fact that they have in-house installers. Building materials is also a strong category. "We have the biggest yard in the New Richmond region."
The strategy is to be a one-stop shop for all renovation and home improvement needs. "We can offer customers everything they need."
Dylan Riendeau and Mark Ralston were colleagues in the drywall industry for many years when they decided to go out on their own. They were basically running the company they were at and both had a dream to one day work for themselves.
That’s how DEL-PRO Building Supplies was born. Both men had many years of experience and knew the industry well on different levels. Dylan was the ‘numbers’ guy who was good at pricing and quotes and Mark was the ‘operations’ guy. They leased a small 3,000 square-foot unit in Whitby, ON, and purchased a small flatbed truck and an old forklift.
Riendeau and Ralston both knew their best chance was outside the main core of the GTA where the competition was stiff. "The plan was to focus on newer homes – maybe two- to five-years-old – that were ready to finish their basements," says Ralston. "One led to five to 10 to 20 and, before we knew it, we had delivered materials for 150 basements.
"This allowed us to not only build our reputation, but it gave us the ability to purchase another piece of equipment and add more space."
With 15 employees, now the company has 25,000 square feet of warehouse and office space with 1,500 square feet of retail space. It also had the support of Sexton Group Ltd. "If it weren’t for Sexton, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today," says Riendeau, adding they have a tremendous amount of respect for the group. However, they decided to move to Allroc Buying Group because they are a gypsum specialty dealer (GSD) and they wanted support from a GSD buying group.
The company focuses on drywall, insulation, walls, and ceilings with drywall making up a little over 50 per cent of total sales.
The success exceeded the partners’ expectations. "We didn’t know what to expect," says Ralston. "We were flying under the radar so none of the big guys would pay us any mind because they didn’t want to supply basements. We couldn’t have stayed on that path either, there’s just not enough volume in it. We’ve managed to turn the business around because now we are able to do any sort of work."
They have managed to separate themselves from the big box competition by offering specialty items, offering delivery inside a house or building, and knowing their stuff. Riendeau says the big boxes have been selling the half-inch plain board at really low prices for about a year-and-a-half and this has lowered market value of the most popular board. However, they can’t service the product in terms of full boom trucks and getting it into the house which contractors and DIYers like. They also don’t have full product lines or the product knowledge about those different products. "So we separate ourselves in that way."
The partners now have a 1,500 square-foot retail area to carry tools and accessories for dry wall and insulation application. "The taping tools that we carry are all high-end tools for the guys that do this every day for a living," says Riendeau. "Mark pushed tools from day one, even when we weren’t set up for it. We slowly saw people coming in and now it’s like seeing kids in a candy store."
There are two main elements behind their success, say Riendeau and Ralston. "One is having good people working for you that give great customer service. The other is us working as owner-operators. We’re not the kind of owners that have other people run our business. We’re in the trenches every day. The bigger you get, it’s harder to keep the same level of customer service, so we’re hands on."
That said, they’ve also learned they need to be able to delegate certain tasks because they can’t do everything themselves. "You think you can do everything better, but it can really hold back your growth," says Ralston. "Eventually you get to the point where you just have to delegate."
Riendeau and Ralston continue to evolve the business by developing technologies like websites and ordering systems. They’ve also started advertising on the local radio station.
"We just want to be the go-to drywall and insulation provider in Durham region."
Running a successful LBM dealership takes collaboration and synergies on many levels, from buying group and supplier to dealer and customer, says Kerry Connelly, co-owner of Edmonton, AB-based Glenora Lumber and Building Supplies Ltd. "It takes shared values, focus, connectivity, and trust to develop those relationships and it results in quality, passion, and products we are proud to be a part of."
Connelly owns the store with her mother, Barb Galbraith, and her brother, Jamie Emin. Connelly and her brother are the third generation to run the business. "Our grandparents started Glenora in 1960. My mom and dad joined the team and worked relentlessly toward its success. Today, Kerry and Jamie are at the forefront, working alongside other devoted family members and core staff.
