Many people ask Meg and I, "How is it that you ended up buying a hardware store in Missoula, Montana from Chicago?"
Frankly, it's a story that I really enjoy telling, for the past few years have proven to be the most rewarding of our lives. The following is our story.
In 1988, life was good. I married the most wonderful human being I'd ever met. And at Palatine Ace Hardware (Palatine is a Chicago suburb, about thirty-five miles northwest of the city), it was business as usual. Sales were brisk, and it seemed that we could do no wrong. We had our best year in 1988 with record sales.
Most of 1989 was at least as good. Sales continued to be strong, until Friday, November 24th, the day after Thanksgiving. That traditional kick-off day to the Christmas selling season, which had been so strong the previous several years was down twenty percent. Fear of recession had begun to have a direct impact on our customers' spending habits. And that was just the beginning of what was yet to come.
We finished 1989 with a slight sales decrease. 1990 was faltering from the starting gate. To make matters worse, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) began a major road construction project on the highway on which our store was located. We had heard of the horrors of road construction and its potentially devastating effects on business, and now we were getting a first-hand taste of this harsh reality. The first day of construction, traffic was backed up for miles in either direction. The second day, there were no lines at all. Commuters got the message in a big hurry: they needed to find alternate routes. In doing so, they also found somewhere else to buy their hardware. Years of building up a customer base were evaporating before our very eyes.
1990 was also the year that we successfully negotiated a new lease with our landlord, who had made a commitment to do some major remodeling to our thirty year-old, tired store. They would completely rebuild the storefront, replace the failing heating and air conditioning, install all new fluorescent lighting and a new ceiling, and remodel the restrooms and employee lounge.
We were also planning to enlarge our store by expanding into the vacant store adjacent to ours, which would be utilized for our business offices. We, too, were committed to participate in the remodeling effort. We would put in a new floor, all new store fixtures, furnish our new offices, and install a new, state-of-the-art computer system.
Between seven months of road construction, renovation of the exterior of our shopping center that took far too long to complete, and a recession gripping our country, we finished 1990 ten percent down in sales.
Our major focus for 1991 was our remodeling project. And IDOT's focus was once again, the highway on which we were located, only this time they were two blocks down from their previous location. Once again, we had to endure seven months of being quite inaccessible to our customers.
Our effort continued through most of '91. We were midway through our project when we learned that HomeBase, a home improvement giant from Southern California, and Menard's, another large home improvement retailer from Wisconsin, were both coming to town, each with a 125,000 square foot store and each about a one mile from us. That equals a quarter-million square feet of new hardware competition all within a mile of our store.
We proceeded to wrap up our remodeling project. We launched our new Ace Store-of-the-Future with a grand reopening in mid-November of gargantuan proportions. However, we finished 1991 another ten percent down, but at least now our remodeling was behind us, IDOT was done with our highway, and our landlord had completed the “facelift” of the shopping center.
1992 was a tough year to face. We were sinking, and we needed to take drastic action. We needed to go into "survival mode", which is an experience that one cannot possibly prepare for. It really causes you to lose all humility.
We fired our store manager, whose duties I took over. We literally removed thousands of dollars of expenses. Dad and I both took pay cuts. We let go a twenty-year employee whose productivity was marginal. We dug in like never before. We were at war, man. It was a matter of survival. My dad wanted to sell the business, almost from the time we first heard of HomeBase and Menard's coming to town, both of whom were now in full operation. And we were feeling their effects, too. Our sales were down over forty percent from the time they began their decline that Christmas season of 1989! Our dilemma was how to make our company profitable at this new, reduced volume, which was obviously here to stay, at least for a while. And it really began to seem as if it couldn't be done.
Unlike my father, I did not want to sell. I wanted to fight. In fact, my attitude was, if we were fighting, and still not making it, then we simply need to fight harder; work harder. By the end of 1992, were had made a lot of improvements to our store. In fact, we had laid the foundation for what looked like would be its ultimate survival.
However, we finished the year another one percent down. Think about that: The first full year "under our belt" with our newly remodeled Ace Store-of-the-Future and we finished one percent down as compared to 1991, when for most of that year our store looked like a war zone! We couldn't even achieve the “under-constructions sales numbers. It was not only disappointing, it was downright demoralizing!
By the beginning of 1993, Dad had persuaded me to at least explore the possibility of selling our store. I sure didn't know what I was going to do. My head was filled with thoughts of, "Where will I be a year from now? Where should I get a job? Where will I be working?" I began to see myself working at Ace Corporate, perhaps in the Retail Information Technology department. I even began to inquire about such a possibility.
