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Retailers Do Double Duty as Politicians

To view a PDF of this story, click here. For yet another perspective on working both as a retailer and a politician, click here for an online-exclusive Q&A with Dennis Stine, president and CEO of Stine Lumber in Louisiana. Stine has served as a state legislator and as a financial officer who worked directly with the governor of Louisiana. 

A Call to Public Service

A tumultuous, heated presidential campaign is at the forefront of U.S. politics right now, but some politically active retailers offer perspectives on government involvement that supersede parties and candidates.

Sidestepping the widely debated topics of this election cycle, these store owners spoke with Hardware Retailing about what it means to spend time as public servants and what businesspeople uniquely contribute as political leaders. 

In this story, you will learn from retailers who have found ways to juggle business, work in local and state governments, and make a difference.

A political party chairman and a city alderman both share why they got involved in government, how their business experiences have helped them be strong public servants and why it’s important for other independent business owners to be active politically.

In this article, you will read Q&As with Jared Littmann, who is a store owner and serves as a local city alderman, and Jeff Cardwell, who doubles as a retailer and chairman of the Indiana State Republican Party.

Double Duty Politicians
Jared Littmann, owner of K&B True Value in Annapolis, Maryland, has spent the past four years in his current role as a city council member, which is also called an alderman. Littmann talks about his position, how his passions helped drive his political goals and more.

Hardware Retailing (HR): How did you get involved in politics and why?
Jared Littmann (JL): Since high school, I’ve been interested in politics and have found interesting the policy perspectives and reaching solutions that are acceptable to all stakeholders. While politics involves fundraising and campaigning, I’ve been more interested in being a public servant, and working on legislation to address real issues.

I earned an environmental engineering degree in college and then a law degree with a focus on environmental law. After practicing law for seven years, I got into retail with an opportunity to work with and later purchase from my in-laws their hardware business.

About nine years later, when the previous alderman vacated the position with a year remaining in his term, I applied, and perhaps due to my legal and business experience, was selected as Alderman for Ward 5 for the city of Annapolis. I ran for election during that one-year term and won a four-year term, of which about 14 months remain. I have decided to not run again but instead am planning my succession.

Double Duty Politicians
In 2013, Jared Littmann is sworn in as an alderman in Annapolis.

HR: Why do you think independent business owners should get involved in politics?
JL: First off, getting involved in local government is time-consuming. And since business is also time-consuming, not everyone wants to commit the time to put into it.

Running the business should remain the top priority, as well as family. However, if you decide you do have the time, being involved in local politics has a positive impact on the community. Local politics affects the local economy, affects the general feelings of the community and more. Hardware store owners have a natural feel for and concern about their community. If you feel you have something to offer to help the community thrive, getting involved politically is a wonderful opportunity.

HR: What do business owners uniquely contribute to government?
JL: First and foremost, business owners generally have diverse skills such as management and budgeting. Retailers manage insurance, payroll, taxes and marketing. 

Plus, by having business experience, you have a greater appreciation for how hard it is to generate revenue and maintain a happy population.

HR: What skills from running an independent business make you well suited for government?
JL: Running an independent business helps develop skills like critical thinking, communication, budgeting and responsible financial management. 

HR: How do you recommend getting started in local government if retailers want to be advocates for business in their communities?
JL: There are so many different ways to get started, but I’ll highlight two. The first is to attend events sponsored by local political parties. You don’t necessarily need to pick one party. You could attend events hosted by Republicans, Democrats and others to determine who speaks to the issues you’d like to address.

The second track is to follow the issues that you care about, for example, education and environmental issues. You can get involved in the issues that matter to you by meeting with government officials and talking to people in government to share your concerns and issues.

HR: In what ways has your involvement in politics made you a better retailer?
JL: Being involved in politics has opened my eyes to new issues and people. It’s created new friendships and relationships while broadening my horizons. I wasn’t aware of all the perspectives and complications involved with issues including those that affect my business.

HR: How have you made your community better through your political involvement?
JL: I hope I’ve made my community better in various ways. I’ve consistently defended the cautious use of taxpayer money. I treat citizens’ money as if it was my own and don’t like waste.

I partnered with others to introduce and achieve passage of legislation that improves our public schools.

I’ve worked collaboratively to protect natural resources and forests. I advocate policies that are smart decisions for the economy and environment.

My Spanish-speaking intern has helped me reach Hispanic residents and advocate for policiess that promote diversity and fair treatment. He plans to run for my seat when the term ends. 

Double Duty Politicians
Jared Littmann has worked with, from left, Sen. John Astle; Mike Busch, Maryland speaker of the House; and Josh Cohen, former Annapolis mayor.

HR: In a divisive political climate, how can retailers be activists without hurting business?
JL: One way is to reach audiences that have been disenfranchised, to try to be inclusive when seeking opinions and input. Retailers can be effective activists by focusing more on the issues than on political parties. If the policy initiative is good for local citizens, then you can support it regardless of which political party thought of or advanced it.

Before I was in politics, when people wanted to put signs up in front of the business, I said yes, no matter who the person was aligned with. Now I don’t post anything. I want to minimize the association of the business with a political party.

HR: What are some ways retailers can be active in local government, even if they aren’t interested in serving in elected positions?
JL: Only a small percentage of people attend their city council meetings and talk to their local officials. But the few people who do go get to express their opinions, and are heard. They have better access to the people making changes and it is a great way to get face time with your elected officials to let them know about an issue you have.

