Jacqueline Thompson, owner of Thompson Ace Hardware, isn’t surprised when customers call her store asking if a specific employee is on duty.
Her Jacksonville, Florida, store is known for its knowledgeable, gracious staff, and she believes the six military veterans on her team have set the tone for the operation. The vets aren’t just hard workers; they’re also the employees customers most often request by name when they need help with projects.
Thompson’s staffing success story doesn’t surprise Tony Lee, who is an executive from the Society for Human Resource Management.
Retired vets or younger veterans returning from military service generally offer skills, experience and loyalty that would significantly benefit many retail operations if retailers recruited them, Lee says.
Read on to hear from retailers about why they hire veterans and how improvement businesses offer fulfilling careers for former military service members. In addition, learn from Lee’s insights on why and how retailers should recruit veterans and help them build careers in the industry.
Thompson has found veterans are among her most dedicated workers and they take pride in their jobs—even in mundane but important tasks, such as mopping floors.
“Veterans have a phenomenal work ethic, and I have a lot of respect for them,” Thompson says. “That’s one of the main reasons I’ve brought them on.”
Thompson’s father-in-law and father both served in the military, so when she opened her store in 2015, she knew up front she wanted to honor veterans through her business. Initially, she offered a military discount to shoppers and hired a handful of veterans who happened to apply for jobs.
Today, Thompson actively recruits military veterans to work for the business and regularly has local Vietnam Veterans of America members host fundraisers at the store.
If she meets vets who are working at other stores, she tells them if they want to change jobs, she prioritizes hiring veterans.
She also encourages her veteran employees to wear military hats because she knows they enjoy the conversations that start when customers ask about their service. Those conversations not only create greater camaraderie among her employees and customers, but they also build shoppers’ loyalty to Thompson Ace.
Her veteran employees have a special touch with customer service—they’re relational, patient and good listeners to customers of all types, she says. They also offer empathy to elderly shoppers or people with disabilities that some other employees haven’t developed yet. And they connect easily with other veterans and current service members.
“We often have customers come in their uniforms, and you’ll see our veteran staffers make a beeline for them,” Thompson says. “They’ll say, ‘I was in the Navy. I see you’re in the Army.’ Automatically, you can see the relationship forming.”
The relationships between staffers and customers make the shoppers more loyal. Some customers will only shop at the store on days when specific employees are working.
But the veterans offer even more to the business than connections with customers, Thompson says. All of her veteran employees are retirees who wanted to return to work, so they bring extensive experience from varied careers.
They are excellent problem-solvers who readily tackle any task, improve processes and train new hires, Thompson says.
For example, one veteran taught the team to use a spiral notebook as a pass-down log, like he’d used in the military. At the end of shifts, employees write need-to-know information for the next work shift or notes on topics ranging from special orders to requests to buy more receipt paper. Employees also note in the log how many boxes arrived via drop-ship and who checked them in.
Thompson looks at the employee notes in the log daily to make sure all of the tasks have been completed.
“It has made a major difference, even for simple stuff, like ordering receipt paper when we’re low. We are never in a panic anymore because we don’t get down to one roll of receipt paper,” she says.
And no job is too minor or too dirty for the vets to do. Thompson’s teenage son works at the store in the summers and, thanks to the veterans, has learned to take pride in cleaning a bathroom meticulously.
One employee, Frank Viggiano, is an expert on many things, including plumbing and electrical repair work. But he served two tours in Vietnam and isn’t above any job.
“Frank said, ‘I was a swabbie in the Navy. I know how to scrub a floor. You know, there’s a certain way to mop,’” she says. “There was such pride in his face.”
Army National Guardsman Sam Ransdell, store manager of Burney True Value Hardware in Seven Lakes, North Carolina, is making a career out of home improvement. The fit seems obvious; he was born into the family that owns the business and he worked at the store growing up.
But the six military veterans he has on staff aren’t family members, and Ransdell values the skills and perspectives they gained from military service like he values his own.
They have leadership skills, stamina and discipline they acquired in the military that many civilians don’t have, Ransdell says.
In addition, they’re strong merchandisers because they are trained to pay attention to details and fix problems with precision.
“It’s second nature for those folks,” he says.
Some skills, such as small engine repair, translate directly from the military to a hardware business.
Other strengths, such as self-discipline, don’t necessarily show up on a resume, but benefit a business just as much.
