You may have noticed some “spiffying-up” lately at Willow Park Ace Hardware. Last week the business officially changed hands, and Mark Labadie, the new owner, has begun the task of refurbishing, restocking, and revitalizing the long-time Willow Park business.
It’s no secret that the business has shown signs of disrepair lately — both literally, as in missing letters from signs — and as evidenced by missing merchandise from shelves.
Labadie has plans to fix all of that. He opened the Benbrook Ace Hardware in 2021 in the old Winn Dixie/Brookshire’s building and has had a top-flight operation there ever since.
The success of the Benbrook store may not be surprising since Labadie’s background includes a stint at Ace Hardware corporate, where his job was to teach Ace owners how to be better Ace owners.
In taking on the Benbrook operation, Labadie set an old adage on its head, proving that “those who teach can do.”
The idea of becoming a store owner occurred to Labadie when he was working for corporate. He and his wife were on a walk during the pandemic. “We decided one day like, instead of me teaching, I said we should have our own Ace store,” Labadie said.
His wife was on board, replying “Okay, no problem. Let's do it.”
“So that's when we started putting it all together,” Labadie said. “And having that Ace corporate background, it's helped out.”
Labadie said he is going to put the same mindset and programs that have made the Benbrook store successful to work in Willow Park.
“We're going to fix the problems here and get it better,” he said.
There is a bit of a different scenario in Willow Park than in Benbrook, however.
“That [Benbrook] was a new, ground-up store,” Labadie said. “ When we opened that one, it was just concrete and the ceiling was caved in. So we worked with the landlord and the city. We all came together as to what we're going to do with this space and how we're going to divide it up because it was a grocery store. So now it's divided into three spaces with us being the largest.”
The Benbrook store took off immediately. Labadie explained that Ace has three tiers of stores, tiering up from Ace branded to “Visionary,” then “Platinum,” and finally “Pinnacle.”
“At Benbrook, we've been Pinnacle. We were Pinnacle the first year we were open. We worked really hard to hit that top tier status, and then did it again the next year,” Labadie said. “We're going to do it again this year.”
When asked what sets ace Hardware apart from other hardware and big-box stores, Labadie replied “it's really the community that it's in. Ace corporately — they’re very picky about where they'll put a hardware store. You know, generally, it's the community that makes it special.”
Labadie has already seen that first-hand in Willow Park.
“So being in this store, knowing the disrepair it's been in for the for as long as it has been, I've asked the people that come in here and shop, ‘Why do you keep coming back?’ I get the same answer every time. ‘Well, this is my Ace Hardware. This is my Ace,’ and that's what makes it different than the big box. Nobody ever says ‘that's my Home Depot or that's my Lowe’s.’ It's ‘this is my Ace.’”
The transformation of the Willow Park store into the successful image of its sibling in Benbrook won’t happen overnight.
“Our first goal is to just get the inventory back in,” Labadie said. “We’re going to get the inventory back in and fix the price tags because right now they have peg hooks with product on it and no price tags, or price tags and no product. So we're gonna balance that out where we have price tags and products on all the shelves.”
Labadie said after that it's going to be finding out the community needs: what kind of plumbing do the houses have in them; what kind of air conditioner filters are needed, and that kind of thing.
“The older neighborhoods have crazier plumbing, so they need crazy fittings,” Labadie said. “So we find out what those needs are; four inch air filters — we don't set stores was four inch air filters, but people need them. So then we find out what's the sizes people need. We bring those things so we can tailor it to the community and that's really the next step is start to tailor the process.”
The main thing for Labadie is to have what people need when they come into the store.
“So if you want to dig under the house [to fix the plumbing], you don't want to replace everything on the house. You may just want to be able to slap a rubber boot on there. We got to make sure we have the rubber boot. We might not sell it every day — we might not sell 100; we might not sell five in a whole entire year. But if we have five and you need two, you'll be happy that we have it right here.”
And if they don’t have it, Labadie is training the store staff to be able to order parts on the spot for next-day delivery from the Ace warehouse about an hour away.
There are also other things the store can do immediately, such as automative keys and programming key fobs.
“They have all this stuff to do automotive keys, but nobody knows how. So we're gonna get our people trained,” Labadie said.
Other parts of the process will take longer. Labadie has a new store layout in mind, but that will take time — probably a year or so.
“About a year or so from now we're going to look at completely resetting the store, fixing anything that needs fixed, we're going to update the hub, we're going to start doing all the things that the Benbrook store does.”
Labadie has plans to add and expand some product categories in the store. For example, he said the number one product category in the Benbrook store is grilling.
“We know there are some grill stores in the area. They do a great, fantastic job. But if you're here and you need that stuff, we're going to have it. We're going to update all the grill stuff. We're going to look at bringing Big Green Egg in here,” Labadie said.
He also plans additional space for drain cleaners.
“We'll have more stuff for septic, more stuff for just regular drain cleaning — augers and plungers,” he said.
In addition, he plans a bigger choice of 4” air filters, and the addition of RV parts, as well as completely resetting automotive tools.
“Every category we're going to update and bring in something new,” he said.
Overall, Labadie feels his ownership of the Willow Park store was meant to be.
He was in another community looking at a store to possibly buy, but didn’t have a good feeling about it, when he found out the Willow Park store was for sale.
“I don't feel like was just a happy accident,” Labadie said. “I really feel like we were meant to purchase this store. We get a lot of the Willow Park folks out in Benbrook already. It was I mean to be that we’re here.”
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