Identifying needs in the industry and offering comprehensive solutions is at the core of the mission of the North American Hardware and Paint Association (NHPA). One area where that mission is most recognizable is in the education the association offers to the industry. From basic training for new staff and product knowledge guides to communication training for new managers and essential courses in retail accounting and merchandising management, the association specializes in industry-specific training resources.
In 2012, industry leaders approached NHPA training staff with an idea for a new high-level training program. As the average age of retailers increased, the industry needed a program to prepare the next generation of retailers to take over operations and continue the legacy of many long-time businesses.
What is now known as the Retail Management Certification Program (RMCP) was modeled after traditional business and management college courses. But what is unique about this program—and what the founders intended—is that there isn’t a business class or degree program that addresses the specific needs of independent home improvement retailers.
“When we started developing the program, we knew we needed to incorporate retail-specific topics from the home improvement industry, like merchandising and store design, into the program curriculum,” says Scott Wright, NHPA executive director of advanced education. “We worked closely with our network of industry retailers and experts to develop these topics specifically for the program.”
The curriculum was developed to address the needs of retailers who were coming into new management or leadership roles and were primed to take over the operation from the previous generation. In a classroom environment, students have the chance to learn fundamental business principles that are required to operate any small business. But what they gain in addition to that knowledge are specific tools targeted for independent home improvement operations. And they have nearly 30 peers learning alongside them.
“Having been involved from the first class, I’ve had the benefit of seeing over 300 students go through RMCP,” says Josiah Gates, chief operating officer for The Aubuchon Company, RMCP graduate and current instructor. “The relationships I made during the initial class have stuck through these 10 years. The networking and learning opportunities this program offers are truly incredible.”
This year, the program is celebrating 10 years of preparing the next generation of industry leaders. On the following pages, learn how RMCP started and how it has evolved to become the industry’s premier management program.
Igniting the Spark
In order to develop a college-level program, NHPA enlisted the help of university educators, including Brian Landis, who at the time ran the Butler University Business Consulting Group.
“Brian’s insights into developing a ‘blended’ curriculum with both college-level business classes and industry specific course modules were instrumental in how the program came together,” Wright says.
Landis has spent his career in business development and is now a consultant for his firm Ancrage Consulting. He teamed up with NHPA’s Wright, Marcus Moran Jr. and former NHPA president and CEO Bill Lee, early on to help bring the idea for RMCP to life with a curated curriculum.
“We knew we wanted it to be a live cohort program. There’s tremendous value in bringing the students together,” Landis says. “And we saw that as the program started, they gained a lot from participating in the classroom sessions.”
The group knew they wanted to address retail-specific issues, but it also needed to challenge students similarly to a
college-level course. Wright says they have even found ways to put an industry slant on college-level courses taught by the university instructors.
“We have always used the Home Depot case study in RMCP, which is a Harvard Business School case study, to teach subjects like business strategy and change management,” Wright says. “It gives students the opportunity to learn these concepts by examining a pivotal time in Home Depot’s history. Another critical tool is NHPA’s Cost of Doing Business Study, which is used to teach retail finance, benchmarking and budgeting. Data from this study is woven throughout the course instruction, whether it comes from the university instructors or industry experts.”
Other key components that the team knew were necessary to round out the program included a business improvement project each student would be expected to initiate during the semester and the Quick Wins assignments at the conclusion of the in-person class sessions.
“We always wanted it to be an action learning curriculum. And so, even before the very first class, the students understand they will be responsible for developing a business improvement project,” Landis says. “We believed then, and we have seen it happen, that if the students put the time and energy into those projects, they will add value to their businesses several times over the tuition.”
Delivering Added Value
During the program, each student is required to complete a business improvement project. Students apply the concepts they are learning in the course to something that is needed in the business and will add value once completed. Each student and their sponsor—the business owner or manager who helps coach the student through the program—choose what they want to work on based on the current needs of the business. While these projects get their start from RMCP, whether in practice or in ideation, they sometimes take several years to complete.
“In addition, the Quick Wins final assignment challenges students to implement something they have learned from the course instruction and from a fellow student to add more quantitative or qualitative value that will help offset the cost of the program,” Wright says.
Incorporating student feedback into the program was a key component from the beginning, Wright says, and it’s still an important piece 10 years later.
“We let the first class know they were part of a pilot and we wanted their feedback every step of the way,” he says. “At the conclusion of that first class, we knew we had something sustainable, something the industry desperately needed. And today, there are several members of that inaugural class, including Josiah Gates and Wilco president TJ Colson, who sponsor students and contribute each year. That says it all.”