“If they’re doing a march and they’re dead tired, they still put their rucksacks in formation at the end,” Ransdell says. “When we recognize a section of the store is dirty, it doesn’t matter if we’re tired or busy. It needs to be done, so we do it.”
Taylor Cox, an Army veteran and store manager and purchaser for Cox Hardware & Lumber in Houston, also sees independent stores as particularly good fits for vets.
They’re used to hard work and sacrifice. They don’t shy away from leadership opportunities.
—Taylor Cox, Cox Hardware & Lumber
Veterans are used to irregular schedules, unexpected tasks that come up throughout a day, physical labor and working with their hands, Cox says.
If they’re exiting the military, then they’re likely looking for new careers that use their skills, are better for their families and offer the stability of no overseas deployments, he says.
“What we’re really looking for is a fulfilling career with opportunities to advance and give back to the community,” Cox says. “If I were to work for some large company, I would just be a guy in a suit who doesn’t see a lot of impact. I like to see the actual effects of my efforts. I really like to help people.”
When service members are nearing the end of their military commitments, home improvement retailing may be a good option as their next career, even if the skills from a military job don’t always seem like an obvious transition to a retail position, Ransdell says.
For example, a move from infantry soldier to retail worker might not appear to be a natural career progression. However, it could be an opportunity to continue using leadership skills and growing into management roles, Ransdell says.
With the right staff members in place, Burney True Value could grow enough to add more store locations, opening up more management jobs, Ransdell says.
“Why wouldn’t you hire a veteran?” Cox says. “They’re used to hard work and sacrifice. They don’t shy away from leadership opportunities.”
When first enlisting in the Army, everyone starts out as a private, and veterans need to know they won’t start at the top in new careers when they exit the military, Cox says. But they will want to see potential for growth.
Often, veterans become first responders—but whether they work at a retail store or hire on at a police department, they all have to start somewhere, Cox says.
“Employers don’t necessarily give you extra credit for serving,” he says. “You have to work your way up. Once you qualify for the job, you have to go in there and prove to your bosses that you have the knowledge and work ethic and you’re open to learning.”
A worker doesn’t have to stay at the bottom long, though, Cox says.
“If we had someone who was supercharged and came to us with the leadership skills, that could be an opportunity for us to make a job for them,” Cox says. “If we were ever to expand, the opportunities would open. I would welcome that.”
Recruiting returning military veterans to work in retail can be challenging, but worth it, according to Lee from the Society for Human Resource Management.
Hiring roadblocks arise when retailers often aren’t clear in their job postings about the skills required for specific positions, what career paths are available, whether there’s opportunity for professional growth and what pay ranges they offer, Lee says.
Retailers also aren’t reaching out to local military offices and making an effort to explain how a service member’s skills would translate well into a retail job, he says. Some military jobs, such as driving trucks, have clear transitions to civilian positions.
However, a service member who worked in logistics may need to see clear job listings describing positions that include overseeing a warehouse or managing deliveries, Lee says.
“If veterans can see where it’s a logical transition for them, then the stereotypes that exist about working in retail are of less concern to them,” Lee says. “They are typically more concerned about how they can individually contribute to the success of a company. Many veterans are project-oriented and success-focused, so where they work is less of an issue.”
An enlisted military member may have experience managing people, materials or logistics. Retailers can contact organizations, such as AMVETS or American Job Centers, that offer veterans support when they’re entering the civilian workforce and ask questions about how specific jobs could transition into a retail environment. Click here for more suggestions on how to recruit and hire vets.
Regardless of their jobs in the military, service members have much to offer new employers, Lee says.
“Research has shown that veterans are loyal employees,” he says. “They tend to be very respectful, especially of authority, and are skilled in whatever area of the military where they served. You’re getting someone who is extremely well trained.”
Business owners also may not be aware they can recruit veterans through the Department of Defense, local military bases, organizations that help veterans assimilate back into civilian life and state employment offices.
“If retailers say they have a preference for hiring veterans, those offices will let veterans know,” Lee says. “Very few businesses contact those offices, but it’s a good practice for effective hiring.”
Vets Serving in Retail
The following military veterans have years of military service behind them. They use what they learned from their experiences to excel in their home improvement retail jobs.
Burney True Value Hardware
Seven Lakes, North Carolina
Military Branch: Army National Guard
Years of Service: 2010-Present
Cox Hardware & Lumber
Military Branch: Army
Years of Service: 2008-2016
Thompson Ace Hardware
Military Branch: Navy
Years of Service: 1965-1969