The small town of Upton (population 681) fails to earn so much as a dot on my Rand McNally’s map of Kentucky. Yet its mainstay, Jones Home Center, is punching well above its weight. Are you on the Bourbon Trail, I inquire? Or is it race horses in the bluegrass? No, and no.
The town, 60 miles south of Louisville, lies in what Ted Jones, general manager and owner, with his father, Ralph, calls Cave Country. “It’s definitely rural,” he instructs. “Most of the folks here work in manufacturing in [nearby] Elizabethtown” (which does indeed merit a spot on the map). Yet there’s enough going on around Upton to keep Jones’ 13 employees hopping. “Our customers are 10% commercial, 40% to 50% contractors, and the rest walk-ins,” lured by the outfit’s “pretty big hardware selection, lawn & garden” and one-stop shopping that can carry a home builder all the way from foundation to rooftop.
Sure, there’s competition (There’s always competition, right?). “Our buying co-op rep didn’t think so—he said, ‘There’s nothing within 15 miles’—but in Elizabethtown, there’s Lowes, Home Depot, Menards and other independents. Same with Litchfield, 15 miles in the other direction. And people here aren’t afraid to drive 30, 40 miles….”
Well, why don’t they, then? “Here,” Ted instructs, “you’ve got the ability to find someone to talk to you. In the boxes, it’s hard to find someone to help. We can offer both depth and breadth of knowledge, and our staff can switch gears throughout all the product areas.
“With contractors,” he continues, “the relationships are the biggest part of it. We’ve done business with them ever since the store’s been open.”
That would be back in 1977, when Ralph Jones built a new store from the ground up, enlarging the enterprise his own father, Harvey, launched by expanding his feed mill to include hardware and other essentials back in the 1950s.
Ted joined the operation going on 20 years ago. “I’d tried different things, but I always thought I’d get involved in the family business at some point. In college, I’d majored in English and had been working in Indianapolis, editing a national fraternity’s magazine and website. I moved back in 2004 and took over in 2009.”
He wasn’t one of those Ivory Tower know-it-alls who wanted to re-invent the wheel. “I just expanded on what we already did well, taking things farther—like, in customer service. And my father definitely embraced that; he’s all for trying new things—not afraid of technology, or of new product areas. So, I expanded on that.
“Contractors like that we respond quickly to their needs. If it’s a new product they’ve requested, we get it as quickly as possible—and quick delivery to the jobsite, too which isn’t super-easy lately.” But more on that later on.
“Family is very important to us,” he continues, “and we think of our employees as family. We’re flexible; if they need time off, we try to make it happen. Everybody here acts as a generalist (me and my dad, too). They may have aptitude in a certain area (like, I’m the IT guy), but they’re knowledgeable in a lot of different areas, from plumbing to hardware to paint, and that’s a big benefit: to be able to offer good, solid knowledge in all areas.”
Jones has come up with a unique niche product—making and selling American flags. “It got launched at a Ladies Night event where we gave away a couple, and people really reacted to them and begged for more. It stated as a project of our Fun Committee.”
“Fun Committee,” Ted reiterates in his patient, everybody-knows-that voice. “It’s headed by our bookkeeper, Heather,” who also happens to be Ted’s wife. The committee can also take credit for launching those successful Ladies Nights, which debuted four years ago. “It’s a real service and a lot of fun,” Ted testifies. “We schedule it around Thanksgiving and get a packed house; women lined up. We also invite local lady craftspeople and other vendors to set up tables and offer give-aways. There’s a toy drive, a wheel spin for coupons, and food. The event’s climax is the give-away of a farm table, which everybody at the store has helped make—sanding, staining.”
Customer Appreciation Night, which attracts over 200 contractors and their families, is another item on the Fun Committee’s agenda. “There’s a bouncy house and magic show for the kids, and vendors showcase their products while we grill food. Prizes are raffled off and rebate checks handed out to top customers.” Not only does the popular event recognize everyone who supports Jones Home Center, it may also lure other area contractors to send business their way in hopes of an invitation.
Jones (via Heather) also sponsor a Rabies Clinic, which offers shots at reduced fees, and a Wellness on Wheels van, providing free check-ups to the homebound. They also contribute generously to just about every worthy local cause you might think of. That’s because he’s a big believer of supporting the community. “I think people should be able to go to Upton and get anything they need,” Ted stresses. “For instance, we have 16,000 SKUs in the store at this point, plus our warehouse.” And it all comes around. “The community knows that this business goes back to my grandfather.”
Jones’ website has helped, too, though, as Ted explains, “I’m not altogether happy with it right now; I’m working to make it better, to add e-commerce, so folks can go online to order.”
That project’s on hold for a bit in order to deal with the coronavirus, which has kept Jones “very, very busy. We do a mix of curbside, call-in and delivery, plus in-store traffic is even higher than normal. With a lot of people at home, there’s time on their hands. They see it as a prime opportunity for that honey-do list. So we’ve been very busy—and I’m thankful for that—but it’s kind of hard to control the flow of traffic. (That’s the Fun Committee’s job for the time being).”
And Ted loves every minute of it. “How long will I stick around? Oh, probably till the day I die. I do like what I do, the variety—every day is different. To move from product area to product area is challenging at times, but it offers room to learn. I enjoy helping to solve problems—and the whole staff would agree.” Fun, indeed!