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Career Reflections From NRHA Employees

In the August issue of Hardware Retailing, we asked three retailers in different phases of their careers and one retiree to reflect on their time spent working in the independent hardware and home improvement industry.

Each retailer wrote a letter to their younger self, sharing words of wisdom and reassurance they would’ve liked to have received at different times in their lives. To read the article, click here.

To complement the great letters we received for the magazine, we asked a former North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) senior vice president and three other NRHA staffers to also reflect on their careers working for the association and the industry. Read their stories below to learn how the association has shaped their lives now and in the future.

Kate Klein
Assistant Editor
Age: 30 years old
Time with NRHA: 20 months

Hi, Kate.

You’re fortunate—when you decided in fifth grade that journalism was for you, you didn’t know the newspaper industry would contract, the economy would tank while you were in college and you’d wonder if you would ever get paid to be a writer. Spoiler: you’ll get to be a writer.

You wrote hand-illustrated family newspapers at mom and dad’s farmhouse, and you made your career plans before anyone told you print is dead and you’ll never get a writing job.

You also didn’t know that even after you saw newsroom layoffs, you would keep finding print publications that aren’t dead—like Hardware Retailing magazine.

In the beginning, your enthusiasm, curiosity and determination weren’t enough to get you in the door as a full-time writer, but editors took chances on you and let you start with typing up 5-inch news briefs and attending sewer commission meetings. Thank you, Mickey Johnson, Gwen Moritz and others.

My enthusiasm, curiosity and determination didn’t always get me in the door as a full-time writer, but editors took chances on me. Here I am working at my first reporting job.

Editors and other mentors have coached you to be a better writer and person. Younger Kate, be grateful for each of those people, even when their critiques sting. Their goal was to make you better. And, heck, a healthy dose of humbling is good for everyone.

Now, six years after moving beyond internships and freelance gigs, you’ve spent a lot of time remembering some of the best advice you have gotten: “Everyone needs an editor.” (Thanks again, Gwen.)

You needed that advice as a cub reporter whose pride was bruised when sections of your stories were rewritten, and you need that now as you edit other editors’ writing. You might be fresh out of college or a sage who writes columns for The New Yorker, but you’ll always need an editor. The good news? Editing makes your stories better.

Learning to accept constructive criticism is helpful far beyond writing. Home improvement retailers who are willing to accept critiques from other store owners turn their businesses into top performers.

Constructive criticism can help with personal relationships, too, as you navigate the complexities of being an adult daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Kate, listen more and don’t be easily offended—you always have room to grow as a person and a professional.

Nearly two years ago, you started working in an industry you didn’t know existed. When you thought about home improvement, you thought of big boxes. You didn’t know about the lumberyard that opened before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and is still going strong. You hadn’t met the hardware store owners who, at younger ages than you were when you graduated from college, are building businesses and making their communities healthier economically, politically and in other ways.

Now, when you talk to people sitting next to you on airplanes or catch up with high school friends, you teach them that there are more than 35,000 independent home improvement retailers in North America, and each has a different story because the businesses aren’t owned by distant stockholders.

Oh, yeah—in the past, you’ve written about a lot of criminals. So, sometimes you need help remembering that kind, honest people are out there. Chin up. Some hardware store owners’ smiles and stories will remind you that again and again.


Scott Wright
Executive Director, Retail Leadership Institute
Age: 49 years old
Time with NRHA: 22 years

Dear Me,

Way to go on landing this job with NRHA! Now you can finally put your journalism degree to work and start writing. OK, so it’s not the New York Times or Golf Digest. But it’s a start.

What I’m here to tell you is that it’s not just the start of your career you’re embarking upon, but the start of a journey that will lead you to opportunities, people and places beyond your wildest imagination. So as you set out on what I promise will be the adventure of a lifetime, I’d like to give you some advice on how to make the most of it, based on what I know now, 22 years later.

The first piece of advice is to embrace change. Don’t fear it. It will all work out, I promise. The organization you work for, NRHA, has a rich history of helping hardware stores, home centers and lumberyards become better and more profitable retailers. Heard that before? That’s right … it’s NRHA’s mission statement and has been in place since the organization was founded in 1900. Memorize it. It will come in handy and be a guidepost throughout your career. Just as NRHA has had to embrace change through the years to serve a changing industry, it has always remained steadfast to its mission.

On a more personal level, your role with the association will also change dramatically over the next two decades. You will spend the first 10 years or so practicing your craft of journalism… visiting hundreds of retailers and writing articles for Hardware Retailing magazine and some of the custom publishing projects you will be responsible for. That’s right, 22 years ago it was called Do it Yourself Retailing magazine. That will change to Hardware Retailing in about 12 years. Between now and then, you will move up the editorial staff and will rise to the rank of editor and associate publisher before a complete transition to the association side of the organization. Your head will spin for a while, but trust me … this is a good move for you. This is where you will be responsible for developing online training programs used by thousands of retailers in the industry, including programs such as the Basic Training product knowledge series, Project PRO and the NRHA Loss Prevention series, to name a few. But through all of this change and transition, don’t ever forget who you serve and how your work is helping them.