On Thursday, February 25th, Dad and I had a meeting with Ace's National Real Estate Development Manager, Earl Primm. We sat down in Dad's office, and began by enlightening Earl about our situation. While chatting, Earl began to tell us of another store he'd been trying to sell. "It's a good store," he said, "but I'm not getting much interest."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's located in Missoula, Montana, and nobody wants to go to Montana!" It was almost as if he was telling a joke, and he had just delivered the punch line. But I wasn't laughing. In fact, I was on the intercom, paging Meg to come into the office so she could hear about this. Dad couldn't believe that I was interested, at least not at first. Meg came in, and I made Earl go through the entire story once again.
Two weeks later, Dad, Meg and I spent the weekend in Missoula to see if this was as good as it sounded. We all know what they say about when something sounds too good to be true and we felt like we had come to Missoula to find out why this was all too good to be true.
We met with Dale and Sue Mahlum, the owners of the store. We found Mahlum's Ace Hardware to be remarkably similar to Palatine Ace. Dale and Sue were pretty happy with Meg and me as the possible future owners of their thirty-three year old family business.
Meg and I were already dreaming about a new life in the mountains, west of the continental divide. But we had to keep telling ourselves not to get too excited. After all, we had so much that we had to make happen. At that point, it was still an extremely long shot at best.
Within a couple of weeks, we had a buyer for the Palatine store and on June 30, 1993, the deal on Palatine Ace Hardware closed.
Exactly sixty days later, the deal on Mahlum's Ace Hardware closed. Meg and I had within that past month, staged a massive garage sale, sold half of what we owned, including two cars, and packed up what was left. On Monday, August 23rd, as soon as the movers had finished loading, we drove off into the sunset on a one-way trip west. By the way, that two-day trip west was about the only relaxation we've had in the last year.
In the twenty one years since acquiring the store we've made many changes; more than I would have hoped for in this amount of time. We have found ourselves welcomed into the community with open arms, warmth and friendship. And the feeling is mutual. Missoula is home to the nicest, most wonderful people we've ever met.
Our employees really enjoy working for us, and we are extremely proud of each and every one of them. Our sales are strong and continue to grow. Our store has enjoyed a great reputation in town, thanks to the Mahlum's, and I'm proud to say that we've maintained it. It's a lot like Palatine was before 1989. But are we doing things differently? You bet we are! This entire experience has caused us to never, ever, take for granted any success that we realize, for it can change overnight.
In May 1998, Missoula Ace Hardware acquired a failing Trustworthy Hardware store located a short 2 ¼ miles away from the Tremper's location, at the northeast end of town in the Eastgate Shopping Center. Three months later, in July, Montana Ace Eastgate opened its doors, and thus became the Weis family's first "plunge" into the realm of multi-store operation.
August 2000 brought the acquisition of two additional Ace stores in Ronan and Polson, Montana, sixty and seventy-two miles north of Missoula, respectively. Ronan lies at the north end of the Mission Valley, back dropped by the stunning Mission Mountains. Polson lies at the south shore of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Upon the acquisition of these two stores, our name was changed to "Montana Ace".
Opportunity fell into our lap once again as 2004 was drawing to a close, which resulted in the acquisition of the fifth Montana Ace location in Kalispell, a vibrant growing community that lies about ten miles north of Flathead Lake’s north shore and is the gateway to Glacier National Park.
Montana Ace – Kalispell is our northern-most store as well as our newest and used to be the largest store at 30,000 square feet. Montana Ace – Kalispell opened its doors to the Kalispell community in May 2005.
Once again opportunity came knocking – more like pounding this time, as Sportsman’s Surplus, a 40+ year Missoula fixture right next door to our main store in Tremper's Shopping Center, closed its doors due to its owner retiring. If our Tremper's store suffered from one thing, it was chronic overcrowding and lack of sufficient space. We successfully came to terms on a new lease with the Tremper family to include the old Sportsman’s Surplus space. Our main store gained 14,000 square feet, bringing its total square footage to 38,500, making it one of the largest Ace Hardware stores in the nation. The community response to our newly expanded – and remodeled – Tremper's Ace store has been incredibly positive, confirming that the expansion was a wise strategy.
Probably the most significant change of all, though, is the reputation that the Montana Ace Team gained during those change-filled years. They’ve become known and to this day are still known, as the finest team of hardware professionals and the most caring people in retail, not just in Missoula, but anywhere in the country. In fact, in 1998 Missoula Ace Hardware was presented with the very highest award, Ace Hardware's President's Cup Award, which recognizes the very best Ace Hardware store in the entire Ace chain of over 5,200 stores!
Back in 1993 we made a trip to Missoula, Montana to learn the reason why this was all too good to be true. Almost twenty five years later and we’re still looking for the reason why this is all too good to be true.
We thank the wonderful people of the communities of Missoula, Ronan, Polson, Kalispell and all of western Montana for their amazing support and we pledge to always do our very best to help you solve all your home repair and home improvement needs to the very best of our ability, and have fun doing it!
President and CEO
d/b/a Montana Ace