Home » Industry News » Chairman & Cheerleader: Jerry Meis Plays Dual Role on NRHA Board
jerry meis sitting in basketball stadium

Chairman & Cheerleader: Jerry Meis Plays Dual Role on NRHA Board

Driving past Kinnick Stadium, home to the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, Jerry Meis slows his driving to a crawl as something catches his eye. The university has planted corn on either side of the main entrance to the arena as a novel way to greet visitors.

While even some of Iowa City’s long-time residents might miss this addition, the green stalks have grown to about 6-and-half-feet tall, and it’s easy to tell by the look on Meis’s face that he isn’t quite sold on the concept.

“I’m not so sure about that,” he says while exiting the car. “I don’t know if that really sends the right message.”

While still considering this latest aesthetic addition to the stadium, Meis quickly turns his attention to the building’s more noble architectural features, such as the 20-foot-tall statue of stadium namesake Nile Kinnick.

Meis explains Kinnick was not only a University of Iowa alumnus; he was also a Heisman Trophy winner, Navy aviator and war hero. This brief historical overview is just one example of the deep well of knowledge from which Meis lovingly dips while introducing visitors to his town.

After spending just one July afternoon cruising through the hilly streets of Iowa City with Meis as a tour guide, it’s readily apparent that he loves every aspect of this small college city. It is, after all, the place where he grew up; went to school; met his wife, Pat; raised his two children, Mitch and Emily; and has run a successful hardware business for the past 40-plus years.

Even his uncertainty about making Hawkeye fans pass through a gauntlet of cornstalks speaks to Meis’s love of this place. He wants to make sure his town is represented in the best possible light on game day; though he may be critical at times, it’s also obvious he is Iowa City’s biggest cheerleader.

Meis views his new role as chairman of the North American Retail Hardware Association’s (NRHA) Board of Directors much in this same spirit—as both chairman and cheerleader.

In this dual role, he has a keen eye for details, and he’s vigilant in his support of the association but also prepared to be critical when necessary. It’s the way he approaches his town, his business and his multitude of volunteer commitments.

“If I reflect on what I want my legacy to be,” Meis says, “I want my family, my community, my employees and the organizations I work with to view me as a fair and ethical person who did everything he could to help make the things and people he worked with better.”

 Fresh from the Farm

Growing up on a dairy farm outside Dubuque, Iowa, Meis learned about the value of hard work early in life. Like most farm kids, he wasn’t just a part of the family, he was a part of the workforce. Shoveling, toting and milking were as much a part of his daily routine as going to school and doing homework.

“Growing up on a farm, I gained a great amount of responsibility at a very young age and I learned a lot about how to really run a business,” Meis says. “You learn a can-do attitude and that there will always be a solution to a problem; you just have to work your way through it.”

In the late 1950s, Meis took this farm-raised can-do attitude to the big city and headed off to college at the University of Iowa, where he would study business and accounting.

Meis was able to land a position as a stock clerk at Lenoch & Cilek True Value in 1960. Lenoch & Cilek was a fixture in Iowa City. Founded by Hugh Smith and Frank Cilek as Smith & Cilek Hardware, the operation had been supplying the area’s residents, farmers and businesses with hardware and home improvement items since 1905.It was during his sophomore year when he was faced with one of his first opportunities to make a good business decision. “I either needed to find a job or borrow money to continue with school,” he remembers. “So, I decided to look for work.”

When Meis joined the business, it had already changed names and was being run by Frank’s son, Joe Cilek. It was while working with Joe that Jerry would fall in love with the hardware business.

“Joe Cilek gave me responsibility, and I always appreciated that,” Meis remembers. “It gave me confidence in myself and really helped prepare me for the rest of my career. That’s when I knew hardware retailing would be a big part of my life.”

Just nine short years after landing a part-time job to help offset his tuition costs, Meis faced his next big business decision. When the opportunity presented itself, Meis partnered with Jim Cilek (Joe’s son) to purchase the store.

With a growing family and an ownership stake in a landmark local business, for the first time, Meis felt the full weight of the responsibilities he had taken on. “I knew it was a great responsibility because I wasn’t just in charge of my own future, I was also responsible to the employees who relied on us for their jobs and to the community that relied on us for the items they needed,” Meis recalls.

Though the responsibilities were great, Meis says he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He embraced his newfound roles and set to work growing the business. Over the next two decades, Meis would purchase sole ownership of the operation and expand the business to include three additional locations at its height.

Today, Lenoch & Cilek provides homeowners and commercial clients throughout the Iowa City and Coralville areas with a range of hardware and home improvement items.

“We have three convenient locations, and a long-term dedicated staff at the management level; we like to think we offer great customer service and well-stocked stores,” Meis says.

In 2001, Meis’s son, Mitch, joined the business and today helps run the day-to-day operations. Not only is it rewarding for Jerry to get the opportunity to work with his son, it also allows him the freedom to pursue other endeavors in the community.

A Life of Service

During his time at the helm of Lenoch & Cilek, throughout all the expansions, Meis was never content to just run a profitable business.

A thriving chain of hardware stores was just one factor in his success equation. To truly find balance in his life, Meis sought opportunities to volunteer and lend his critical eye, business acumen and unbridled support to a variety of organizations.

Early in his career he was also exposed to the role NRHA plays in helping the home improvement retailing industry.

“My first exposure to NRHA goes back to the 1960s and reading Hardware Retailing magazine when I was still a student,” he says. “It actually was my part-time work, an owner who gave me a lot of responsibility and Hardware Retailing that influenced me to pursue a career in retailing rather than accounting.”