The dealer specializes in finishing materials including pre-hung doors and prefabricated stairs for builders, contractors, and renovators. "Being a smaller dealer, when the big boxes came in, we shifted our focus to differentiate ourselves," she says. "We continue to stock lumber as a convenience, but a higher grade."
Form Strong Relationships
Connelly attributes the store’s success to having loyal staff. "We’re relationship-driven. Many of these relationships were initiated years ago and have been passed down. We’re a family business that’s been around for generations so we’ve been able to form strong relationships with our employees, customers, and suppliers. Our suppliers understand our needs and support us as necessary. Our competitors contribute to our success too, by keeping us in line and inspiring us to adapt and continuously evolve."
The customer service model at Glenora is what Connelly calls "old school" in that associates greet customers as they walk in and carry through the sale to the point of going out and helping them load, "whereas often in larger places, you’re handed off."
The buying group is also an important contributor to the store’s success. Glenora recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with Sexton Group Ltd. "We have developed an excellent relationship with Steve (Buckle), Joe (Collerone), Dave (Leonzio), Calla (Komarnicki) and the entire team." She says Sexton provides everything from "education to advocating our needs to our vendors; whether it is pricing, lead times, or service. Being part of the group allows us to foster teamwork with similar businesses within this industry, creating awareness relevant to all business functions and trends."
With the current economic climate in Alberta, the focus is on surviving rather than thriving. "Right now, we’re trying to be very vigilant in how we pursue things, but we’re also trying to capitalize on the opportunities that are out there so that we’ll be strong and re-tooled for when the market recovers. We will continue to train and invest in our people. This moment gives us the ability to become leaner and more competitive."
Glenora’s customer base is roughly 70 per cent contractors. To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2010, it created a showroom where contractors can bring their clients to make selections. It is also available to builders and retail customers as an in-house design centre.
When asked what she loves most about the industry, Connelly says, "We love the idea that we are part of a legacy. We are so proud of how hard everyone has worked to get us to this point. We love working with people who are passionate about products that go into their homes. We truly appreciate the trust
customers have in us to assist them achieving their dream house. The end result is amazing. To be a part of a process that requires the efforts and resources of a number of people and contributing our portion is personally fulfilling."
Customer service is both the most fun and the most challenging part of owning a home improvement store, says Stephen Heggie, who owns Raymond Ace Building Centre with his wife, Dixie. The couple acquired the Raymond, AB-based hardware store in 2000, after many years in the feed and cattle industries.
"I wanted to be my own boss; to own a business," says Heggie. "I had management experience and felt we could make this store more successful than it was. I felt we could do a good job with it."
It took a few years to get the momentum going, but as the town grew, so did the business. "The town hit a building spurt about seven years ago and roughly 100 houses went up in two years."
Raymond is also home to several large Hutterite colonies whose members are customers of the store. They have large farms in the area. Heggie says they are very good and loyal customers.
In 2013, Heggie decided to expand the 2,500 square-foot hardware store to add lumber and building materials. He was renting the space, so he purchased an acre of land across the street.
The grand opening of the new 6,000 square-foot store with a 4,000 warehouse was in August of that year. Now the store sells a lot of big packages and more cash-and-carry sales. Hot categories include windows and doors, plumbing, electrical, and paint. Roughly 30 per cent of customers are contractors.
The business is currently converting to the Ace brand. Heggie says he doesn’t intend to change the store layout at this time. "We will probably just grow into the store as we go. We’ll be incorporating Ace paint and private label brand products."
However, he likes that Ace Canada offers dealers an online training program, called Ace Learning Place, that allows dealers to access retail and product knowledge through a series of online courses. He says the brand also offers a complete marketing program, including online tools, national flyers, and custom programs designed to help retailers in their marketplace.
The store has a main power aisle with aisles branching off into different departments. Housewares is close to the front of the store and paint is displayed prominently with the colour-chip display in the power aisle. The end caps along the power aisle are used to display hot ticket items such as bird seed and rototillers. Plumbing is further back in the store.
