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TOP GUNS 2014: Brent Burger

Eight years ago, when Hardware Retailing magazine, the North American Retail HardwareAssociation (NRHA) and the NationalHardware Show® set out to showcase the industry’s elite independent retailers by honoring them with a special award, we knew the field of candidates would be deep.

Throughout the years, the ranks of Industry Top Guns have been true representations of the diversity found throughout the independent segment of home improvement retailing. Past honorees have ranged from relative industry newcomers running rural stores to veterans operating large-scale home center operations.

So it is with great pride that we introduce you to one of this year’s Industry Top Guns, Brent Burger, representing Campbell’s TrueValue, with five retail locations throughout Maine. 

Burger is a true example of the values historically represented by Top Guns. Not only has he helped drive and grow a local chain of hardware stores by finding new niche opportunities and streamlining operations, he also has done more than his share to give back to his community and the industry. From running innovative charitable operations to his service as chairman of the board of directors at True Value Co., Burger certainly has earned his place among the industry’s high-flying elite.

Below is an excerpt from his Q&A with Hardware Retailing editors.

Hardware Retailing (HR): Could you share some background about your business, including how you first got involved in the business? 

Brent Burger (BB): I got involved in the hardware business in 1999 when I moved from California to Maine to take over my father-in-law’s True Value stores. He had two hardware stores and a lumberyard at the time. Soon after moving to Maine, a competitor decided to sell, and we bought three of its stores, ultimately branding them as Campbell’s True Value.

My father-in-law, Val, started the business in 1972, branded it as Campbell’s True Value in 1982, and truly set us up for success with a well-established and healthy business. The great opportunity for me was to update the stores, introduce a lot of process management and build a chain that was more alike than different, creating a brand experience for the customer as we expanded.

Campbell’s has a significant pet supply category, as well as major lawn and garden lines, including production houses where we grow our own annuals to supply our stores. We have assembled a diverse mix of products and stores that help us manage the tough seasonality of Maine, including a fuel company for winter revenue, a robust green goods (live plants) and garden business for spring, and a lumber and building materials business for summer and fall. The pet supplies, paint, plumbing and other core hardware categories help create a year-round base that supports our stores between seasons.

HR: What is it that you would say sets your retail operation apart from the competition?

BB: I believe our differentiator is continuously focusing on the customer experience, which is different than how many retailers might talk about “customer service.” I believe experience trumps service.

Experience starts outside the store with marketing and community involvement then moves right into the parking lot, the exterior signage, outside displays then through the front door with an immediate greeting, a bright environment, shiny floors, an impeccably clean store and a highly engaged staff. We pride ourselves on giving customers the attention they deserve. We start with, “What’s your project?” We never over-sell.

And, we enforce a non-negotiable mandate to the staff to say, “Thank you for your business,” to all customers as they exit our stores. I believe we have to create an environment that delivers an experience for the customer that is enjoyable and reassuring. We want our customers to simply feel good when they are in our stores. The other piece I’d add is that our staff knows who pays them: the customer. We reinforce this in a variety of ways and reminders, including stickers on their paychecks that say, “This check was made possible by the customers you impressed last week.”

HR: Over the past five years, what have been the most dramatic changes for your business? What about the most dramatic changes for the home improvement industry at large?

BB:The most dramatic change for Campbell’s was upgrading our stores to the Destination True Value format. This gave us an updated merchandise assortment, more practical adjacencies of product and a more female-friendly shopping experience.

We continue to capitalize on the shop-local movement and are encouraged that we are holding our ground at retail in the face of technology’s influence on today’s consumer. Over the past five years, we’ve worked to be the “biggest small box” in terms of product offering, building a more diversified merchandise assortment to give our customers more reasons to shop with us.

As for the big boxes, I believe technology has been their biggest gain over the past five years; getting more efficient with supply chain management, improving customer reach and relationship management and growing e-commerce. 

HR: What do you feel have been the keys to your operation’s ability to grow and thrive over the years?

BB: Diversifying our category offering and staying relevant in merchandise assortments (more reasons to shop with us); focusing on the customer experience versus the cliché customer service (creates unspoken distinctions for the customer); a highly visible presence in community engagement (reinforces “local”); and low turnover of key employees who truly create the day-to-day impressions on the customer (creates and maintains relationships with customers).

True Value Foundation Atlanta Habitat for Humanity

HR: Your business has always been very involved in local philanthropic efforts. Could you tell us a little bit about what efforts you have engaged in lately? Why have you made this kind of work a priority for your operation?

BB: The organization I am most passionate about is our local Boys and Girls Club, the Alfond Youth Center (AYC). I serve as vice chair of the board, and I also chair a couple of its committees.

We serve more than 150 kids a day in our after-school program and offer nearly 20 program opportunities for our youth. Campbell’s True Value sponsors an organic garden at the AYC that we call “A Place for Kids to Grow,” which teaches children about food sourcing, how to tend a garden, responsibilities about work and effort as well as selling, because the kids sell the excess produce they grow.

In addition to the AYC, we support the local Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and sponsored the living room area of this brand-new facility with a $50,000 gift. We also do fundraising in our stores for the shelter with collection boxes, and for all store events, we name the shelter as the beneficiary of food sales.

My greatest achievement in community involvement was in creating and organizing a makeover of a house for a mother with nine children.

The family lost its home to foreclosure after the father’s passing. More than 200 volunteers and 100 businesses participated in our “Nine Days for Nine Children” project where we bought the house back, completely renovated it and gave it back to the family fully furnished. While this project was several years ago, my commitment to maintaining an ongoing relationship with this family and continuing to provide frequent financial guidance has added to the reward of such an incredible community project.

HR: What would you say is your favorite part of your job?

BB: The most enjoyable part of my job is working with my leadership team on process improvement and enhancing our customer experience. I love trying to understand what makes the customer choose us and then working that angle to every end—is it price, promotion, selection, people, environment, etc.? I want to know what they like about us so we can do more of it, and I want to know what they don’t like so we can address what’s not working well.

About Amanda Bell

Amanda Bell was an assistant editor of Hardware Retailing and NRHA. Amanda regularly visited with home improvement retailers across the country and attended industry events and seminars. She earned a degree in magazine journalism from Ball State University and has received honors for her work for Hardware Retailing from the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals.

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