The Next 10 Years
As the industry evolves—whether from consolidation, responding to changing consumer needs, addressing technology and more—the need for industry-specific development will only become more critical. NHPA and the instructors are tuned into these needs to ensure the curriculum for each class ties into the immediate needs of students.
Wright says NHPA has continued to make adjustments based on participant feedback and the association’s vision for the future of the program. In 2015, the association aligned with instructors from Ball State University’s Entrepreneurial Institute as it would be a better fit for the program, Wright says.
“Today, instead of being solely aligned with either Butler University or Ball State, we have incorporated the best instructors from each of these universities into the program, teaching alongside industry experts and RMCP alumni,” he says. “It has been a great 10 years, but we’re just getting started and know that RMCP will be here serving our industry for decades to come.”
Principal for Miller Hardware Co.
RMCP Class of 2015
In 2015, Jonathan Miller had recently earned his MBA from Mercer University, and he was serving as director of e commerce for his family’s business in Valdosta, Georgia. That same year, he was named an NHPA Young Retailer of the Year honoree, which jump-started his nearly decade-long relationship with the association.
“At the time, I was taking on more of an operations role, and I was really trying to digest all the moving parts of the business and how each component affected another,” Miller says. “RMCP exposes you to all the major functions of running a successful, independent retail business, which made it very rewarding for me.”
Miller’s business improvement project was very specific to the needs of his operation—he developed a pricing program to improve gross profit based on actual experiences in his business. The strategy he developed initially focused on fasteners, which the company sells by the each, and Miller says they have applied the same strategy to additional categories as it proved its effectiveness.
“We realized a significant increase in gross profit, but we also encountered higher turns,” Miller says. “It moved the needle for us.”
Since Miller graduated, Miller Hardware Co. has sent five other students through RMCP, including director of retail operations Marty Ellison, who is now an instructor. Miller says the value of the program far outweighs the initial costs of sending a student.
“The tuition costs are going to be returned to you very quickly,” he says. “Simply from being around other like-minded people who are deploying successful strategies or programs, you can quickly bring home two or three quick wins from the people you meet in the program. Those takeaways will pay dividends and offset the cost of tuition.”
Branch Administration Manager for Koopman Lumber
RMPC Class of 2021
As a self-described lifelong learner, Coreen Pierce was immediately intrigued when her manager recommended she enroll in RMCP.
“I really love opportunities like this to network and receive instructor-led information,” she says. “The content in the program is highly relevant to what’s going on in the industry right now.”
Pierce attended the program along with her colleague Matt Nichols, and they embarked on an ambitious business improvement project together: Launching the Koopman Lumber learning management system. During the program, Pierce and Nichols interviewed and researched product demos, figuring out the internal needs of different departments. They also had to budget for the software and determine the staffing needs to manage it.
“It was definitely a bigger project than we initially thought it was going to be because training is never done,” she says. “I still work on it regularly with our HR team, and I’ve really loved maintaining it and growing it.”
Pierce has continued developing other students, serving as a mentor to Koopman Lumber staff who go through the program. She says it’s a great opportunity to relearn the course material all over again, but through someone else’s perspective.
“Even though they’re attending the same sessions, they’re pulling out different pieces of information that maybe I didn’t see before when I was in the program,” she says. “They come back from the class really excited, and they’re thinking more strategically, seeing more big-picture.”
The current class of Koopman Lumber students that Pierce is mentoring are working on developing a customer relationship management tool, and she’s enjoyed helping them determine the needs of that system and how it will impact operations. She says they are projecting a 10% increase in closure rate per sales employee as a result. While that metric alone would more than cover the cost of tuition, Pierce says the relationships she’s cultivated through the program go beyond the ROI of hard costs.
“You can’t put a price on good networking contacts,” she says. “I met so many awesome peers, people who I’ve kept in contact with, people who have helped me and who I’ve helped out in return. The camaraderie and willingness to share ideas is amazing.”
Operations Manager for Hartford Building Center
RMCP CLASS OF 2017
While Travis Hellvig had been involved in his family’s business, he was forced into a leadership role in 2013 sooner than he anticipated when his dad became sick. That significant life change is what led Hellvig to enroll in RMCP in 2017.
“We felt like we were treading water trying to learn the ropes and replace that key person who ran the day-to-day operations,” he says. “The program seemed like a natural fit for what I needed to hopefully start taking that next step forward in my career.”
