To learn more about James Cabirac’s vision for Kief Hardware, his thoughts on the industry and NRHA, click here to watch an extended interview.
The Cool Cajun
By Dan Tratensek, firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s something about James Cabirac’s impish grin that immediately lets you know his grade school teachers likely had their hands full.
Even today, you can clearly detect the hint of mischief in his eyes that suggests he’s got some sort of plan brewing that has little to do with the conversation at hand.
Talk to James for a few moments and these plans come bubbling out in almost stream of consciousness fashion—promotional ideas, products he’s considering, plans for the business, thoughts about the association.
Yes, at any given moment there are a lot of ideas swirling around behind James’ smile, and there’s a fair share of mischief as well.
As the newest chairman of the board of directors for the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) and a highly regarded operator of two separate retail businesses in Southern Louisiana, there is no questioning James’ success. But what makes James truly unique isn’t necessarily his retail acumen; it’s his somewhat unorthodox approach to injecting fun into nearly every aspect of his operation that truly sets him apart.
And when it comes to fun, he doesn’t just approach it like he’s ticking another box on a retail marketing plan—he takes the idea of blending fun and retail to Willy Wonka-ish proportions. “James is a fantastic guy and a fantastic retailer,” says fellow retailer Adam Busscher, who has served on NRHA’s board with James for nearly a decade. “He’s got some of the wildest, most fun ideas I’ve ever seen. He’s just fearless when it comes to trying things. I can’t say how much I admire that.”
The Golden Ticket
Located on the edge of Bayou Lafourche in Southeastern Louisiana, the town of Galliano is everything you might expect to find in this part of the country. Shrimp boats hustle in and out of the nearby ports, oil workers come and go for their weeklong shifts on floating derricks and alligator farming is a way of life.
It was here that a young James Cabirac began looking for a job, any job, that would allow him to support himself as a teenager. James had graduated high school early and was hoping to make enough money to attend college when fate intersected with his plans.
“I was really looking for a job that I could walk to, because I didn’t have a car,” recalls James. “There was the hardware store and a grocery store, and I had applied at both. I got a job offer from both of them on the same day. I almost chose the grocery store. If I had, I don’t think I ever would have had the opportunities I have been given.”
At the start of his career in hardware, these opportunities mostly consisted of odd jobs around Kief Hardware, sweeping floors and cleaning displays at the 5,000-square-foot store, which had served the bayou community for more than 40 years.
Owners Jerome and Lola Cantrelle quickly became impressed with James’ work ethic. When their own son left the business, they made the bold decision to promote the 18-year-old James to manager.
“I’m sure they were a little uneasy about it, but I think they trusted me enough at that point to give me a chance,” he says.
In fact, the Cantrelles had enough faith in James to broker a deal with their young manager. They would allow him to take a percentage of his salary and invest it toward buying the business—a deal that seemed too good for him to pass up.
“At that time, I wasn’t really even sure if college was going to be the right choice for me,” he says. “I was enjoying working in the store and was putting in 60- and 70-hour weeks and loving it. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to own my own business.”
Shortly after the deal was struck, those wheels in James’ head began turning. So many ideas. So many plans for how he could turn this sleepy little store into something much bigger, much more successful, much more fun.
At this time, James was thinking more about a career than a job, eager to build a life with his then-girlfriend, now wife Anna Marie.
One of the first big success stories came with an unlikely addition to the inventory of a 60-plus-year-old hardware store—paintball supplies.
When James suggested to the owners that they add the products, they were skeptical. “It was going to cost about $1,500 to bring the products in,” James says. “I was so sure we could make it work that I told the owners I would pay for it out of my own pocket. Eventually, they said yes.”
At the time, Kief Hardware had sales of about $400,000 per year. Within a short time, the store was producing $100,000 annually in sales of paintball supplies alone.
“After that, they trusted me a lot more,” he says.
And his ideas kept on coming: high-end grills, chimineas and commercial supplies. Within three years, the store’s sales had doubled. James was barely 21 years old. “It really felt like everything I did back then turned into a big hit,” he says.
Some of those hits included the addition of a commercial sales division to serve the area’s shrimpers, shipyards, farmers and factories. Eventually, this division would help the small Kief Hardware double sales.
In just five years, James had taken Kief Hardware’s sales from $400,000 to $1.2 million. He now owned the business and had doubled the size of the salesfloor and added three additional locations, including a new flagship location in Cut Off, Louisiana.
During this time, Cabirac was also recognized as one of NRHA’s Young Retailers of the Year.
A few years later, Cabirac would earn this award a second time, becoming the only retailer in the award’s 20-year history to do so.
