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Tanya Hanson Rocca, Roblynn Home Hardware

Leadership Lessons From 3 Past Young Retailer of the Year Honorees

Results are key for identifying good leaders.

At Roblynn Home Hardware and Home Furniture in Oromocto, New Brunswick, owner and president Tanya Hanson Rocca considers it a huge compliment that other business owners often ask for her hiring secrets.

“You have the nicest people. Where do you find them?” is a common question she gets.

Spoiler: She doesn’t have hiring secrets. She hires people from the same small community as the other business operators in the area. But Rocca views a significant part of her role at Roblynn Home Hardware as understanding and leading a team of individuals. Knowing employees well allows Rocca to lead them.

“I treat staff like family and customers like friends,” Rocca says. “I try to be respectful, kind and thoughtful. We have hard conversations, too, but with kindness, respect and honor.”

Growing sales and maintaining a low employee turnover rate are the results of Rocca’s leadership, not ends in themselves. The culture she and the staff create together comes first.

Those priorities are reflected in the fact that most employees have now worked at the business for a minimum of five years.

“They truly are a team and they cooperate. They’re not a short-term team. They’re a long-term team. The glue is so strong, it keeps the team together,” Rocca says. “I’m the cheerleader, the coach. I truly, genuinely care about every single person who works here. I know them personally.”
On the following pages, Hardware Retailing highlights three retailers who are at various stages of their careers but whose leadership traits earned them accolades early on.

The careers of Isaac Smith, co-owner and head of purchasing at Matt’s Building Materials in Pharr, Texas, and Camille Gibson, general manager of Mark’s Ace Hardware in Tucson, Arizona, look different from Rocca’s.

However, all three are past North American Hardware and Paint Association (NHPA) Young Retailer of the Year honorees who have grown as leaders beyond the early promise that NHPA recognized. Read on to learn about the traits and results that mark them as strong leaders and their business strategies that other retailers can emulate.

Listening and Learning

When Rocca was fresh out of college, her father, Robin Hanson, talked her into giving his hardware business a try. He moved his office into a separate building and told her Roblynn Home Hardware was hers to manage.

Hanson left a note for the staff letting them know Rocca was the new boss, but Rocca asked them to ignore the memo. She had not grown up working in the store and did not necessarily expect she would stay, so she approached that trial year as a learning opportunity.

“I’m just here for a year,” she told the store employees. “I’m just learning from you.”

She asked the team questions, talked to customers and called her dad for advice. Customers and employees discussed ways they thought the store could better serve shoppers.

Rocca listened. She not only learned about the store’s products for the first time, but also chose to reorganize the store and make it cleaner and more attractive.

When changes were successful, Rocca built on the success and kept looking for opportunities to improve the business.

Sales grew more than 50 percent that first year, quickly and dramatically outperforming growth her dad had seen in the past.

Success, for Rocca, always involves her team of employees. Listening and learning her first year set a precedent she is building on 24 years later.

Leading by Example

Rocca entered the family business as the new boss, but she had the humility to know she had much to learn from the staff and her dad.

“They have helped me grow as a leader by providing advice and feedback. I ask a lot of questions, and I’m a listener,” Rocca says.

Developing a team of employees who mesh well with each other and are loyal to the company, eager to grow individually and motivated to improve the operation is an ongoing mission for Rocca.

She uses daily staff meetings to nurture a collaborative culture where she shares sales data and asks the team to work together on tasks ranging from setting up new product displays to achieving sales goals. These meetings allow for regular idea sharing and help employees stay invested in nearly every aspect of the operation.

Rocca has spent many years working to model the attitude, culture and work ethic she expects from every employee at Roblynn Home Hardware.
When she walks into her family’s store, she knows the employees well enough to greet each one with a hug, collaborates with them to achieve goals large or small and shares a companywide vision for continuous business and self improvement.

“I think I’m the type of leader who makes other people better by being here. I improve and grow, and then they improve and grow,” Rocca says.

Learning to Grow

Isaac Smith began working for Matt’s Building Materials when he was 13 years old. He continued working for the company during high school and college and learned to work hard loading lumber, driving forklifts and delivering building materials to job sites.

“I’ve worked every job in the business,” Smith says. “When you work every position, you see what the challenges and needs are and what it takes to get the job done. I have a lot of sympathy for the guys who work in the back because I know what it takes to do their jobs.”

When Smith graduated from college at age 20, his dad promoted him to a management position.

“I stayed stagnant for the first couple years. I was waiting for feedback,” he says. “I wanted to know if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and if I was doing a good job.”

When no feedback came, he realized he would only develop and grow if he took the initiative to identify weaknesses in the company and in himself and then make changes.

“My philosophy of leadership is to always continue to get better daily,” he says.

Identifying areas for improvement has become an ongoing part of Smith’s job. He started making changes in all the areas of the company where he had noticed weaknesses over the years. Failing to get feedback from supervisors had limited his growth, so he read management books and wrote job descriptions for all 190 positions in the company.

As part of helping employees understand expectations for them in their roles, Smith created training manuals and made training more systematic. His efforts have contributed to significant growth for the company, which added its third location in 2015 and had sales increase nearly 200 percent over the past 20 years.

Taking Initiative

Camille Gibson started out at Mark’s Ace Hardware as a part-time cashier when she was 18.

Her eagerness to learn helped her stand out among her co-workers and allowed her to work her way up in the company. When she graduated from college, she chose to grow with the store instead of pursuing a career in her degree field.

“I love our customers and our employees. I love how much I learn here,” Gibson says. “I’ve also been given the opportunity to be creative in the stores.”

What Gibson could not learn from customers and other employees, she researched online on her own time. She also pursued leadership training.

“You have to have an open mind and make your brain a sponge,” Gibson says. “Don’t avoid any opportunity to learn something. If you don’t feel confident in what you learned, research it more.”

When she learned a new skill, such as glazing windows, she practiced it repeatedly so she became and stayed proficient. Just as she grew her product knowledge by doing research on her own time when she primarily worked on the salesfloor, she still continues to take initiative to learn.

“I’m always looking for creative ideas to improve morale, help the company grow and help me grow,” Gibson says.

She has participated in the growth at Mark’s Ace, helping open a ground-up store in 2016 and assisting with the acquisition of the operation’s third location.

Developing a strong team mentality among employees at the three stores and emphasizing training have been important to Gibson. She revamped manuals and training documents to better help employees learn.

At a recent staff meeting at one of the stores, Gibson asked employees for feedback on their current duties, what they think they could do better and what leadership can do to improve. She wants to help every employee identify areas where they lack confidence and then provide them with the training they need to do their jobs successfully.

Gibson considers leading by example when working alongside employees as part of her role.

“If I’m not working as hard or harder than them, then I feel there’s a problem with me,” she says.

About Kate Klein

Kate is profiles editor for Hardware Retailing magazine. She reports on news and industry events and writes about retailers' unique contributions to the independent home improvement sector. She graduated from Cedarville University in her home state of Ohio, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and minored in creative writing. She loves being an aunt, teaching writing to kids, running, reading, farm living and, as Walt Whitman says, traveling the open road, “healthy, free, the world before me.”

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