Passion play

Titusville, Fla. — Running a hardware store isn’t rocket science. But for the team at Ace Hardware Titusville, rocket science is never too far removed from the business equation.

Within plain view of the store’s parking lot across the wide Indian River sits the Kennedy Space Center and the Space Shuttle launch pad. Space launches are part of the culture here, and the nation’s space exploration apparatus is part of the customer base for the store, which has sent merchandise into orbit at least once.

“It was a little plastic gear, about a foot long,” said store manager Dale Bertels, who has been with the store for 18 years. “We had to find it — and it took a lot of research.”

The space program isn’t firing on nearly as many cylinders as the golden days of the Space Shuttle. But home improvement is in lift-off mode, according to Bertels and Bill Pastermack, owner. After rising to a peak in 2005, sales came back to earth until 2011, when sales jumped 7% to a new high. And so far this year, sales are running about 19% ahead of 2011.

How is the store able to post such a surge of its all-time record year in an economy like this one? “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Pastermack said.

He described a number of small steps for a hardware store operator that add up to a giant leap for hardware store sales. Hiring (and retaining) good people is one. Communicating with fellow Ace dealers is another. And a willingness to experiment is another big part of the store’s success.

For instance, fishing.

“I love to fish, and in our smaller store, we set up an 8-ft. display of fishing gear, basically so I could get stuff at wholesale prices,” Pastermack said.

One thing led to another. Customers trickled in. Word spread. And the fishing section expanded to 16 ft., then 24 ft. And today’s store has become a destination retailer, accordin