The home improvement industry is often seen as just a job or an income that pays the bills until a career is found elsewhere. According to Gallup’s 4 Things Gen Z and Millennials Expect From Their Workplace poll, Generation Z and younger Millennials make up 46% of today’s workforce, creating growing opportunities to encourage younger generations to join and pursue a career in the industry. Hardware Retailing spoke with two retailers who shared their own career paths and best practices for finding and developing talent to help their employees establish a career in the industry.
From Big-Box to Independent Retail
When Marty Ellison, the director of retail operations for Miller Hardware Co. in Valdosta, Georgia, began working at The Home Depot at the age of 19 in 1992, he never expected to pursue a career in the home improvement industry.
“I was studying ornamental horticulture at Georgia Southwestern and University of Georgia at the time and started in the garden center as a lot worker,” Ellison says.
As the years went on, Ellison stayed at The Home Depot, climbing the ranks and becoming an expert in multiple hardlines. Then, in 2000, The Home Depot had a major shift in leadership, which sparked changes across the company.
“I was part of The Home Depot team when they underwent a huge transition,” Ellison says. “It led to an overhaul of the company’s culture, structure and general appearance. I worked there for 11 years, making my way up from the lot to operations manager. While I enjoyed my time there, it wasn’t where I wanted to stay for the rest of my career, especially after the change in company structure and culture.”
Following his tenure at The Home Depot, Ellison moved to Lowe’s in 2003. There he was the assistant manager, taking care of many of the same duties he had at The Home Depot. Ellison stayed at Lowe’s for six years before moving into a different position outside of the retail industry, when he became an estimator for a glass company in 2009.
“I needed a change in career, so I moved to American Glass and Mirror as a glass estimator, where I worked for five years,” Ellison says. “It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in terms of a career, but it was something different.”
In the early 2010s, Ellison became friends with Jonathan Miller, one of the owners of Miller Hardware Co. Over time, Miller and Ellison discussed Ellison’s work history and Miller was intrigued by Ellison’s background, and mentioned he was looking for someone with Ellison’s skills and experience. Shortly after, Miller offered Ellison a job, and Ellison accepted right away, joining the team as the store manager in 2014. A few years later, Ellison was promoted to director of retail sales, where he has been ever since.
“I’ve been with Miller Hardware Co. for nine years now,” Ellison says. “I’ve been able to take my past experiences merchandising at The Home Depot and Lowe’s and apply them to Miller’s store layout. I’ve also used that experience to help staff members become familiar with our products and excel in customer service.”
Growing up in a small community, Josiah Gates became friends with the staff members at his local Aubuchon hardware store in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Every Sunday after church, his family would go to the hardware store to get the items they needed to make fixes on their farm, allowing Gates to develop relationships with employees and the store manager, Pat Hussey. In 1995, Gates began working for the store shortly after his high school graduation.
“I became friends with the store manager and took a part-time position at the store,” Gates says. “I went to Lyndon State College nearby, so I was able to continue working while earning my degree.”
As time went on, Gates says he grew comfortable in the store and the community and really enjoyed taking care of customers and working with a great team who were like family, calling the store his second home.
“Right out of college, I applied to several companies, thinking I wanted to go somewhere else,” Gates says. “I received several offers, and I almost took a position at Orvis as the control buyer. Ultimately, I stayed with Aubuchon because I really enjoyed the hardware industry and the family culture that is still alive today.”
Turning down the position at Orvis was a great decision, Gates says. It allowed him to grow into a store manager for the Aubuchon store in Barre, Vermont, where he stayed for 10 years.
During the last four years Gates was a store manager, Aubuchon transitioned from its third-generation leaders, William E. Aubuchon III and M. Marcus Moran Jr., to fourth-generation leaders, Bill and Marcus Aubuchon. Bill and Marcus took an interest in Gates as more than a store leader and began to train him on leadership style, communication and internetwork development. In 2012, Gates made the transition from store leader to the Aubuchon corporate office as a member of the executive team. Now, 27 years after starting as a part-time team employee, Gates is executive vice president of retail for the 115-year-old company.
“Aubuchon invests in its people by recognizing talent and nurturing further development,” Gates says. “It becomes worthwhile to invest your time and energy back into the company that has given you so much.” Gates says.
