Hooten’s Hardware LLC proves that the guy who promised, “If you build it, they will come” gave pretty good advice.
Although the outfit anchors a beyond-tiny town in East Texas called Emory (“population on paper: 1,500,” says GM Kirk Reams), it serves a 30-mile radius of customers who apparently can’t spend their money fast enough when it comes to construction—“new homes, second homes, additions, repairs, all of the above,” he lists. Ask him what he carries, and he begins a roll-call almost as long as a Senate filibuster: a full line of lumber products, metal building materials, agricultural requirements, guns, knives, outdoor power equipment, a “huge” lawn & garden department, and multitudes of housewares—appliances to clothing: “home décor you can’t find in other stores, that makes customers go, ‘Cool!’”
“One stop shopping?” a reporter offers a summary. “You could call it that,” Kirk replies in a not-typically-Texan understatement. “The husband comes in with his wife. She looks at housewares and spends $50. He goes over to the nuts and bolts, and he picks up another $50 of stuff.”
The enterprise was launched in 1994 when owner Lance Hooten built a small shop—repairs and such—which has now morphed into 40,000 sq. ft., which Kirk has overseen since signing on at the outset. “I worked in another town 20 miles away, in a place served by the same True Value rep. We got to talking, and he mentioned that Lance was fixing to build a hardware store.” That was 25 years ago when Kirk was barely old enough to shave. (He’s now a seasoned 40.)
His customer mix is, in a word, “everyone.” Both contractors and walk-ins populate the place because, says Kirk, “The economy’s good. East Texas is the exception to the rule: really prosperous. People are building homes, barns, shops. There’s also a lot of farming needs.”
“What really keeps us going,” he continues, “is our situation close to two well-known lakes (one famous for catfish, the other for trophy fishing). People come for the weekend and stop by the store. There are a lot of vacation homes, plus people constantly remodeling, updating. And new-home construction is going wild around here.”
Pros receive special treatment, starting with a dedicated contractors’ counter with five registers and a spacious surface where they can lay out their plans. Three employees are specifically dedicated to sit down with them. “We offer them delivery—usually within 24 hours—with a fleet of six trucks. We offer special pricing. We really get to know them, seeing them four or five times a day.”
Why do they remain loyal? “We try to give them fair prices and quick delivery, so they’re not held up at the job. We make it pretty easy to do business here; we’re accommodating and understanding about returns. We know our customers’ needs.” And that includes the special needs of women shoppers. Hooten’s offers sales designed to capture this audience at vendor-sponsored events that feature eats, demos, and 20%-off normal prices.
And why does the staff—presently 52 of them—stay on? As Kirk sees it, “we pay well, treat them fairly and provide a happy work environment, including time off. Our values are, in this order: One, God. Two, family. And three, work.”
But certainly it must be tough to find good new hires in a town of 1,500? Wrong. Many, including Kirk, do not actually live in Emory. “I, myself, to be honest, drive 25, 30 miles a day to work, as do half of our employees. And when it comes to hiring, we’ve kind of built a network. I get 15, 20 applications a week.”
What he’s looking for in a potential staffer is…experience. “And I don’t mean in fast food. Plus, they’ve got to be outgoing and like working with people, because you see 1,500 a day. You’ve gotta smile, cut up with them. You’ve also got to want to work, to earn your paycheck, not just get paid.”
To announce job openings, Kirk turns to Facebook. Customers also receive mailers in their monthly statements and emails notifying them of specials—“plus, there’s a big electronic board out front,” says the GM. It’s designed to lure potential customers to turn in off the highway rather than continuing their journey to the nearest competition, a big box 25 miles distant (“though that’s not far to drive for someone from Texas,” Kirk allows). He beats or equals their prices through Orgill’s help in “aggressively setting our retail prices.”
Hooten’s boasts an unusual niche market: a welding operation launched 13 years ago, with an eight-bay shop and 20 employees geared to manufacture or repair items, such as a custom-designed gate or feeders of several types, which a designated outside rep sells throughout a seven-state area.
Well, then, anything that didn’t pan out? “At one time, we had an in-house Radio Shack, but when people starting buying online, we closed it up and moved on to different subjects,” says Kirk.
This man’s proud to admit it: He loves his job. “I’ve been in the hardware business since I was 17, so it’s in my blood. I love working with people; it’s fun. But,” he allows, “there’s a good side and a bad side to that. There can be a certain customer who’s hard to handle, or an employee to discipline once in a while. But the thing is, I leave that stuff at the door. I go home and don’t stress because it’ll be there when I get back in the morning.”
He also has no need to worry about micro-managing from the owner. “The Hootens are hands-off—their kids are in college with different career plans. Lance is easy to work for, and I know what he expects. Dave Renshaw, who’s the GM for the lumber side of the operation, and I keep everything rolling.”