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2021 NHPA Top Gun: Ian McNaughton

The North American Hardware and Paint Association (NHPA) has recognized key home improvement operators for their successes and strategic solutions for 15 years with the Top Guns award. This award highlights retailers who are committed to their communities, their teams and to the independent channel at large.

Ian McNaughton, owner of three stores in cottage country in Ontario, Canada—Gravenhurst, Parry Sound and Bancroft Home Hardware—joined the industry when he and his wife were looking for a family-friendly career. Read the conversation with Ian below and click here to read a profile about his business and meet the other honorees.

Tell us how you got to where you are today.

Ian McNaughton: So my story is a little different. I didn’t grow up in the hardware business. I was in the semiconductor business in Austin, Texas. I traveled about 150,000 miles a year in the air, and my lovely wife Tara didn’t tolerate that for very long. We met with Home Hardware, and we talked about what we wanted to do. We realized a small-town hardware store was what we wanted to do with our lives and where we wanted to raise our kids. So we met with Walter Hachborn, the founder of Home Hardware, in a little town north of Toronto in Muskoka called Gravenhurst, which was our first store. Our second store came about four years later in Parry Sound. Our third store came about in Bancroft, another cottage country store, this year, actually. So we didn’t grow up in the business. We’re really proud to be a part of all of our communities and raise our children in this business. Because honestly, there isn’t another business model I could think of that is holistic: community, family and it just ties it all together. We feel pretty blessed for that.

What’s been your hiring strategy recently? What qualities do you look for in a new hire?

IM: In each one of our stores, we have a big picture of Home Hardware’s founder with a big quote that says, “We’re not in the hardware store business. We are in the people business.” People are our most valuable asset. We talk about stuff and we talk about inventory, we talk about rolling stock, real estate. But people are our No. 1 asset. We don’t have a labor crisis, and I think we’re fortunate. We have customers who retire as a plumber or a carpenter and want to come work for us. They come to us and say, “Hey, I really enjoy being a customer here. There’s lots of laughter. I want to be a part of the culture.” 

We seek out cashiers with experience. I learned a trick from a friend of mine. There’s a card we hand out if we have a good service experience somewhere. We’ll talk to the person and ask them if they’re happy where they are. We tell them we’re hiring that day or that week, and we give them the card to follow up. So we’re proactive and we try to find good people. 

So those are our two strategies, and we’re fairly blessed to not have a crisis right now. We have a lot of dealer friends who do, so we know it’s a real problem. 

When it comes to qualities, there’s the pre-COVID and the post-COVID discussion. We’re a lot more flexible than we used to be to be honest. Before it was, “Here’s the job, here are the hours, do you want it?” And now it’s, “What would you like to do, when do you want to work, and how much money do you want to get paid?” and see if we can work something out. Flexibility is key. But really, it’s honesty and integrity. They don’t need to be experienced. We can train them. There’s a great program with NHPA, and we utilize that. We can train the material, but we can’t train you to be a good person, a happy person when you come into work. So we look for personality.

What has your product sourcing strategy been over the last 18 months?

IM: We are buying everything we can get our hands on. It’s so difficult when you have people, real estate, signage and branding and culture—and your shelves are empty. You can’t sell from an empty cart. A truckload if you can get it. We’re looking for outside warehousing space to store stuff out of season. I am utterly frightened for this upcoming season to see if we’re going to have enough stock. 

So we are just gobbling up everything we can get our hands on.

What does the home improvement industry look like in five years? What do independent retailers need to do to compete?

IM: The pandemic showed that we are built for this from a customer service perspective. When we talk about experience. We were blessed that our one store was selected as the best hardware store in Canada earlier this week. When we built it, we built it with experience. We wanted it to be different and as far from the big-box experience as you could get. It is truly that. I believe we need to develop experiences in our stores. At the seasonal outdoor living level, at the paint counter. You have to sell the dream. I believe that’s where our industry needs to go as far as the store experience. We’re moving our stores to that to make sure we earn that loyalty the best we can.

The conversation here is a transcription of the Top Guns panel discussion from the 2021 NHPA All-Industry Conference. It has been edited for clarity and style. 

About Melanie Moul

Melanie is the communications and content manager for the North American Hardware and Paint Association. She joined the NHPA team in 2016 as an editor for Hardware Retailing and now helps lead the communications team to deliver relevant, timely content to the industry.

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