Serving Up Hammers, Nails...and a Servant Heart
Ace Hardware is hardly a mom-and-pop operation, so it was interesting to hear John Venhuizen, Ace Hardware president and chief executive officer, describe his organization as “blessed to be in the service of serving others.”
He gave this poignant example during his presentation at the 2016 Answer Tech® Summit in August: An elderly woman walked into a Florida Ace Hardware store, looking for a Christmas tree. An employee named Jeffrey showed her several pre-lit trees. The customer said they were beautiful, but probably wouldn’t work for her.
“I live alone in an apartment and wouldn’t be able to put up a tree myself,” she said.
Jeffrey offered to stop by after his shift to deliver the tree and help her set it up. She took him up on the offer, and had tea and cookies waiting for him. The two had a nice conversation, then set up the Christmas tree. The process became an early December ritual for nine years.
“It stopped when the woman died,” said Venhuizen. “There were 11 people at her funeral. Jeffery was one of them.”
Jeffrey used his head, hands and heart to show what he thought, what he could do and how he felt, said Venhuizen. “That is a winning formula, particularly in our line of business.”
Wisdom from small-business owners
Venhuizen said the only way to think in business is like a small-business owner. He offered three tenets of successful owners.
1. Understand that business is fragile. “A lot of people are trying to eat your lunch,” said Venhuizen. Business is becoming increasingly complex and competitive, and it takes more capital to compete. “The only way to operate a business is by productive paranoia, and small-business owners know that better than anybody.”
2. Know the enemy — and know it’s not us. When things are challenging or change occurs, business owners can lose sight of their missions. “We tend to start fighting among ourselves and forget who the real enemy is,” said Venhuizen. The enemy is the competition.
3. “Big” almost always leads to bureaucracy, which suffocates. “Small” is almost always informal, and informality liberates. Unshackling people from the chains of bureaucracy and centralized power unleashes inventiveness, innovation and ideas. “It can be messy. It can lead to entropy, and booms and busts,” said Venhuizen. “But [that freedom is] what fuels growth and is precisely what world economies need.”
What can you offer?
“What is your proposition?” Venhuizen asked Answer Tech® Summit attendees. “Jeffrey didn’t sell that Christmas tree because he lowered the price. He went out of his way to produce an irrational amount of service.”
What value are you offering compared to the competition?
“Will you convince any of the farmers you work with that you have lower prices than your larger competitors?” Venhuizen asked. “Position your business properly. Once you do, you have the ability to leverage skill and scale.
“A servant heart is not the enemy of a profitable business. Making money is important, but how we do that is just as important.”
Ace Hardware is a cooperative with 4,920 stores located in all 50 states and 63 countries. Store owners employ about 100,000 associates, with retail locations selling about $14 billion worth of products each year.
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