For decades, customers who shopped at Whannel Hardware in Traer, Iowa, knew they could find helpful home improvement advice, a smile and a laugh from the store’s longtime owner, LeRoy Whannel. Even at the age of 103, the business was still a big part of his life, and he would come help his son Jay Sr., the current owner, as often as he could.
LeRoy Whannel died on May 17. Yet his business and his legacy of helping others continue as his son and his grandson Jay Jr. keep the family business thriving.
“My dad’s life consisted of working in the hardware store and spending time with his family,” Jay Sr. says. “Dad saw family as something bigger than his immediate family with his wife and children; the community and people in it were part of his family as well. He was a volunteer fireman, he was on the school board and he belonged to the Chamber of Commerce. Dad did these things not for recognition or with any expectations, but because it helped his family.”
One Generation of Business to the Next at Whannel Hardware
Since 1932, Whannel Hardware has been a staple in Traer, Iowa. The business was founded by C.D. Buis, and was originally known as Buis Hardware. Buis had previously worked in a hardware business founded by his wife’s father in Doon, Iowa, before he retired. However, Buis got bored with retirement and decided to jump back into the hardware business, Jay Sr. says.
“He found a store that had gone bankrupt and took it over in 1932,” Jay Sr. says. “By 1939, he was then ready to retire and he talked to his son-in-law, my dad LeRoy, to see if he’d take over the business, and Dad and my mom returned from Detroit to take over.”
However, less than a year after LeRoy bought the business, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and he went to join the Navy and serve in World War II. It was after the war ended and LeRoy returned to buy the business back from his father-in-law that he named the store Whannel Hardware.
“When my dad turned 65, I was teaching at a community college and he let me know he was ready to retire and wanted to know if I was interested,” Jay Sr. says. “I loved the hardware store, so I quit teaching and took over in 1979.”
As a young child, Jay Sr. says he always wanted to be at the store to help out, so he would sweep the cement floor in the basement. As he got older, he transitioned to other roles throughout the store.
From Hardware to Cell Phones, Customer Service Comes First
In 1994, Jay Sr. decided to expand the business by signing a contract with U.S. Cellular to sell cell phones, a category that would eventually become the biggest seller for the family business.
“I decided to add a U.S. Cellular store within the hardware store because I saw it as something that would grow,” Jay Sr. says. “I thought it would be something here to stay, but I never thought it would get this big. The first contract I signed with U.S. Cellular was to sell six phones a month with a plan of $24.95 for 30 minutes of calls. I thought that would be impossible.”
However, word spread around town, and just as the hardware business had loyal customers, people returned to the store to purchase cell phones because they knew the service would be the best.
For both Jay Sr. and Jay Jr., LeRoy instilled in them a sense of truly taking care of the customer, which is reflected in both the hardware and cell phone sides of the business.
“My dad taught me that if you take care of the customer, the customer will take care of you,” Jay Sr. says. “I don’t think that is a trait of corporate America, since the only motivation there is the bottom line. That is not the case in our store. I love the business and grew up in it. I like people, and I want to take care of them, not try to trick them into buying something they don’t need.”
LeRoy was also very invested in his employees, saying that he could teach an employee what they needed to know, but the employee has to have the personality to want to take care of customers, Jay Sr. says.
Outside of Traer, Jay Jr. runs the business’s second U.S. Cellular location (the first is inside the hardware store), and he says meeting customer needs comes first in his store as well.
“My store is in Belle Plaine, Iowa, with a population of 3,000 people, but we also service customers all over the state. We deliver a service you can’t find anywhere else,” Jay Jr. says. “We’ll take the cell phone to someone on a jobsite or help in any way we can. People who haven’t previously done business with us are amazed, and that service comes from the values my grandpa passed on to me.”
The lessons LeRoy instilled on the importance of helping others were also passed on to his great-grandsons, says Jay Jr.
“My kids loved being around him,” Jay Jr. says. “He and my dad would travel to see my kids at their baseball games. Being his only grandkid in town, I benefited a lot from being around him and the relationship we had, and I feel very fortunate for that. At his funeral, there wasn’t a person who didn’t say to me how great of a person he was. He was a great man and was great for the town. Everything he did was to support his family, the church and the community.”