As for joining the banner, he says, "They’re doing a phenomenal job of organizing us. They’re really out there with their feet on the ground and they’re running with this. I just felt it last fall at the show. We got a lot of traction and it looks really good."
The North Central Co-op Home Centre is part of the North Central Co-op in Stoney Plain, AB, founded in 1946. The original building was in Stoney Plain and was a meat locker plant founded by members of the community because they didn’t have a way to store their meat. It has since grown and evolved to a 17-store co-op stretching from Sherwood Park, AB, to the British Columbia border. It is still completely member-owned.
In 1967, again in response to member needs, a home centre was added to the co-op. "We found we had outgrown it, so we built a new one on the premises behind the old one. It opened in 2015 and the old building has been removed," says Ed Berney, general manager.
The co-op is run by a board of directors that are elected by the members. Currently there are eight members on the board. It uses the expertise of Federated Co-operatives.
Federated exists to offer central wholesaling, manufacturing, marketing, and administrative services to its 200 member-owners. It had sales of $9.1 billion in 2015.
Berney, who was hired by the board, has worked at this co-op for 17 years. "I’m in my 38th year of retailing," he says. "My retail experience is throughout the two western provinces all at co-operatives."
He says he is very lucky to have an incredible team. There are 34 employees at the home centre, which forms part of the greater North Central Co-op which has about 350 staff. Any profits made are given back to the members each year in equity and cash.
Berney says the success of the organization is based on exceptional customer service.
"We are successful because we build relationships with our customers. We know many of them by name. We are also knowledgeable about our products and services and our team is always ready to assist customers in finding what they need. Also, our team knows they can rely on each other for product support."
The home centre’s best categories are plumbing and lumber. "We have over 324 lineal feet of plumbing offering a full line from basic repair items to full renovation or plumbing for new homes. For lumber, we have an estimating team in our contractor centre that provides personalized service, competitive pricing, and outstanding product knowledge from more than 90 years combined experience. We have a state-of-the-art lumber storage facility that keeps lumber out of the sun and rain and provides a comfortable shopping experience for customers with faster pick times and better customer service levels."
Seasonal is also a good category. The centre has a dedicated seasonal area, open year round with items for every season. Agricultural (agro) is also popular. It offers a line of stock feed along with animal health, pharmaceuticals (the co-op is an authorized medicine sales outlet governed by Alberta Agriculture), and cattle handling equipment. "These offerings make us a one-stop shop for our rural customers."
Although the co-op has a website and social media presence, it does not have eCommerce capabilities at this time. "Some of our best technology is built into the POS system, training modules, estimating software, and ways to reach our members and customers," says Berney. The co-op uses eMails or eBlasts and also has an app that keeps people aware of what’s happening at the co-op, with what’s hot, tips, and what’s on sale. "Technology is about reaching out to the shoppers, whether it’s member or non-member, in a way that’s most comfortable for them. Some like paper. Some like digital. Some like apps. Some like social media."
Going forward, he says the co-op will continue its pursuit of excellence, one customer at a time.
In 1956, George Fries and Gord Tallman founded Fries Tallman Lumber. Art Stricker became a business partner in 1976. Today his son, Kevin, and daughter-in-law, Joan, are the owners.
Fries Tallman is one of the oldest independently owned lumberyards in Saskatchewan with locations in Regina and Fort Qu’Appelle. The retailer has a large fleet of delivery vehicles, a roof top delivery system, and an on-site door hanging shop as well as other associated equipment. "We take pride in providing top quality lumber, building products, and services," says Kevin Stricker. "We have a large showroom displaying many of our products such as windows, doors, millwork, and many hardware and tool items."
The lumber business has been a part of his family for generations, says Stricker. "My grandfather worked for Beaver Lumber in Strasbourg, SK, and my father was in the industry for 46 years; first with Rogers Lumber and then Fries Tallman. My career in the lumber industry began on the day my formal education ended. I started working full-time in the saw shed for my father and his two business partners in 1983. In 1988, my wife, Joan, and I became both life partners and business partners when I was given the opportunity to buy out one of the existing partners."