You can also meet with people in government, like the planning director or police chief. Set up appointments to discuss concerns and share ideas.

Joining a local business association, like a local chamber of commerce or rotary club, is another powerful way to be active in the local government.

HR: What are the pros and cons of serving as an elected official while operating your own business?
JL: The biggest negative is the amount of time involved. It takes me away from business and family. And there is always the potential that a decision you make on policy or legislation has the potential to turn off customers.

The pros outweigh the cons, however. The time is manageable; it’s like having a second store or a part-time job. This has allowed me to give more opportunities to various employees, letting them figure out how to accomplish goals. I’m micromanaging less, which has led to trusting and managing more efficiently.

One of the biggest benefits is that the community appreciates the effort and is more likely to be aware of the business and support a local business. Lastly, people love seeing their local officials in a comfortable setting like a hardware store and being able to talk about local issues while shopping. 

HR: What advice would you offer a fellow retailer who is running for an elected position?
JL: Be who you are. Identify the issues you feel passionately about and stand for those issues. Rather than trying to imitate and image you have of a public servant, do it from your own heart and perspective. 

If you do run for an elected position, talk to your management and staff (and family) to share the impact that will have. This is an opportunity for more autonomy for them, but they’ll want to know that they’ll still have your support and that when they need you, you’ll be available to them because the business is still a top priority.

Jeff Cardwell
Jeff Cardwell, owner of Cardwell Do it Best Home Center in Indianapolis, is the current state chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. He began his political career in 1980 as a volunteer for the Ronald Reagan campaign.

Hardware Retailing (HR): Why did you get involved in politics?
Jeff Cardwell (JC): In 1976, I started in the hardware business and building material business. The store owner at that time was heavily involved in the political cycle. He encouraged me to get involved. 

My grandfather had held political office, which influenced my interest in politics. My boss at the time was the reassurance that I needed to get more involved.

They would always say, “Politics matter.” Everything is political, whether it’s church, family or politics. Politics is a part of everyday life. It was a time America needed change and a time that people felt that the American dream had died. Iran held our hostages. Unemployment and interest rates were at an all-time high. There were a lot of tensions.

The most important part of it is that you have an opportunity to make a difference. You can make your voice be heard on a platform when people are listening. And the time people are listening is during election cycles.

Ronald Reagan led on national security and economic growth—issues that were of concern to me as a young person. I watched him get elected. I saw him take action, and soon I saw really good results. We saw interest rates and unemployment fall. Iran released our hostages.

I thought my voice mattered. I felt that I made a difference.

In the private sector, the free markets work best when government does its job of providing public safety and infrastructure. We are the economic engine that provides the government with the resources it needs for infrastructure and public safety. It’s our tax dollars and economic growth that fund local government and schools.

Double Duty Politicians
On behalf of the Indiana Republican Party, Jeff Cardwell nominates Donald Trump for president in July at the Republican National Convention.

HR: Why do you think independent business owners should get involved in politics?
JC: A lot of times, the small businessperson wears many hats. They’re able to have a really well-rounded perspective on what makes business thrive. As the political people develop policies, they need to understand the impact they have, positive or negative, on businesses and communities.

You have people who have never owned a business and they have great intentions, but great intentions can have terrible results.

Business owners, with their own personal stories, are priceless. It’s the experience of daily life and of working with people of all walks of life that can be the biggest assets to policymakers.

Experience matters. Private sector business owners matter, and nothing can replace their wealth of experience.

Every business owner is involved in the political cycle, whether they want to be or not. They should make things happen instead of wondering what happened, after the fact. That’s where I feel like every hardware, home center and independent store owner should be involved, because the best way to predict their future is to create it, and they can create it by being involved.

It’s important to be involved. Government has a really important role to play. Public safety, infrastructure and economic growth are all very important to our local businesses.

Double Duty Politicians
In the 1980s, Jeff Cardwell worked with both of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns. Seeing the changes Reagan led as president inspired Cardwell to continue being politically active.

HR: How do you make time to be politically active?
JC: Passion is the fuel that drives the engine. You have to get involved in what you’re passionate about. You always find the time for the things that fuel your passion.

Politics is my hobby, just like other people have hobbies and sports. The passion is the fuel that motivates me, and it’s results that really develop that passion.

When you’ve been involved in a campaign and see positive results, it encourages you to do more.

HR: In what ways has your involvement in politics made you a better retailer?
JC: It’s absolutely affected every aspect of my business. Communication is the key to success. Working together—that’s the economic growth that raises the tide for all boats.

You can bet that in any community that’s successful, there’s good public-private communication happening.

HR: How do you recommend that retailers be activists without hurting their businesses?
JC: I think it’s all about the personal approach. It’s very important for people to see that you’re coming to the table with the greater good in mind, looking for solutions for your community. My business is located in a heavily registered Democrat area, and yet I’m a Republican. I found that it did not hurt my business at all.

About Renee Changnon

Renee Changnon is the retail outreach coordinator for NRHA. She meets with retailers in their stores and at industry events and introduces them to the services NRHA provides. Renee previously worked as a member of the NRHA communications team. She earned a degree in visual journalism from Illinois State University, where she served as the features editor for the school newspaper. After college, she implemented marketing and promotions initiatives at Jimmy John’s franchise locations across the country. She enjoys exploring books with her book club, Netflix marathons and hosting goat yoga at her apartment complex. Renee Changnon 317-275-9442 rchangnon@nrha.org

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