Opinion: The Biggest Employee Benefit of All is Ownership

Frager's and the AFCHS Now Belong to the Employees, and it Couldn't Have Happened Without the Community

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In August, A Few Cool Hardware Stores --including Frager's-- was sold to its employees. Courtesy: AFCHS

I’m standing behind a 6’ plastic folding table lined with a black fabric tablecloth, Mylar red “Ace” balloons flanking either side. Strewn across its surface are an assortment of product samples, swag, and sheets of paper offering store discounts in exchange for newsletter sign-ups. What’s not on the table are those seven words that will start every conversation I have that day: “Did you know, Ace is a co-op?”

Over the last ten years, I have asked this question at every community fair, store event, and employee orientation and only a handful of people have said yes. Most of the time, the response is an echo: “Ace is a co-op?”

I’ve already prepared myself for this answer, my spiel queued up. “While Ace is a nationally known brand, it is not a chain or franchise. Each store is independently owned and operated, including the thirteen stores here in our local community.”

This exchange is my favorite part of these events; not because we have an opportunity to offer customers some understated intel, but for what almost always comes next: a story about a flooded basement saved by an employee who went the extra mile to ensure they had every supply they needed, even calling several nearby competitors to find the last sandbag in town; or how their dog drags them into the store every time they walk past for pats from the lead cashier.

Customers know there’s an intrinsic value to shopping and supporting local businesses but communicating our status has been a persistent challenge over the years – mostly because it is, in fact, complicated. What does it mean to be a co-op? How does it operate or benefit the rest of the team? And how does it differ from employee ownership?

For our 13 locations, being a co-op does not follow the same canon as other co-ops on your radar – say, a local grocery store cooperative or the co-op of farmers that make up your local CSA (community supported agriculture). Ace stores are members of a purchasing co-operative that benefits from the buying power of our corporate entity to ensure we receive the best pricing and stock positioning in the industry. Profits made annually by the co-op are paid out as benefits to the retailers, and how those funds and benefits trickle down to the employees is up to the independent store owners.

For our company, that translates into 401k benefits, profit sharing, and higher wages. And now, like so many other co-ops, we are proud to add the biggest benefit of all: employee ownership. 

For us, it was a no-brainer: if selling the business is an inevitable outcome for any owner, why not sell it to the employees? We wanted to give back to the team members responsible for our success and ensure the continuation of a company culture we are proud to call uniquely our own.

I often joke that when you work at one of our stores, you become a local celebrity- much like city transit, a casual errand to the grocery store makes frequent stops in produce, the bakery, and at checkout to converse with fellow shoppers who recognize you as “the employee who helped me fix my leaking sink” or “saved my marriage with a last minute gift”.

Albeit a bit hyperbolic, these exchanges are a testament to how much our employees genuinely care about their neighbors- and in turn, our customers care about them, too.

In August, AFCHS owners Gina Schaefer and Marc Friedman announced their plan to sell ownership of their 13 Ace Hardware stores through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP. Courtesy: AFCHS

Not all Ace stores are employee-owned; in fact, only a handful are. But they are all brick-and-mortar independent stores with a few things in common with other small businesses in their community. A locally-owned business is one that:

  • Gives back to their community;
  • Understands and relates to its customers;
  • Provides a customized level of service;
  • Employees their neighbors;
  • And they need your business.

We have always known these things about local businesses, but we have not always recognized the impact our shopping decisions have on the local economy. If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that we need local businesses in our communities – a refuge from the impersonal, a source for sought after supplies customized per the needs of our neighbors, and a stable and safe place to work despite the uncertainty. A place that’s more than just hardware: it’s part of your community.

This October is special for us – in tandem with beautiful fall weather and sunny days, we celebrate National Co-op Month, and now, for the first time, National Employee-Ownership Month. If you have an Ace or another co-op business near you, stop in and acknowledge their locally owned status- from experience I can assure you the recognition won’t go unappreciated.

And, if you find yourself at one of our stores in the DMV, we’d love for you to congratulate our employee-owners and swap a story or two about what that means to you – because it simply wouldn’t have happened without our customers, our culture, and our community.

The next time I find myself standing in front of a folding table I’ll be adding something new to my spiel: We are A Few Cool Hardware Stores, and we’re your employee-owned neighborhood hardware store.”

Courtney Belew is the Senior Manager Marketing & Community Engagement at A Few Cool Hardware Stores. Reach her at [email protected]