Hellvig says the program allowed him to learn about himself as a person and as a business operator in ways he wouldn’t have been able to.
“It helped me grow as a person, both personally and professionally,” he says. “The way the course is structured, I learned a lot about myself and how to be even more intellectually aware in the workplace. At the time, I was in my mid-20s, managing people who were over twice my age, and so I learned how to deal with those kinds of dynamics.”
For his business improvement project, Hellvig focused on an expansion to develop Hartford Building Center into a full-service home center. Using the knowledge he gained from the program, he focused on creating the design and implementation plan for adding a showroom and an office space for contractor and lumberyard sales staff. He says the project came just at the right time, because they were in the middle of construction when the pandemic reached his community. Hellvig says the lessons he learned from RMCP helped him navigate that challenging time.
“We would have been scrambling on some things if we hadn’t taken so much time and done the detailed work,” he says.
The work he did on his business improvement project led to Hellvig receiving the NHPA Young Retailer of the Year Award for a second time, which has only happened once before. To anyone thinking about sending a student through RMCP, Hellvig is quick to say the program is the only learning opportunity of its kind in the industry.
“RMCP is the highest quality industry education. I haven’t taken anything else that’s even close to it as far as the variety of topics covered and the depth you get into,” he says. “The teachers are outstanding. The networking is invaluable. There are three or four people from my class who I talk to at least monthly, and those relationships have grown beyond just a professional network into legitimate friendships.”
FROM STUDENT TO INSTRUCTOR
Being able to say he had a hand in creating a premier industry education program is not something Josiah Gates takes lightly. Over a decade ago, then Aubuchon Company president Marcus Moran Jr. asked Gates, then director of retail operations, to help develop the curriculum for RMCP and assess it from a student’s perspective.
“Marcus said to me, ‘Josiah, we need to embrace this program. You could probably teach it, but I’d like you to be a student,’” Gates says. “Then after that first year, Scott Wright asked me if I would be willing to come back to help with the class. I like to think of it as giving back to the industry that’s done so much for me. I give Marcus Moran Jr., Bill Aubuchon and NHPA credit because without this opportunity I wouldn’t be where I am with the relationships I have in this industry.”
Gates is now an instructor of financial management and budgeting for the program, and he says he’s grateful to be able to give back to the industry.
“Becoming an instructor gave me the opportunity to share some of our best practices and our processes to help others in their business and ensure the sustainability of the program for future leaders in the industry,” he says.
“One of my main priorities is to make it real. When you can put real-life hardware practices in front of these students, whether it be on sales, budgets or explaining capital expenses, it’s very important to translate everything into tangibles for the students so they can understand and apply it to their stores.”
“When I’m presenting, I’m talking about a group of stores, but I also break it down individually. I always tell students that just because Aubuchon has over 100 stores, that doesn’t prevent you from doing something in one store. I always ask how many students in the class—whether for one store or multiple stores—have a strategic plan, and many people don’t because they’re operating in the business, not on the business. My mindset as an instructor is being able to show everyone how they can apply this philosophy to a single-store model or a multistore model.”
In recent years, the industry lost two pioneers who made strides in the industry to create opportunities for budding retail leaders. Bill Lee, former president and CEO of NHPA, and Marcus Moran Jr., former president of The Aubuchon Company, were integral to the creation of the Retail Management Certification Program.
“Marcus and Bill are the reason RMCP exists,” says Scott Wright, executive director of advanced retail education programs for NHPA. “Marcus knew the industry needed a program to teach future leaders, and Bill created the environment internally at NHPA to support that vision.”
Moran retired from Aubuchon Hardware in 2017, exiting his role of vice chairman of acquisitions after decades of helping the company expand. However, he did not leave the industry. Moran supported RMCP by sending students and serving as a course instructor from 2014 until 2018. Moran died in 2019, shortly after the Marcus Moran Jr. Scholarship program was developed to support RMCP students. Today, that scholarship has transitioned into the Marcus Moran Jr. Best in Class Award, which is bestowed on the highest performing students in each RMCP class.
Lee died in October 2023, and his contributions to the industry and specifically to NHPA’s Academy for Retail Development will continue his legacy.
“Marcus and Bill live on through this program,” Wright says. “We are so grateful to both of them, and it all started with an idea and a conversation between these two industry visionaries. As a result, we have built something that serves a great need in our industry, and something that will last for generations to come.”