He might not have realized then, but being honored as a Young Retailer of the Year marked another significant milestone in James’ career. It got him involved with NRHA.
“The awards were definitely how I first got exposed to NRHA,” he says. “I saw it as an additional training opportunity for us, but over time, it turned into so much more.”
A Little Nonsense, Now and Then…
With the early years behind him, James’ youthful exuberance began being colored by a fair bit of retail wisdom. After a flurry of store openings and expansions, James found himself reconsidering some of these decisions.
“I think over the years, one of the things that has defined us is that, for good or bad, we are not scared to try things,” he says. “I have probably opened up ten different stores—closed some, sold some—but we’ve never been scared to try things.”
Today, James does most of his retail experimentation from his single store in Cut Off. He has also launched a dollar store concept called Hi-5 where all products are priced between $1 and $5.
But it’s the 30,000-square-foot hardware store that provides plenty of room for the master-retail tinkerer to try out ideas—from a full-service grocery store to guns and ammo and a milkshake machine to a selection of craft beers.
Kief Hardware even added a virtual video arcade so younger visitors can come in and play games while their parents shop.
“We understand that the kids coming into our store today are going to be homeowners in a few short years, so we want to make sure they have good memories about shopping here,” he says.
But when it comes to products, even James admits sometimes the Kief team may get a bit ahead of themselves.
“We try so many different things sometimes I feel a little silly because we are actually ahead of the curve on stuff,” he says. “You know, we are like four or five years ahead of the trend.”
As one example, James remembers adding a key cutting station that would accommodate chip keys long before most car dealers even offered the technology.
“You just have to visit James’ store to realize that he is unlike a lot of retailers when it comes to his willingness to try things,” says Bill Lee, NRHA’s president and CEO. “It’s not just with the products; there is always something going on in his store that just lets you know it’s kind of different than any other store you might have been in before.”
Another thing you’ll likely notice when shopping at Kief Hardware is the happy, engaged staff roaming the aisles. Some retailers talk about how they create a family atmosphere in their stores, and the team at Kief Hardware definitely fits this mold.
The exuberance of the staff is evident when you see the way they work together and rally around the store. For evidence, just go to Kief Hardware’s Facebook page to watch one of the many full-length music videos the staff has put together where they all play different roles, sing and dance through the aisles of the store.
“Our employment application is like 15 pages long, and it is more about personality type than it is about experience or background,” says James. “There are a lot of long hours here and a lot of hard work, so we want to have people who are going to like working together and being around each other.”
James admits that he’s often willing to sacrifice a little bit of retail productivity if it means fostering a positive atmosphere. “It might take us a little longer to set a display or something than your average store, but that’s okay. I’d rather have us having fun while we do it,” he says.
James also goes to great lengths to tap into his employees’ creativity, encouraging them to try their ideas, no matter how “out there” they might seem.
Example—Kief Hardware recently began opening its doors for Pokémon Go events, inviting players into the store and sponsoring activities to attract Pokémon Go characters. According to James, the staff was a huge part of making this a success. “We basically had our crew playing Pokémon all day with our customers, but it was OK; they were having fun and creating advertising.”
A New Chapter
From milkshakes to Pokémon, the team at Kief Hardware undoubtedly has fun in their retail playground. But several years ago, James made the decision to get serious about helping other retailers.
“There’s no doubt that I get so much out of my involvement with NRHA,” he says. “But it is also great knowing that by being on the board, you get to play a role in what NRHA is doing, and that means driving programs that really help other retailers.”
James points to things like Hardware Retailing magazine and NRHA’s Retail Management Certification Program as tools NRHA offers that he feels can really help retailers searching for anything that might give them a leg up in this competitive industry.
“I don’t think I even take enough advantage of the resources NRHA has to offer,” he says. “If you just look at Hardware Retailing, there is probably an article available that can help retailers with just about any project they are working on, and that’s because NRHA has researched it and written about it.”
As chairman of the board, James says he looks forward to doing whatever he can to help NRHA make even more resources available to independent home improvement retailers everywhere and to encourage younger retailers to take the same chances he did. And with four children (Jack, 12; Julie, 11; Cate, 6; and Luke, 4 months) who James and Anna Marie hope will some day enter the business, James looks at time spent with NRHA as an investment in the future.
“Even though I’m still trying things, at times I catch myself sounding like that older hardware guy and saying, ‘Oh, that won’t work; we already tried that.’ I have to be careful not to do that and to listen to the younger generation that’s out there now, doing new and exciting things we all can learn from.”
Whatever direction James takes the NRHA board, there will be a dedication to helping retailers succeed—and possibly a bit of mischief as well.