• Tips for Entrepreneurs

Tactical Tips from ACE Hardware's Gina Schaeffer


What does it take to build an $11 million business? And how do you install a water filter?

Gina Schaefer shares her trade secrets.

1. Don’t be afraid to do something new. I always wanted to own my own business. When I was in the sixth grade, I remember my friend Melanie McAndrew and I cooked up a business plan to open a day-care center. We were going to charge 6 cents for a carton of milk. That entrepreneurial spirit never died. When I was 31, I decided the time to go for it was at hand. So I plunged in headfirst and never looked back.

2. Humility is good, but it’s OK to be a little cocky. I get told quite often that I am humble because when people ask how we got into the hardware business, I say that we were young and stupid. It’s true, by the way. They also tell me I’m smart. That just makes me blush.

Don’t get me wrong. Those compliments are nice and I hope they are true, but I also think that I’m a little cocky. I mean, I opened a hardware store — seven of them — and I’m a girl. Most of the ACE Hardware owners are not only men, but men who have grown up in the hardware business. One of my friends was actually born in the back of his parents’ ACE store. How do you compete with that kind of experience?

To make up for my lack of experience and knowledge, I ask a million questions and follow the advice of those who have come before me. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I need to perfect their invention. What is so cool is that I now sit on the ACE Hardware board of directors. In 2002, I never would have dreamed I’d be asked to do that.

So maybe it’s OK to be a little cocky — so long as you are also humble as hell.

3. Trust your staff. Trust your customers. Someone steals something from one of my stores every day. It’s a fact of life in the retail business. We have up to 29,000 products in each store and it would be tough to monitor them all every day.

Knowing that there’s nothing I can do about it makes me know that I have two choices. I can do my best to keep the theft to a minimum and let the reality of this situation roll off my back — or I can dwell on it and feel stressed. Sure it makes me mad, but I try to put it into perspective. The big picture is that my customers are great, my employees are great. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

4. Give people a chance — sometimes more than once. We hire some people who don’t have stellar employment records. Some are former addicts. Some have spent time in jail. One employee has 11 kids. And they all deserve a chance to improve themselves.

We honor their victories, and frequently have anniversary parties to celebrate their sobriety. It’s important. They are part of our ACE family.

What’s more, about half of our employees don’t have a college degree. Yet. My goal is for all of my employees to work for us for a while, and then move on and move up. In that sense, I guess we’re somewhat of an incubator. Employees come to us, learn a bunch about themselves and how the working world operates, and then they move on. It’s how it should be. And it lets us care for more people.

5. Let it roll. Growing up, my dad was always so patient and tolerant, and I think that’s why I don’t sweat the small stuff. Marc doesn’t, either. How can you? We have our eye on the big picture. Plus, it’s too exhausting to get stressed about things you can’t control — like shoplifting or other facts of the retail business.

The bottom line is that we truly love what we do, and hope to do it for at least another decade. If we do, odds are good that we’ll help hundreds of people who need a good job and want to work in a nurturing environment. If I can do that, I think I’ll have accomplished something important.

For more information about ACE Hardware, D.C., visit www.acehardwaredc.com.

And to learn how to install that water filter, check out Gina on YouTube.

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