Handy’s new man with a mission

Ken White arrived at Handy Hardware in May with a clear-cut mandate and straightforward goals. Specifically, get Handy’s information technology program back on track, and put the company on path for growth.

White, a partner at national consulting firm Tatum, was placed in charge when Handy’s board of directors agreed to Tatum’s action plan to address issues in IT and operations. As CEO, he’s looking beyond technical matters, and — as he details below — he’s helping to lay the groundwork for growth and expansion for the company’s next 50 years.

White spoke with Home Channel News eight weeks into his role, while he was visiting the co-op’s new distribution center in Meridian, Miss.

Home Channel News: What is your background for the task at hand? 

Ken White: Over the years I’ve gained significant experience as CEO, COO, CFO and director of new business development for large and small companies covering manufacturing, distribution, commercial real estate, logistics, transportation and energy. As a partner of Tatum (we’re a national consulting firm), we specialize in helping companies undergoing transition. Handy is currently in a period of transition from growing too fast. So as the CEO of Handy, I will be utilizing all areas of my background in addressing our current issues and getting us back on track. 

HCN: When you arrived at Handy, what was your first executive move?

White: My initial focus was on addressing the matters that directly affect our member dealers. Our member dealers have been patiently waiting for several months for Handy to resolve its operational issues, including missed picks, mixed palates, lower fill rates. My first decision was to resolve our units of measure discrepancies. Under Handy’s previous computer system, the units of measure were handled differently than under the new system. So once we developed a plan and began putting the plan in place, our IT team could then begin making the necessary changes of the computer system, and I could then address my attention to other matters. 

HCN: These are problems you’ve seen at other companies. What’s the success rate of coming out of them?

White: The issues that Handy is experiencing right now are very similar to other companies undergoing change from making decisions to better position themselves for growth. And the success rate of coming out of them is very high.

HCN: How would you describe the state of the co-op right now?

White: Handy is currently in a transition phase from accelerated growth — growing into a new distribution center, growing into a new ERP software system, growing up too quickly. So, Handy is no longer a small co-op, but a medium-sized company. You need to operate differently as a bigger company than you do as a smaller company.

HCN: You mentioned in your letter about positioning Handy for a bright future. What will be the keys?

White: Over the past 50 years, Handy’s name has become synonymous with providing excellent customer service and products that are readily available, competitively priced and delivered on time. We are completely focused on resolving our issues so we can resume delivering on our promises to restore our position as the quality low-cost provider of both products and services. It’s going to take the continued efforts on the part of all employees and stakeholders in the company to achieve our goals. The company is blessed with a hard-working, loyal, experienced team of employees. It’s further equally blessed with an understanding group of member dealers that truly want to see the company succeed. This combination, along with focused and determined leadership, will enable Handy not only to restore itself but also to become a stronger company.

HCN: What about your organization goals for Handy?

White: When I started at Handy eight weeks ago, my goals were the same as they are today. Straightforward and focused. Namely, those goals are to identify, address and resolve Handy’s operational issues. I want to win back the member dealers who have transferred either all or some of their business to other service providers. Reduce Handy’s outstanding debt burden and bolster its cash flow from operations. And we’re going to position Handy for future growth out of both the Houston and Meridian distribution centers.

HCN: What’s the latest from Meridian, Miss.?

White: I was in Meridian, where we participated in the dedication of the I20 industrial park. All the local leaders were there, including the heads of Mississippi Power, and also Handy was there to present itself as a good corporate citizen in the local community. We also demonstrated that the Meridian distribution center represents the future growth of Handy. Not only are we going to be able to better serve our existing member dealers, but we’re also going to be able to grow into areas that we currently do not serve.

It’s been up and running since December of 2010. We’re operating at about a third capacity. We started in December 2010 with 47 employees. Currently we have 74 full-time employees and 27 temporary employees. And we estimate that within three years we’ll have 175 full time employees at the distribution center.

HCN: How would you describe the progress the company has made since May? 

White: Today I’m proud to say we are less than 60 days away from resolving our operational, IT and accounting issues. Once we achieve those milestones, we can begin earning back our member-dealer business that has gone elsewhere. Plans are already in place to reduce Handy’s outstanding debt burden and to position Handy for future growth in the areas the company serves and also in new areas. By the end of Handy’s 50th anniversary year, we will emerge as a leaner, healthier and more responsive company, with renewed functionality and a scalable business model. Handy will be ready to absorb new growth for years to come while providing quality service and products at competitive prices. That’s going to be great news for both the current and prospective member dealers.