Owning a string of hardware stores from Washington, DC, to Baltimore, isn’t what you’d expect Gina Schaefer to say she does for a living when you meet this entrepreneur. She’s female in a male-dominated world, for one. She’s easygoing and approachable for another. But she and husband Marc Friedman proudly stand at the helm of a $19 million company they founded in 2002; now they own and manage nine ACE Hardware stores in the DC Metro area.
Why did a woman who graduated with a degree in Political Science, and who worked for a few years at the Children’s Defense Fund, get into the hardware business? Schaefer a gave us the inside scoop on an episode of the “Truly Amazing Women TV Show.”
Scroll down for excerpts of our Q&A with this accomplished entrepreneur.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us how you got into the hardware business.
Gina Schaefer: Marc and I lived in a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., called Logan Circle, which was undergoing a tremendous renaissance, and we were excited to be a part of it. Retail and communities were coming back. People were buying old houses and renovating them. And we were one of those couples. We bought a fixer-upper and we used to joke that our toilet was always running, our lights were always burned out, and our pictures were on the floor because we were to lazy to walk to the closest hardware store—about a two-mile roundtrip. I was about to get laid off from a tech job, and I come home one day and said, “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to open a hardware store.”
Be Inkandescent: What happened next?
Gina Schaefer: We are members of the ACE Hardware cooperative, which is one of the largest national co-ops for hardware purchasers. And we sent emails out to a couple of the co-ops and ACE contacted us first. And we started looking for financing and locations and I wrote a business plan. Marc had a job wasn’t planning on leaving it. It actually rolled really quickly in hindsight. It was about 10 months, from getting the idea to getting the funding to opening the doors.
Be Inkandescent: Has it ever felt weird to you being a girl in a boy’s industry?
Gina Schaefer: Certainly in the beginning. I think my confidence was less strong when we first started, and I had to worry about not knowing how to use a particular widget. I would hear lots of requests for that “thingamabob” or the “whatchamacallit.” Until you get in tune with what the customer is looking for and what they want to do, those words don’t make any sense (not that they should anyway!).
Be Inkandescent: One of the brilliant things you do is your YouTube videos, where you teach people how to do different things. You always have a women explaining this, which is empowering for women.
Gina Schaefer: When we first opened the store, I had never actually used power tools. And I didn’t want anyone to know that because I thought it would lessen my credibility. I wanted to be able to say, “This is the drill and this is how it works,” but I would always say, “This is how it should work, it should work.” I was explaining this to a woman one day who just didn’t get it. So I opened the box, pulled out the drill, and drilled a hole right through the wall. I was so excited! But I had to act all cool about it because she thought I knew what I was doing. From then on, I thought this is ridiculous. I need to know how to use these things. Other women need to know how to use these tools. Women and men. We have lots of folks, both genders, we have taught throughout the years at our hardware stores.
Be Inkandescent: What part of your business are you most passionate about?
Gina Schaefer: There are so many things! The first thing that comes to mind are my employees. We have 175 co-workers, and I constantly want to grow. Every time we open up a new location, I get to promote a new manager, a new assistant manager. And as we’ve grown throughout the years, we’ve promoted people to do marketing and HR and all those roles. So that I’m really proud of. We also work with a couple of local organizations and vocational schools to help give training tracks to folks. That’s probably the biggest passion.
Second is my involvement in the Shop Local movement and getting the consumers to focus on living and shopping and entertaining within their communities. Not going into the suburbs to shop, not getting into a car to run your errands. The movement’s getting stronger, and I’m really proud of having a voice within it.
Be Inkandescent: Talk about the programs you work with to help people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to get a job at ACE.
Gina Schaefer: We work specifically with a local organization called Jubilee Jobs, a wonderful organization that helps place folks who have been out of the work force for a particular reason—maybe they have suffered from some sort of abuse, or maybe they have spent some time in jail, or maybe they are working on getting over an addiction. I serve on the corporate advisory board now, and it’s probably one of my favorite off-duty things to do. We place about a thousand people a year.
Be Inkandescent: Now tell us a little bit about this local effort that you are engaged in.