You will make the best decision when you go on a date with Sharon
You will meet and eventually date Sharron Hoke, a young graphic designer on the magazine staff at NRHA. In October of 1997, you will get married.

Now let’s fast forward to 2013, when you will be responsible for launching the NRHA Retail Management Certification Program. It’s a college-level leadership and management development program, and it will be one of the most rewarding things you do in your career. Why? Because it’s a sneak peek into the future of our industry. The students in the program today will be the retailers leading our industry tomorrow. You will learn so much from these students, and it will renew and strengthen your faith in the future of independent home improvement retailing. This program is unique because it brings together such a diverse group of bright, high-potential individuals to learn, network and collaborate with each other from across North America. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? So relax and embrace change as it comes, even if it might seem a little scary at the time.

The next piece of advice is to embrace diversity. You are serving 35,000 independent home improvement retailers in this industry, and no two are the same. There aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions out there. They all fly different banners, they all have different ownership structures and competitive situations, and they all serve unique customer needs in unique communities. You won’t ever be able to come up with a single program or find a solution that’s a perfect fit for all of them. Perhaps the best way to serve them is to help them find solutions to their problems by connecting them with other independent retailers who have an answer. By definition that’s what associations are supposed to do, right? Associate. And sharing good ideas and best practices that are working for other retailers is what your constituents both need and expect from you. This will become apparent in 2012, when you will start moderating NRHA’s Retailer Roundtable program. Whether it’s marketing and merchandising professionals, CFOs, or HR/training professionals, when you bring together the brightest minds in the industry from some of the most progressive companies to discuss the issues of the day, solutions emerge. You will learn so much during these meetings, which brings me to my next piece of advice …

Never stop learning. That’s good advice now and will be good advice 20 years from now and beyond. You are a student of retailing, so keep that inquisitive journalistic mindset sharp, as there will always be so much more to learn. While you’re at it, there’s a book called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey that was published about 5 years before you started at NRHA. You will eventually read and re-read it several times later in your career, but go ahead and dig into it now and start applying its teachings. It will give you a good head start and provide you with some foundational, timeless principles that will help you with everything from personal effectiveness and time management to working with others and even parenting skills. That’s right, I said parenting skills …

Today, you and Sharon have three beautiful daughters, Ainsley, Lea and Olivia.

Which brings me to my last piece of advice: embrace the relationships you will develop through NRHA. You will meet some incredible people on this journey—from fascinating entrepreneurs and iconic industry leaders to some real characters that you will work with. Some will challenge you beyond your comfort level. Don’t give up, and take good notes. Most of them want what’s best for you.

Up to this point I have offered you my advice. Take it or leave it. It’s up to you. But now comes a direct order that you better not screw up. On Dec. 31, 1994, some of your friends in the office will invite you to join them for a New Year’s Eve dinner. That dinner will be your “first date” with Sharron Hoke, a young graphic designer on the magazine staff who will work at NRHA for the next couple of years. From there, the two of you will get married in October of 1997, and eventually you will have three beautiful daughters: Ainsley (who today is age 14), Lea (age 11) and Olivia (age 8). This relationship will change your life forever and be the best thing that ever happens to you, I guarantee it. So by all means, keep this date, and don’t let anything get in the way.

I know it’s hard to fathom that all of this will result from answering that blind “Help Wanted” newspaper ad for a magazine writer. But that’s how life works and how careers develop, Scott. So now that you’re here, get settled and let’s get to work. You have a lot on your plate for the next 22 years.


Bill Lee
President and CEO
Age: 65 years old
Time with NRHA: 20 years 

Hello Bill,

Our editorial team asked several people, including me, to reflect about their lives and careers; sharing thoughts about the people and ideas that shaped the person we became. There have been so many people in my life that have taught me so much. My twenty years in the hardware industry allowed me to observe firsthand so many talented people with great vision and values. Our independent retail channel has succeeded in part because of the many great people in the manufacturing, wholesale and retail communities.

Unfortunately, space only allows me to talk about a few of those people who impacted me. They set standards that I have to say I have rarely met, but that have guided me through my life and career.

Faithfulness and Hard Work
From my earliest days, my Dad had a tremendous impact on my personality and values. Dad was solid as a rock; totally faithful to his God, his family and his job. Dad worked hard every day. Ironically, he worked for a regional hardware wholesaler; I never dreamed as a kid that I would end up in the same industry. He worked his way up from a shipping clerk when I was about two years old to become the warehouse manager later in his career. Dad was steadfast and faithful; I never remember a meal that he didn’t give thanks; I remember him kneeling next to bed every night asking for God’s blessing. And he was faithful in his love for Mom and his family. His faithfulness never waivered; Dad believed he was fortunate and blessed to live in this country and have a job; he never let anyone down. Dad’s life set a high standard for everyone around him. I never wanted to do anything that would disappoint him.