Stricker says the success of the business is due to his great staff. "Fries Tallman is fortunate to have extremely knowledgeable staff. We provide customer service training from specialized facilitators to all of our personnel and we ensure we have sufficient staffing in place to assist customer needs from start to finish."
Always Looking For Opportunities
Special order capabilities and the interior door hanging shop also help the retailer stand out from its competitors. "We are always looking for opportunities to improve on our products and services."
The company’s strongest categories are framing packages, decking, interior finishing, and windows and doors.
Marketing efforts include media advertising, supporting community events, local sponsorship, and membership in industry-related organizations such as the Regina and Region Home Builders Association. "Joan and I have also served on many boards including as chairpersons on local, provincial, and western Canadian associations. We believe in giving back to the community and many of our staff feel the same."
As for technology, the retailer recently upgraded its POS system. "Our new system gives us the ability to track who our customers are, where they are located and doing business, what materials they are purchasing, and how much they are purchasing. We are now better able to assess our customers and their needs as well react to the changing markets."
Willingness To Share
Fries Tallman Lumber is a member of the Independent Lumber Dealers Co-operative (ILDC). "We have a cumulative amount of industry knowledge in our group and a willingness to share best practices with other group members. I can contact any of our members to query them with any concerns relating to the industry and the day-to-day operation of the business. Another benefit of the group is the company owners can negotiate as a unified team," says Stricker.
It’s important to stay informed about the industry as consumers are becoming more educated. "The internet, social media, print media, and home and garden television shows have changed the building and home improvement industry. Today’s consumers are more inclined to build or renovate with high-end products and materials and they will take the time to research. They also expect to find these products readily available in our local market.
"The other trend I have noticed is our consumers want maintenance-free homes and yards. They want composite decking; aluminum railing, PVC windows, and maintenance-free siding. Today’s consumers take a great deal of pride in decorating their homes and have even extended their living space into outdoor living and entertaining spaces.
"Our company is constantly adapting to the changing marketplace and the evolution of building products and materials. Nothing remains static in this industry and I enjoy the challenge of always moving forward."
Windsor Plywood in Winnipeg, MB, was purchased by Jarl Johner in 1967 when he wanted a more stable income. Jarl was a contractor specializing in home renovations at the time, when he spotted an ad for franchises for a building supply store in the local paper.
Jarl’s son Ed, who was 10 years-old at the time, started his career then by helping his father in the store. Jeff Johner, Jarl’s other son, also started helping out when he was old enough.
In 1979, the sons started full time in the business. Later, in 2005, Jarl started to think about retiring, so the family bought a second location in north Winnipeg. Ed kept ownership of the first store, and Jeff became the owner of the second store. Jarl wanted to keep things fair.
"The second location provided a nice parcel of land with a building on it," says Ed. "And, the northern end of Winnipeg didn’t have a Windsor Plywood so it was kind of a natural move, especially with dad wanting to get out of the business and having two sons. It just seemed like a natural fit."
At the time of the acquisition of the second store, Jarl started cutting his hours to phase in retirement. He left the operation in 2009.
Every Day Is An Adventure
Ed says he loves the home improvement retail business because every day is an adventure. "The greatest part of retail and being in the industry is the people in the industry – suppliers, and other Windsor stores. You make so many friends when you’ve been around so long. The customers are also great and we’ve made lifelong friends with them as well."
Jeff says he loves being on the cutting edge of home improvement trends and helping customers with their projects. He says currently the hottest trend is live edge wooden materials. "A lot of people are really going for that old barn board and natural look."
One of the best categories in both stores are mouldings and finishing materials. Jeff says the reason is because they carry a large selection, more than other stores. "We also carry a lot of unique products." In the summer, along with finishing materials, decks and fences are the strongest categories at the north store.
Ed says hardwood flooring has been his number one category for a number of years. "Our hardwood flooring category has really taken off in part because we pay attention to what our customers have to say – what they’re looking for and what they want. We’re also selling an awful lot of live edge material right now. We seem to have gotten a name for having that type of product. We get a lot of odd requests for different types of wood and we enjoy going after it."