Like much of his volunteer work, Meis’s involvement with NRHA is his way of giving back just some of what he has gained from different organizations.

“Jerry is truly one of the most giving individuals I have ever worked with when it comes to his time and insights,” says Bill Lee, NRHA president and CEO. “I can’t even begin to count how many boards of directors and volunteer organizations Jerry has dedicated his time to.”

When pressed, even Meis has a hard time recalling each of the various organizations, efforts and drives he has volunteered his time and resources to assist throughout the years.

But just like rattling off Iowa City landmarks, Meis gets that familiar gleam in his eye when he talks about his organizational involvement. Whether it is the hours he dedicated to help build a state-of-the-art retirement facility or time spent guiding the board of directors for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, Meis values his role as public servant.

“It’s kind of interesting, but I see every experience as a learning experience to me,” he says. “While I hope I’ve been able to contribute to the organizations I have worked with, I also always take something away from them. I think there is a certain satisfaction involved with helping them succeed, but I also learn valuable lessons from working with very bright and motivated people—it’s a win-win situation.”

This attitude was one of the reasons fellow Iowa retailer Mike O’Hara recommended Meis for a director position on NRHA’s board.

“I’ve known Jerry for a long time, and he’s kind of been Mr. Hardware,” says O’Hara, who also previously served on NRHA’s board. “Jerry is a perfect gentleman, and I thought he would be a perfect fit for the NRHA board. He is level-headed, very good with numbers, has a good head for business and always provides valuable input. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Since joining the NRHA board, Meis has given his share of input, but he has also done his share of listening and perhaps more than his share of cheerleading.

“Jerry is one of our biggest supporters,” Lee says. “He is very thoughtful and never shy about providing his insights, but he is also always there for encouragement and to help promote the organization and its goals.”

As Meis deftly navigates the streets of Iowa City pointing out landmarks, industrial developments and housing communities, he is sometimes critical but never negative about missteps by his beloved city.

Even while discovering some of the engineering issues that caused widespread flooding over the past several years, there is a genuine concern behind his criticism but never a pessimistic air to his words.

It’s with a similar critical, yet optimistic eye that Meis reflects on the current state of the home improvement retailing industry.

“I think my biggest gripe right now about the industry is political,” he says when pressed for an issue that concerns him. “I simply do not understand why Internet companies with no local brick-and-mortar stores, no local property tax contributions, should be subsidized by our tax system.”

Meis quickly points out that independent retailers could help overcome this and other challenges by rallying together through organizations like NRHA.

“Our small businesses spend too much time, effort and money competing with each other when our real competition is the big box,” he says. “Somehow we need to get a stronger message out that this isn’t the way to go.”

Meis thinks NRHA can and does play a large part in providing solutions to help independent home improvement retailers compete. “This is a very exciting time to be involved in NRHA,” he says. “Whether it is serving on the board, sitting on a panel that is discussing something pertinent to the industry, writing a guest column for the magazine or whatever you can do, just by being involved, you can have a very important role in helping our industry.”

Similar to his involvement in other organizations, Meis says the time he has spent on NRHA’s board of directors has produced a win-win scenario.

“The benefits for me have come from gaining information from Hardware Retailing, from the training programs and most recently from the opportunity to network with NRHA’s staff and fellow board members,” Meis says. “These opportunities have proven invaluable and have come with new friendships that I value very much.”

Within this unique ability to point out challenges while remaining a positive influence, Meis is truly a unique individual, past NRHA chairman Will Barnhart says.

“He has an abnormally high dose of common sense, and that has been so beneficial in the many decisions the board has had to make,” says Barnhart. “I’ve worked on several board projects with Jerry, and he can always be counted on to give a solid angle to discussions and to execute the detail that’s needed to achieve the desired outcome.”

You can also rest assured when the Hawkeyes kick off their Big Ten schedule and the cold fall winds start blowing through Kinnick Stadium, Jerry Meis will be on hand to cheer for his beloved Hawkeyes, even if he still isn’t so sure about the cornstalks out front.

Chairman of the Board(s)

Along with his thriving chain of hardware stores in Iowa City, current NRHA board chairman Jerry Meis also dedicates a great deal of his time to community service. Following are just some of the organizations Meis has been involved with.

  • Chairman of the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce, 1988
  • First Trust and Savings Bank Board of Directors
  • Mercy Hospital Foundation Board and Corporate Board
  • Kirkwood Community College Foundation Board
  • Systems Unlimited Board of Directors
  • Iowa City Community Mental Health Board
  • The Oak Knoll Foundation Board of Directors
  • The Herbert Hoover Library Association

Lenoch & Cilek Hardware At a Glance

  • Three stores in the Iowa City/Coralville market
  • Founded in 1905 as Smith & Cilek Hardware
  • Core neighborhood hardware offering with strong offerings in paint, housewares, plumbing, electrical and pet supplies
  • A growing commercial business
  • Eight management-level employees with a combined 225 years of service with the company

About Dan Tratensek

In his position as publisher of Hardware Retailing magazine, Dan has the opportunity to visit with independent retailers of all types and sizes and use these visits to shape the editorial direction of the magazine to meet the needs of the independent hardware retail market. Dan also oversees NRHA’s other publishing projects, which include a range of special interest publications, contract publishing titles, online content and more. Dan formerly worked as an editor and reporter for Hardware Retailing and has been involved in business journalism and news reporting for the past two decades

Check Also

Tractor Supply milestone

Tractor Supply Company Hits Store Milestone

Tractor Supply Company announced the opening of its 500th garden center location in Lowell, Indiana. The …