Have Dreams and Take a Risk
Later, in my younger adult years, my mother- and father-in-law had a great impact. They started a family-owned manufacturing business after World War II and grew it successfully until the mid-1980’s. They were entrepreneurs and risk-takers; they taught me not to be afraid of risk; to be unashamed of being ambitious and of having big dreams. They also taught me a lot about dealing with hardship in the toughest times. Their business began failing in the mid-eighties and we watched it decline for a number of years. My in-laws took care of their employees and paid every dime they owed their vendors and creditors; costing them almost everything they owned. They knew what risk meant and were willing to accept the total consequences. They handled failure with the same grace that they handled success.

Working in the industry
My wife Jane and I owned a graphic design and marketing company and NRHA was our first client. Eventually, I was asked to join NRHA as marketing director, and since 2008, I’ve been the president and CEO of the association.

My wife, Jane, grew up in this environment and has an entrepreneurial spirit as well. Soon after we married my wife began working for herself. Within a short time we had grown her business to the point I could quit my job and join her. So, off we went, without much money but wanting to be in charge of our own lives. Even with the difficult times Jane’s parents encountered they encouraged us completely. We owned a graphic design and marketing company; NRHA was our first client. We worked together successfully for twelve years before I received an opportunity to join NRHA as marketing director. Owning our own small business, I learned that there is nothing else like a family business; and there is nothing like the excitement and pride in being 100% responsible for your own destiny. In a family business, you’re all in; it’s your life and it’s who you are; there’s no escaping the good or the bad. This experience gave me an understanding of what it means to be an independent retailer and I hope has helped me guide NRHA.

Stop It, Fix It, or Dump It
After I became CEO of your association in 2008, I learned some very valuable lessons from our board of independent retailers. Their years of successfully running family businesses brought tremendous insights to our organization. During a board meeting a number of years ago, a board member and great friend said, “We have a saying – Stop it, Fix It, or Dump It.” This phrase stuck in my mind and continued to surface when the board or our managers were evaluating programs, services and people. There is a real tendency among us to hang on too long to ideas in which we have invested our efforts, finances and egos. When things start to go south we continue to invest, hoping things will turn around.

The very nature of risk-taking involves doing things that we do not have complete knowledge of the outcome. But, we can’t move forward without risk. Taking risks in our businesses means some ideas will succeed and some will fail. “Stop It, Fix It, or Dump It” tells us that when things or people don’t seem to be working, quickly stop and attempt to fix the situation; if changes aren’t effective, get out as fast as possible. The sooner we act the more human and financial resources we save and can transfer to a productive idea. Perhaps most importantly, we save our most non-replaceable asset: time.

There have been so many others who have had an impact on me. I wish there were time to recognize and share their stories. There are joyful stories of success; and there are difficult stories of struggle and loss. I’m sure you have your own stories; each one teaches us something of value about dealing with our own challenges with character and dignity.

Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts.

All the best,

Bob Vereen
Retired, Senior Vice President
Age: 91 years old
Time with NRHA: 30 years

Dear Bob,

In 1952, I worked for a regional hardware magazine and while attending the Wisconsin association’s annual meeting, met a man who recruited me and then dramatically changed (and improved) my life and knowledge—Russ Mueller.

Russ was a dynamic visionary who transformed NRHA as an organization and the industry it served. He anticipated what retailers needed and used NRHA’s staff and resources to supply them. He expanded NRHA’s services, made it important to manufacturers and wholesalers, but perhaps most importantly for me, encouraged me to expand my own vision and skills.  He set broad goals, did not micro-manage, but expected high performance—and those attributes were goals I set for people who eventually worked for me, including John Hammond, who went from an associate editor to become NRHA’s CEO.

Along the way, the industry became a vital part of my life and indeed, part of my family’s life.

Friendships developed among retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers that have lasted for more than 60 years.

I enjoyed the years I spent working for NRHA. After retiring in 1987, I've continued to work as an entrepreneur.
I enjoyed the years I spent working for NRHA. After retiring in 1987, I’ve continued to work as an entrepreneur.

Calling on retailers in nearly every state taught us that customer service is the most important element for success in hardware retailing. The products can be found, especially today, in many different kinds of stores (and certainly on the Internet), but none of the others can provide the knowledge, the personal service or the community involvement of a local hardware or home center retailer.

It has been fascinating to see the industry adapt to changing conditions and competition.   Computers first came to wholesalers and manufacturers and were used to improve service to retailers. And when retailers began to use them, computers helped retailers improve their own operations as well to better serve customers by being in stock more often without being over-stocked as much.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on the magazine was the ability to find retailers who excelled at some aspect of the business and then be able to expose that knowledge and skill to thousands of others so that they, too, could benefit.

I left NRHA for 3 years to run a distribution business, but was lured back by Russ. Being active in the industry helped me be a better editor as I was able to separate theory from reality and keep our editors focused. To do so, we followed a simple motto: How have we helped our readers today?

It has been a privilege to be a part of the hardware/home center industry and to see NRHA adjust its activities and services as its members’ challenges changed.


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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