Head Office Support
The Windsor Plywood head office is a helpful resource to the Johners in finding new and interesting products. Jeff says the head office also supports its stores with advertising because it does it as a group. In addition, he likes the networking. "When they have their meetings, we meet guys from other franchises in different cities and we get to hear what's working for them and what's not working for them."
Ed agrees that the networking is very important. He has made many good friends within the organization. "They have an annual general meeting every couple of years, and then a few smaller meetings throughout the year that a number of stores will attend. We also do a lot on our own, such as coordinating buys between stores." The brothers have consolidated the ERP, inventory, and POS systems for both stores to reduce costs, streamline inventory management, increase efficiencies, and improve customer satisfaction. There’s also another Windsor Plywood store in Winnipeg that they work with closely as well.
Currently, the Windsor Plywood group is working on an eCommerce site that will work with all the stores and have a mini-website for each store, says Jeff.
The internet is an important part of the retail industry today, says Ed. It has an impact on the consumer in many ways. One is that it makes them more informed on their purchases. This can be a challenge but also an advantage, he says. "We always listen to what our customers tell us and this certainly influences the inventory decisions we make."
Kilrich Building Centre, a part of Kilrich Industries, re-opened recently after a major renovation that brought the original 2,000 square-foot store up to 22,000 square feet on a 15-acre lot. The site also includes a 20,000 square-foot warehouse and fully automated truss manufacturing facility. The company is owned by a group of Yukon investors, primarily the First Nation Development Corporation.
Based in Whitehorse, YT, the company was established in 1977 by the Boyd family. It was originally founded as a contractor commodity yard, says Rob Fordham, president. "Slowly, over the last 10 years, we’ve moved into more allied products and retail-friendly products.
"Three years ago, we realized that our facilities wouldn’t allow us to grow any further, so we invested about $5 million into a new retail facility."It is now a high volume business with close to $30 million in annual wales.
Today, the business model is still providing contractor-grade commodities and products. The customer base is approximately 90 per cent contractors. However, the retail portion is growing. "Once DIYers get over the intimidation factor of coming into a contractor-focused store, they almost always come back,"says Fordham.
The company’s market extends far outside Whitehorse, with customers in northern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Alaska. Kilrich has a dedicated outside sales person, but Fordham says Whitehorse is a hub, with a lot of surrounding communities, so it is not uncommon for someone to drive eight hours to get building supplies. The retailer also delivers approximately 80 per cent of all sales.
The store is set up without cash registers, so sales associates take the customers through the entire sales process from planning to payment.
The store’s main focus is LBM, but with the recent expansion, it now has a full line of contractor-grade tools and hardware finishing products. "In a bigger community, you’d have a big box store, contractor lumber yards, roofing marts, and drywall and concrete centres. We’re all those things in one store,"says Fordham.
Kilrich is a member of Delroc Industries. Fordham says the group allows Kilrich to maintain its independence and make its own decisions such as selecting vendors when necessary. "We don't want to be locked into certain vendors in certain categories,"he says. "So they have an all inclusive package where we can get buying group arrangements with a wide variety of vendors in the same category. This allows us to select vendors based on the quality of their products and the service they provide, and things like logistics. That's big for us.
"We've built our own brand and they have buying arrangements with a wide variety of products to keep us competitive. We don't even look at anybody else.”
Along with expanding product lines, the retailer has invested in a new point of sales system, called Spruce. "We have five display monitors in our store that run product advertising.”
Fordham says the two biggest challenges are finding the right product assortment and logistics. "We’ve just moved more into a retail environment, so we want to offer good products without ending up with low-turning products. Selecting vendors is also difficult."
As for logistics, "we serve a massive area, so importing products from our vendors and then getting those products out to the massive area we serve presents a challenge. We have two overnight staff that deal just with logistics.”
Fordham has been with the company for 11 years, starting at the front desk in sales. Prior to that he was a contractor. He says the industry is very dynamic and he learns something new every day. "The atmosphere is like a Cheers bar. Everybody knows everyone by name; we know their kids. We have a coffee station and people just come to chat."