Dream Ace: One Year Later

What happens when you give a million-dollar hardware store to a motivated entrepreneur with limited retail experience? If the entrepreneur is Gower D. Talley, the results are pretty good.

Talley, winner of the 2007 Dream Ace contest, successfully navigated through the challenges of a first-year enterprise, much as he has maneuvered through a winding career that en compasses military intelligence to rock-and-roll.

“You do not have to be the strongest, the smartest, the fastest or the prettiest,” said Talley, when reached in his Spring, Texas, store. “All you have to do is decide to do it. Most of the rest of the world around you is going to decide to try. If you actually decide to win, you will.”

That sentiment is Talley’s rallying cry and also serves as the mission statement of his forth-coming book “5 Things I Learned on the Road to the Dream.”

Ace selected Talley from a pool of more than 5,000 contest entrants, and the grand opening of the 15,500-square-foot store was celebrated in June 2007. From the beginning, Talley was determined to make the most of his new venture, and the Gleannloch location in Spring, Texas, certainly didn’t hurt. The store sits across the street from the upscale Gleannloch Farm Golf Course in a tony area that has weathered the housing doldrums better than most. As Talley puts it, “You can stand at point of sale in our store and see the flag stick of one of the holes on the golf course. We couldn’t be in a much better location; it’s just a tremendous spot demographically.”

Amid this extremely high demographic Ace Hardware of Gleannloch has carved out a niche as the neighborhood hardware store. “There are some big-box stores nearby, but in terms of just a good hardware store, the market was underserved before we go there,” Talley said. “We have become adopted by the community. Most of the golf club members are our customers.”

Talley said his success really comes down to caring for the customer and delivering expert customer service. In his case, it is much more than just word s or a catchy phrase; it’s a commitment to be a servant. “I tell my staff, ‘Your job is not to sell people stuff, your job is to make them glad that they came into the store.’ We make sure they have what they need. Too many retailers treat customers as if they’re an interruption in their day rather than being the purpose of the day.”

In his first year, Talley said he has already built a loyal client base that serves as the cornerstone of his success. “The repeat customer is huge for us,” he said. “I will be out in the town and be stopped by customers who tell me what a wonderful experience they had at Ace. [The corporate] motto is Ace is the helpful place, and that is true here as well.”

Getting started

Ace’s regional and district manager along with other corporate staff and Houston retailers worked in detail with Talley leading up to the grand opening and afterward. “Specifically, we helped Gower with product selection and with the ordering process,” said David Sweany, the Texas regional manager for Ace Hardware. “We also trained Gower and his staff on day-to-day management of the store, like how to display key merchandise in high traffic areas along with ensuring there is proper signage in the store.” On the back-office side of the business, they worked with Talley on personnel management and taught him about payroll processing. “Gower continues to get the support he needs to ensure that his store continues to be successful,” Sweany said.

Talley had regular contact with district manager Owe Hernes before, during and after the opening. Hernes continues to make regular store calls to work on items of interest, just as he would with any other Ace retailer, Sweany said.

Hiring

When it came to picking his personnel, Talley worked diligently to find those individuals who share his passion for service. Many didn’t make the initial cut or lasted for a short while. The ones on the staff now are the keepers. They are sharp, enthusiastic people who have made it their business to become experts, Talley said. “I’m a big believer in hiring for attitude and training for skill, that’s our axiom,” he added. About 50 percent of the people he hired lasted two weeks. Of the 50 percent that made the first cut, about half of them made it to six months. “We have very clear and specific standards,” Talley said. “It’s not so much about knowledge as it is about enthusiasm and performance.”

Growing pains

Talley never ran a hardware store before winning the Dream Ace contest; his only experience in a hardware store setting was helping out at his grandparents’ store a generation ago. Talley said the most challenging aspect of the first year was trying to filter through all the tasks simultaneously. “It was learning to drink through a fire hose,” he said. He had to learn a multitude of disciplines—marketing, accounting, staffing, purchasing, operations. “There was nothing individually that was overwhelming, just the scale and scope of it. Everything was due—now,” he said.

By March 2008, he felt he was getting his arms around the operations side of the business. That month the store set a record for monthly sales. It has exceeded that total every month since, with the exception of July. (Talley declined to reveal specific sales figures, but said: “we nailed our proforma numbers.”)

Asked what the biggest surprise has been in his first year, Talley said, “The degree to which we have been welcomed here by this community, how quickly we became their store opposed to a store. We have people who come here every day who don’t need anything, they just like being around.”

Ace Hardware has gotten involved in local community activities in several ways. It sponsors a local triathlon and holds fund-raising car washes in the parking lot. In April, it hosted a Frank Elementary PTO car wash to benefit a family whose son is dealing with the medical, personal and financial effects of in operable brain cancer. On a happier occasion, it used its rental department to stage a grade school concert featuring 60 choir students. “It was packed wall to wall in here,” Talley said.

The future

Now that it is firmly established, Ace Hardware of Gleannloch is looking to take the next step. Since opening, they have doubled the size of their gift department, created a Kids Club, and added a rental department and a Gleannloch Station post office. “My focus [in year two] is excellence at retail, how we take all of these tools and execute them well,” Talley said.

He said there’s no reason year two won’t be better than year one. “We’re pretty confident that we can grow significantly each year of the next five,” he said.

Talley, who puts in roughly 70 hours a week—“loving every minute of it”—has already told Ace corporate that he is thinking of opening up a second store in the near future.

Clearly, the executives of Ace Hardware are proud of their Dream winner. “Gower has learned a lot in the first year, and his sales and customer count are increasing,” Sweany said. “It is not easy to be an owner of a hardware store of this caliber, but Gower has accepted the challenge and is doing great.”