Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Ace Hardware may be a well-known, national chain; but in Fairfax City, it’s a beloved local business with a small-town feel and fiercely loyal customers. Over the years, it’s become a bonafide part of the City’s fabric because of its products, employees, welcoming atmosphere and, especially, its owner, Craig Smith.
Recently, it’s embarked on a new chapter that’ll make it even better, while positively impacting the lives of Smith and his employees. That’s because Fairfax Ace Hardware has just merged with the employee-owned, local Ace Hardware chain, A Few Cool Hardware Stores.
“I’m extremely excited,” said Smith. “I think we’ve found the right partner for our business, for me personally and, most importantly, for our team.” And when he says, “team,” he’s referring to his employees. The store will still be under the Ace umbrella, but employee-owned, with Smith now co-CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores with its founder, Gina Schaefer.
“We’re thrilled to have this store be part of this group,” she said. “It’s our 13th in the Washington Metropolitan area. All our stores are members of the national Ace Hardware Cooperative for purchasing to give small, hardware stores larger buying power to stay competitive.”
Schaefer started the first such store in Washington, D.C., in 2003. And after establishing the third one in 2006, she said, “I had so many names listed after my signature, I started calling it, ‘A Few Cool Hardware Stores,’ everybody liked it and it stuck.”
She and her husband, Marc Friedman, were joint CEOs and, for 10 years, they opened one new store a year. They also have a store in Old Town Alexandria; Fairfax is the 13th, and all the stores have a total of 300 employees.
This spring, Smith and Schaefer met with his 32 staff members to tell them about the change. And, said Smith, “The reaction was extremely positive.”
As for him, he’ll now manage all 13 stores and have a much larger team. “We’ve known Craig for years and always liked him,” said Schaefer. “Our leadership team has worked with him before and felt comfortable with him. And since he’s been in the hardware business since he was a kid, he knows how Ace works.”
In 2021, Schaefer and Friedman decided to sell their company to their employees through an employee stock-ownership program. After working in it for one year and 1,000 hours, each employee automatically becomes an owner.
“Marc and I were ready to exit and do something to be part of the solution to society’s various inequalities,” explained Schaefer. “And this program will enable every employee, from cashiers on up, to be part of business ownership – which is usually hard to do within a small business. But we were large enough to do that.”
“We call our employees ‘teammates,’ and it’s important to make sure they know they’re valued,” she continued. “It also helps us stay in competition [with other hardware stores] and makes our bond with our teammates even stronger.”
A Few Cool Hardware Stores has been employee-owned for two years now, and Schaefer said the system is working well. Employees receive money in their retirement accounts annually, based on the company’s profitability at that time.
“If someone leaves, they’re no longer an owner,” she added. “But any money vested in them can be rolled over into a qualified retirement plan, such as a Roth IRA or a 401(k) program.”
Regarding the Fairfax store, Schaefer said, “Nationally, it’s ranked well for its revenue volume. It also has a diverse group of products and reflects the neighborhood in what its customers want. For example, there are really nice outdoor products, such as grills and lawn-care items.
“And certainly, the longevity of its employees says a great deal about it. For example, Ellen, who manages the paint department, has been here 9 years – and that’s a lot of experience.”
Furthermore, within the next year, Smith will replace Schaefer as CEO, and she couldn’t be happier. “I think Craig is going to be a great leader, and I’m comfortable that I’m leaving the business in good hands,” she said. “And I love the Fairfax community because it’s so supportive of this location.”
Smith is pleased about the changes, as well. “The team will be vested on paper and will feel vested in the business as a whole,” he said. “So they’re more incentivized to perform the best they can, both from a business and an emotional standpoint.”
His employees are excited, explained Smith, because “They’ll have an opportunity for more professional development and advancement, there are improved financial and healthcare benefits, and they have the unique opportunity to be owners in this company.”
Smith’s father, Stan, is part owner of Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, plus two other Strosniders. And in 1999, Craig began an 11-year stint working at the Bethesda store.
“I didn’t know if I’d like it – and to my surprise, I loved it from the start,” he said. “It changes every day. There’s new excitement, and I like working with the team and customers. There’s something different happening all the time to keep your mind sharp.”
Smith has now owned Fairfax Ace Hardware for more than 12 years and – no surprise – his twin brother, Jeff, owns Twins Ace Hardware in Arlington. So hardware is definitely the family business; and for Craig Smith, it’s also a source of fulfillment.
“What I really like is that we’re a community hub, and we serve our community in virtually every type of situation – from emergency to mundane,” he said. “The most gratifying thing for me to see is neighbors meeting each other here unexpectedly and striking up a conversation, laughing and smiling. And it happens a lot on the weekends.”
Despite the merger, said Smith, “Not much will change here. We have a very strong team and strive to deliver great service every day, the same as always. I’m really honored that Gina and Mark chose me to guide their company; I’m very fortunate.”