Gina Schaefer: Think Local First is an absolutely wonderful organization, created to give a voice to the local businesses in Washington, DC. We run a variety of programs every year, including a week-long conference on small business. We call it the Do Good Summit. It’s small businesses doing well, while doing good. We do all sorts of cool things. For example, we run a relatively large Shop Local campaign throughout the holiday season every year to promote shopping local for the holidays versus going to the big-box stores. We do a lot of government relations outreach, plus counseling for small businesses, and we run a monthly seminar.
Be Inkandescent: Why is going local important to you?
Gina Schaefer: It goes back to when we started the hardware store. We knew we wanted to shop in our neighborhood. And it ties in really nicely with the whole movement of folks back into urban centers. We don’t have cars and we don’t want to have cars, because there’s no place to park and it’s very expensive. From an economic standpoint, it’s so much easier to walk out your door and walk to the grocery store. We allow dogs in our stores. So if I need a light bulb today, batteries tomorrow, and the next day I need a blender, I can kill two birds with one stone by taking Fido for his afternoon walk while getting what I need at store. And meantime, you run into neighbors, which heightens the sense of community. And more money is being spent in local stores, which means more money circulating within the local community.
Be Inkandescent: So let’s talk a little bit about major crossroads in your careers. What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome?
Gina Schaefer: When I first moved to Washington, I thought I was going to work for nonprofits for the rest of my life, but I became a little burned out. So I quit and moved to Brazil for almost a year. I loved it. I traveled and I taught English and I learned Portuguese. Then I came back and randomly met someone who worked for a consulting company that needed someone who spoke Portuguese. I took that job and that was a big crossroads for me because I went from nonprofit to for-profit. I became much more technologically savvy, and I met my husband at that business. And then throughout the tech boom and bust I was laid off twice. The big crossroads for me was that second lay-off, when I said, “That’s it. I’ve always wanted to own my own business. This is the time.” I decided to run a “mom and pop” hardware store.
Be Inkandescent: What would you tell your 25-year-old self?
Gina Schaefer: Probably to not think I knew everything, because I know in hindsight I that thought I knew a lot more than I did. Also, ask a lot of questions. There’s no way I would have been able to grow in the hardware business as fast as we have if I had been embarrassed about all the questions I had to ask, which is a philosophy we try to teach our staff members, too. And use your resources.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s talk about being a woman in business. What is it that you love about being a woman in business.
Gina Schaefer: Well, people find it interesting. Unfortunately in 2014 we still sometimes seem like a novelty. It’s kind of sad, I think, to say that. But it does open certain doors. The hardware industry magazines for instance, are not knocking down the doors of male retailers right now. They want to find the female owners. We’re different. We’re novel. So I think that’s probably the first thing that comes to mind.
Be Inkandescent: And what do you hate about it?
Gina Schaefer: I don’t think that there’s anything unique about what I do. I’m running a retail business and I’m servicing customers. I’m growing employees and hiring people and running a successful business. But people who don’t see that can be a little annoying sometimes. When the buyer and I first started, someone would come in and say, “Is there a man I could talk to? I have a question.” I would start to boil inside, thinking, “What do you mean, ‘Is there a man you could talk to?’ What’s wrong with me?” Even in 2014, you still have those stereotypes that you have to overcome. But we’ll change one mind at a time and eventually the vendors will see the women as the buyers and the owners.
Be Inkandescent: What is your top leadership lesson for other women? And, do you live by that lesson?
Gina Schaefer: I think the thing that I probably counsel business owners on the most, and particularly women, is not to be afraid. If you’re passionate about something and you want to try something, you have to try. You owe it to yourself to try it. If you fail, you fail. I think failure is as much a part of learning as anything we can do in our lives. Just don’t be afraid. Try it. What have you got to lose?
I do live by it, sometimes. I’m probably my worst enemy sometimes, too. There are a million businesses I’ve talked about opening over the years that I never have. Partly because I just don’t have the capacity. But some of it is certainly fear.
Be Inkandescent: You are clearly at the top of your business. What is new? What’s coming up?
Gina Schaefer: Well, I’d like to open 10 stores. I think there are still lots of holes in Washington, DC, and in Baltimore city, where we have three locations, in terms of services that people need and use. And I would like to employ 500 people. Right now we’re at 175, so that’s a big gap to get through. So we’re going to work, Marc and I, for the next decade trying to figure out how to get to that number. And see where life takes us along the way.
Watch the complete interview with Gina Schaefer on the Truly Amazing Women TV Show on Inkandescent TV.