With over 17 years of experience with Ace Hardware corporate, Darin Workman took the know-how he gained from his leadership roles with that company to become a hardware store owner and operator for The Helpful Hardware Co.
The success of The Helpful Hardware Co. has been a family affair, with Darin’s wife Gina Workman serving as the human resources director for the operation’s 350 employees and the couples’ daughter Chelsea Ingram taking over as marketing manager in 2021.
The Workman family attributes the company’s success to a dedication to The Helpful Hardware Co.’s culture of honor, integrity and service—which they refer to as the HIS philosophy (Honor, Integrity, Service)—and a focus on the three pillars of growth, employee engagement and branding.
Stepping Stones to Growth
The jump from wholesaler to retailer started a decade ago when Darin and his business partners purchased three hardware stores in 2014. The growth continued swiftly after the initial purchase, and in 2019 Darin partnered with JPB Partners, a private equity sponsor, and established The Helpful Hardware Co., which has blossomed into a successful business with 19 stores in four states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Darin tapped into his experiences in retail operations, project management, information technology, business development and finance he gained in the corporate offices at Ace Hardware to succeed in his new role as president and owner.
“I always wanted to be on the store side of the business, and was given the chance to make that happen,” Darin says. “I thought we would do the one store until we met our investment group, and then we decided to grow from there.”
With nearly 20 stores under its umbrella so far, The Helpful Hardware Co. is poised to continue growing, with plans for the company’s first ground-up store in the works. Several stores are undergoing resets. One of the 3 stores acquired in 2023 is North Hall Ace Hardware in Gainesville, Georgia, that includes a lumberyard, the operation’s first foray into lumber. The Helpful Hardware Co. stores also carry outdoor power equipment, sporting goods, a Hallmark store, truck rental, gifts, clothing, a nursery and more.
“I think something 2024 is going to bring to light is our ability to create efficiencies in the business, finding those opportunities to become more profitable and continue to grow,” Darin says.
Embracing technology has been one key to the quick growth and success The Helpful Hardware Co. has experienced. Gina is looking to expand the human resources department and implement processes and policies that make the overall operation more efficient so employees can focus on taking care of customers.
“We are moving forward and definitely want to adopt innovation,” Gina says.
In the human resources realm, Gina says they have upgraded their automated timekeeping system. During the pandemic, the company relied on virtual meetings and today, continues to meet together virtually, an excellent way to connect especially spread over four states.
“I’m sure there’s more out there we can be using, but we are trying to bring in technology wherever it makes sense,” Darin says. “Ace Hardware is leading the way in innovation. Being an Ace employee for so long, I trust their ability to lead and do rely heavily on their programs. Your wholesaler can be an excellent source of information and resources for technology programs.”
With hundreds of employees spread across 19 stores in four states, employee engagement and a strong company culture are crucial, and Gina has made several meaningful changes to improve both.
The company changed paid time off (PTO) policies so employees only have to be part of the company for three months before earning PTO. When an employee joins The Helpful Hardware Co. through an acquired store, their years of service for that store are honored and carry over for their tenure with The Helpful Hardware Co.
Darin says they have added management bonus structures to reward high-achieving employees and created friendly competition among the stores where the employees of the store with the highest sales during a time period receive a bonus.
Chelsea is working with Gina to improve the training process for employees. They have added personalized onboarding videos to connect with new employees.
To care for employees holistically, The Helpful Hardware Co. offers tuition assistance, 401(k) matching and a high-quality health insurance plan.
“With 19 stores, it can be difficult to maintain a personal relationship with employees, so we do things like celebrate birthdays by sending every employee a birthday card,” Gina says. “I also added an HR suggestion box so employees can give us their candid feedback anonymously, which has been a great tool to dig into what employees want and need from us.”
Giving employees the autonomy to make the decisions they need to make is another component of the operation’s employee engagement strategy.
“Our challenge as a company is to not squash employee empowerment with policy and procedure,” Darin says. “I want them to have the freedom to make decisions and not get paralyzed. And if it happens to not be the right decision, we can talk about it afterward and learn from it.”
The Workmans recognize there is a fine line to tread when you have to correct an employee, so they rely on their HIS philosophy and having the right employees in place in leadership positions.
“If you correct employees with honor, integrity and a service-oriented attitude, that’s when they respond most positively,” Darin says. “All of our employees in leadership positions also have to buy into the HIS philosophy and be willing to use mistakes as training opportunities and not just shut the employee down.”
Building a Brand
Having numerous locations spread across several states makes keeping company branding consistent a challenge. Chelsea says she has focused on grassroots efforts because the community where each store is located is a pivotal part of The Helpful Hardware Co.’s brand.
She is in the process of developing a marketing coordinator program, where each store will have a marketing coordinator who oversees marketing efforts at that location.
“The marketing coordinator will take on the responsibility of marketing tasks at their store and have a stake in our marketing efforts,” Chelsea says. “We want them to take ownership of it and have fun with it by attending Chamber of Commerce meetings, planning store events and more.”
Each of the stores has its own Facebook and Instagram account, and The Helpful Hardware Co. has a TikTok account. Chelsea posts ads on each of the store’s social media pages, and then each marketing coordinator will post on that location’s social media accounts about specific activities and events happening at that store.
Chelsea says she wants to ramp up the marketing coordinator program in the coming year and expand their marketing sphere in general. Mentorship, training and legacy building will also be major focuses for the company.
“We want to work on finding those jewels and diamonds in the rough, tapping into the talents of our employees and encouraging the growth of our people,” Chelsea says. “Because most of the stores we acquire are already ingrained in their communities and have been an integral part of those communities, we want to honor and build on those legacies.”