By Bob Steenson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Growing up in a family that was the second generation owning and running a hardware store, it might have been inevitable that Jackie Perkins would one day find herself in that same role.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Jerome and Irene Schueth founded Schueth Hardware in New Hampton in 1922. Their sons — Jackie’s father and uncle — joined the business after they came home from college, and Jackie’s brother, Doug, joined in 1992.
But Perkins had another retail path in her sights.
“I had 18 years in the grocery business in New Hampton,” she said. “I worked for Liddle’s SuperValu. I work for Wendell Liddle and then for Matt Anderson, and under Matt I became the store manager.
“I was the first female store manager in the state of Iowa for SuperValu at that time,” she said. “SuperValu used to be really big, so that was a big accomplishment for me. I did a lot of public speaking. I was in Des Moines a lot because that’s where the warehouse was. I was in Minneapolis. I lived, breathed and ate that store and at that time we had almost a hundred employees.”
But the grocery business — and the town of New Hampton — was changing. In 2000, her dad was ready to retire and he asked her to buy into the family hardware store.
As much as she loved the grocery business, the challenge of owning her own business sounded like something she couldn’t pass up.
Perkins and her brother now own and run the New Hampton store, and in 2005 they opened Schueth Ace Hardware in Charles City.
The Charles City store, in a community about twice the size of New Hampton, has grown to be the larger of the two stores by far, Perkins said. There are 14 employees in Charles City and seven in New Hampton, including full-time and part-time workers.
“I love people,” Perkins said. “I love my customers; they’re like family to us. And I like to work. I like all the challenge it brings, you know. I could never sit behind a desk. I’m way too crazy for that, a little too high energy.”
But ownership does have challenges.
“You get all aspects,” she said. “You get the ownership part of it, the good and the bad. The financial, inventory, that challenge. Like today, stocking the shelves, unloading the truck. Cleaning the toilets. You know, Doug and I do it all.
“I’m here three days and in New Hampton three days,” Perkins said while chatting in a back room at the store in Charles City.
“I have Tuesdays off, and that’s my day off. That’s my day to make appointments or do whatever I need to do or know I’ll be home to clean my house, take grandkids if need be, but other than that you’ll usually find me working,” she said.
Perkins, a self-proclaimed Vikings fan, golf nut, outdoors enthusiast and avid biker whose secret passion is cleaning, especially ironing, is married to Chris Perkins, who is the accountant for both stores.
They have two grown children, Ryan and Tara, both married with kids of their own and both families living in Cedar Falls. The grandkids run in ages from a year-and-a-half to 12.
“We’re very fortunate to have them close, very very fortunate,” Perkins said. “I love my grandkids. My grandkids are everything to us.”
Growing up, she said, her father worked long hours. After the kids were older her mother went to work in the store as well.
“We ate suppers late. On Saturdays, Dad came home we had our big dinner at noon. But Sunday was family day. We did church. You had a big meal, you took the nap — we religiously took a nap.
“We always ate together. That’s a rarity anymore. And good or bad or indifferent, we always talked about business. …
“The generation that my dad was when I was growing up, if we were in sports and it was the middle of the week they never came. My dad would never leave work to come, ever,” she said.
Perkins resolved to not do the same with her own children, and while still working at SuperValu while her kids were growing up she made it a point to be able to attend activities.
It’s a policy she and her brother, Doug, have emphasized at the hardware stores as well.
“When I bought the hardware business from my dad, that was my first conversation with him and Doug, who were partners at that time. … I had kids who were in high school sports and I wanted to go watch them. When my kids had a game or a meet I will be there. I won’t miss that.
“And it’s worked out fine, it’s worked out great. And we continue that down the line with our employees. It’s important to us,” Perkins said. “Family’s first. Your job is second.”
Equally important is finding employees who know about hardware, and about things like electrical systems and plumbing. Several of their employees are people who have retired as craftsmen in other businesses and come to work full-time or part-time for the hardware stores.
“It’s important to us that we have people with knowledge,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers. Going to the plumbing department I can find you a supply line, I can maybe find you a fitting, but knowing how it all works together I don’t have a clue. I’ll find somebody who does. Those are the things that we pride ourselves on. Those are the things that I hope our customers recognize, so we can continue to see people walk through our front doors.”
Perkins says there are challenges with online retailers and big-box stores, but what her stores offer is that knowledge, and customer service.
“I’m not so naive to think the internet is going away, but I can’t imagine in our smaller community what it would be like to have no businesses on Main Street or outlying. I hope that day never comes that there are no more hardware stores and your plumbing breaks and you can’t go down and get a supply line to fix your faucet. I just can’t imagine that that’s what our world has come to,” she said.
“We will go to whatever ends it takes to make a customer happy. We do a tremendous amount of special ordering. If we don’t have it, we find somebody who does.”
A couple of areas where the stores excell are in gifts, decorating and paint, she said.
“I have an extreme interest in decor, for one thing,” Perkins said. “I do all the buying for both stores in the gift department area. And that’s not Ace’s. We go to other gift shows for that.
“But the other thing, the thing that’s really big in both stores, is paint. I have people in both stores that do in-home paint consultations … being able to paint your house and get fabric to go with it that might work in curtains. People bring their pillows in or if they have a painting to match, we do a lot of that,” she said.
“You’ve got to have people who ask questions. Find out what their project is. What are they doing? Give them all the tools that they need so that they can visualize it and get to their project.”
Perkins said she and Doug emphasize hands-on training for their employees.
“We want them to learn the way we sell. We want them to understand the customer service. We want them to understand how you deal with customers.
“You have to do it to understand it. You can sit in a classroom and read how to change a window, but until you actually do it, you don’t get it. It’s always great if someone has that trade already, but we train. We work very hard with our employees,” she said.
That philosophy holds true with Ace Hardware as well, she said.
“This is what Ace believes in,” Perkins said. “Remember, Ace is a co-op; we’re the largest co-op out there. We own our own businesses, so we’re not tied to somebody from corporate coming in and telling us how to, you know, but they help us with many other things.”
Perkins, at age 53, says she loves what she does.
“It’s not without its frustrating days,” she said, but the Charles City store is still growing and has been well-accepted into the community.
“Life’s good,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself anyplace else.”