Lauren Zumbach
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO: A boom in home remodeling has put the spotlight on strong sales at home improvement chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s, but Ace Hardware Corp., headquartered in suburban Chicago, also is seeing rising sales and revenues at its retailer-owned stores.

President and CEO John Venhuizen, 46, joined the company’s marketing department in 1992. What’s kept him there? Venhuizen said he likes that Ace — despite its claim to be the world’s largest hardware cooperative — still has an underdog mindset.

“We duke it out with some of the world’s best retailers, mostly with small family businesses,” he said.

In a recent interview, Venhuizen talked about why he thinks there’s still room for local, neighborhood stores. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: When you became president of Ace in 2012, how were things going?

A: There was no turnaround situation. We called it continuity and momentum. We launched a strategy called 2020 Vision with a stated objective to address challenges and leverage our strengths. ... [including] a business-to-business initiative we call “be the supply place.” Local businesses are our neighbors too.

Q: How big is the business-to-business side now?

A: It varies wildly but on average, our stores will see somewhere between 15-20 percent of their business from small businesses. The enemy here isn’t Grainger or Fastenal, the enemy really is Costco and Sam’s Club, where a lot of small businesses are trekking to warehouse clubs to buy the stuff to maintain their businesses. And so we think we have a better proposition that’s right next to you, that’s loyal, with a person behind it to offer their services.

Q: It sounds like it’s a similar pitch to businesses and consumers.

A: It is, and shame on us for not pounding that a little further a little faster, but it has gained significant momentum for us. Because it resonates when a local business owner can get support and understanding from another business owner.

Q: So you think there’s still room for that neighborhood feel?

A: We talk to our stores about owning the last mile. Our stores are in neighborhoods. This isn’t a corporate operation. We have 4,931 stores, and we own 92 of them. Every single other store is locally owned and operated, and they serve their neighbors with that irrational level of pursuit.

Q: You’ve said that when 2020 Vision started, Ace was losing stores. Why?

A: We had eight out of 11 years in a row where we had less U.S. stores at the end of the year than when we started. Our new store efforts have been good. The real problem was just general business atrophy from owners who had no succession plan or exit strategy and over time started removing themselves from the business. So with the support of the board we put a lot of tools and education around that, with this message that running a retail store is not easy, and there is a better way to monetize your life’s work than to liquidate at 30-40 cents on the dollar. This will be the fifth year in a row where we have had increased store count in the U.S. every single year. We haven’t solved that problem entirely, but we’ll open 150-160 this year, and we’ll lose probably less than 90.

Q: How does being a co-op of independent stores help you, and how does it make it tougher?

A: We have the skill of the locally embraced and highly empowered entrepreneur who will know their community better than anyone in this building ever will, coupled with the scale of a globally trusted brand. ... Can it be challenging? Yes. When you have owners who are your customer, do they have opinions that we hear regularly? Yes.

But we can cry and complain about that like we’re smarty pants know-it-alls, or we can say they’re living it on the front lines. I would tell you with no false humility that most of our best ideas started in the stores who tried it on their own.