Promoting a Career
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in August 2022 there were large numbers of individuals quitting their jobs, especially in the healthcare and retail industries. This trend emerged at the end of 2021 and has remained steady in the months and years since. In the midst of these continuing labor challenges, retailers need to be creative in how they promote an open role, positioning it as more than just a job. They need to explain the benefits for the individual such as health insurance or a 401k, as well as the benefits the employee can bring to the company and even the community.
Working in home improvement retail can mean working long hours and on evenings and weekends, so retailers need to show how it can be a rewarding career, especially for those who love to help others solve their problems and have an eye for detail.
“Retail isn’t easy,” Ellison says. “When I worked at The Home Depot and Lowe’s, the store opened at six in the morning. Staff needed to be there around 5 a.m. to get the store ready. And then the store was open until 9 p.m., leaving staff to work until 10 p.m. or even as late as midnight to get the store ready for the next day. It wasn’t a good environment for people who had families.”
For Gates, sharing stories of how other employees turned their jobs into a career is a great way to show potential employees how they can do the same.
“We have a career tab on our website that shows potential employees the position they are applying for isn’t just a job for us to fill,” Gates says. “We say from the start: A job with us can be a career.”
Both Ellison and Gates had different entrances and career paths to their careers in the hardware industry. But one thing has kept them with their respective companies for so long—company culture.
“Company culture is what defines your business,” Ellison says. “Catering to your employees and making sure they have what they need to be successful helps build a relationship between the employer and the employee. If businesses take care of their employees, employees will return the favor and be more willing to stay for the long term.”
Similar to Ellison, Gates says offering a stable, ethical and inclusive workplace is the foundation of a good company culture. For example, Aubuchon offers a grant fund that employees can contribute to or pull from if they are experiencing a rough time.
“We are all about people and do not think of an employee as a number,” Gates says. “They are more than that to us; they are family. We treat them like family and work together to advance their careers with us.”
Investing in Employees
In order to help an employee establish a career within the home improvement industry, Ellison and Gates suggest paying attention to an applicant’s personality and how it aligns with your company culture.
“We look for team members who have a mindset that aligns with our family-like company culture and business strategy,” Gates says. “People can forget what you say or do, but they will never forget how you make them feel. Be polite, go the extra mile, and never treat others in a way you wouldn’t want to be treated. That is the Aubuchon Difference.”
“When you identify the right people to become employees, you take them in, find out what makes them tick and cultivate them for their role.”
–Marty Ellison, Miller Hardware Co.
The way employees interact with and treat one another is another part of the Aubuchon Difference, Gates says. It’s also about how employees make customers feel when they are in a store or interacting with employees. The Aubuchon Company added Jillian Montmarquet, chief people officer, in August 2022, to the company to show their continued focus on people, culture and training they continue to grow.
Ellison says he takes a similar approach to hiring new employees, looking at the individual and what they can bring to the team instead of focusing on specific skills.
“When you identify the right people to become employees, you take them in, find out what makes them tick and cultivate them for their role,” Ellison says. “Then you make sure you help them grow and develop as an individual as well as an employee.”
For both Miller Hardware Co. and The Aubuchon Company, each organization makes sure employees are trained through North American Hardware and Paint Association’s (NHPA) training programs. These training programs—including everything from retail basics to management principles—helps each individual employee be the best they can be.
Ellison and Gates do more than just put employees through NHPA training programs. Both have taught various courses in NHPA’s Retail Management Certification Program (RMCP). Ellison is able to provide a big-box retailer perspective with his long history with The Home Depot and Lowe’s. Gates teaches a class on financial budgeting but also focuses on encouraging each student to go above and beyond what they thought was possible by sharing his real-life retail experiences and journey of growing in the industry.
Showing employees a career path for them in your operation takes time and investment but can pay off in the long run with retention and future hiring. Offering various training programs, even just the basics of merchandising, selling hardline categories and customer service, show employees they matter to the business. If they matter, then they are more likely to invest in the operation.
“When you invest in your employees, they will invest back in your business,” Ellison says.
A Lifelong Career: Read how one employee began working at a hardware store in 1956 and turned that job into a 66-year long career at hardwareretailing.com/66-year-career.
Next Level Training: Help your employees grow into leaders through NHPA’s Foundations of Retail Program. Learn more at YourNHPA.org/foundations.
New Academy Catalog: eNHPA has created a comprehensive catalog of all programs offered through their Academy for Retail Development. Download your copy to today at YourNHPA.org/academy.