After he finished high school in 1938, Walter Hachborn went to work for Gordon Hollinger, a friend of his father’s who owned a hardware store in St. Jacobs. For $8 a week, Hachborn swept the floor, stocked shelves and waited on the Old Order Mennonites who made up the bulk of their customers.
One of their main products was caustic soda, used for making soap. Most stores sold it for 25 cents per pound; Hollinger Hardware sold it for a nickel a pound.
“Perhaps we were the first retailer to sell products as loss leaders to bring in customers,” Hachborn chuckled.
Hachborn and store manager Henry Sittler weren’t afraid to innovate. Together they bought Hollinger Hardware, expanded it into a wholesale business and went on to found a dealer-owned hardware cooperative that became Home Hardware.
But in 1938, all that was still many years away. Attention was focused on Europe, where war was declared in 1939. Young men rushed to enlist, Hachborn among them. He tried several different services, but was rejected because of his flat feet.
“There’s got to be something in the army I can do,” Hachborn told recruiters, who asked him where he worked.
“I said ‘I’m in the hardware business,’ and they said ‘we’ve got a job for you.’”
Hachborn was put to work at No. 1 Ordnance Depot in London, which supplied the army with everything from tents and housewares to trucks. In six months, he was foreman of the depot.
“Many of the things that I learned in the army, I brought home to the hardware business,” Hachborn said. “I likely learned more in the army than I did any time in school.”
Hachborn kept in touch with Hollinger and Sittler during his three years in the army, and when he returned home in 1946, his job was waiting for him.
Gordon Hollinger died in 1948 and his wife passed away a year later. Their daughter put the business up for sale and Sittler and Hachborn formed a partnership with Elmira lawyer Arthur Zilliax to buy it. When the local bank manager refused to give them a loan, they went all the way to the Royal Bank in Toronto to get the money.
Sittler had made the first steps toward joining the ranks of Canada’s 250 wholesalers during the war. Many manufacturers were reluctant to sell their products to a small, rural company, so Sittler made contacts in Germany, Great Britain and the United States and began importing products. One by one, seeing how their business was growing, the Canadian manufacturers came around.
The 1950s and ‘60s saw the growth of discount chains like Kmart and Woolco and the corresponding disappearance of independent hardware dealers. Hollinger Hardware tried to find areas and ways they could compete, and in 1957, Hachborn lit on what he thought was the solution.
Hachborn’s eureka moment came during a visit to the American Hardware and Supply Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. American Hardware and Supply was a nonprofit cooperative that served as wholesaler and distributor for a number of small hardware dealers. Pooling their buying power allowed them to negotiate better prices from manufacturers, and consolidating distribution and operations lowered costs. Hachborn was impressed with the prices and products the co-op was getting for the dealers.
“That change was quite revealing to me,” he said. “That would be what saved independent hardware stores.”
The cooperative remained just an idea until 1962, when Zilliax suffered a serious heart attack, underscoring the vulnerability of the partnership. Hachborn called a meeting of 25 dealers and broached the idea, suggesting they go to the United States to see it for themselves.
The dealers returned enthusiastic and called a larger meeting in Kitchener. From 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. they hashed it over and in the end, voted to form their own company. On Jan. 1, 1964, 122 independent hardware retailers bought Hollinger Hardware and formed a dealer-owned cooperative, with Hachborn as the manager.
“That was the beginning of Home Hardware,” Hachborn said. “At that time, my whole life, I think, was a meeting.”
By 1965, the business was expanding rapidly and had far outgrown the building on King Street. The company’s distribution operation was run out of the present Home Furniture building and there were products stored in buildings all over the village.
The company bought 13 acres along Henry Street and construction started in 1966. One room in the new office building held the company’s computer, used for tabulating orders, inventory and printing invoices. Paul Straus – now president and CEO – was in charge of the machine.
The computer, Hachborn said, was just one of the technologies Home Hardware adopted early, ignoring the scoffing of other business owners. Home Hardware was the first company in North America to have all of its dealers make orders via telephone and transmit payments electronically. It was also the first to have microfiche in every store to keep track of what products and prices were available.
The company’s expansion into the rest of Canada happened in stages. They moved into the Atlantic provinces at the request of a dealer in Windsor, Nova Scotia who was interested in joining the co-op. To get around the restrictive trucking regulations of the day, the company bought fish from Nova Scotia, sold it to mink farmers in Ontario, washed the trucks thoroughly and shipped hardware back.
Today Home Hardware has distribution centres in Debert, Nova Scotia; Wetaskiwin, Alberta; Elmira and St. Jacobs. The company’s warehousing space totals roughly 2.5 million square feet – a far cry from the 1,800-square-foot hardware store where Hachborn first stepped behind the counter in 1938.
Hachborn retired from day-to-day operations in 1988, and recently stepped down from the role of president. Now the president emeritus, he still comes into the office almost every day that he’s in St. Jacobs.
“Not that I do anything; I just like to be here,” he chuckled.
Hachborn is confident in the leadership of the younger generation of managers, many of whom have worked their way up through the ranks just like he did.
“We have always tried here to elevate people within the company to new positions and that has worked tremendously well.”