Ace Hardware Corporation was recently named one of the "best and brightest" companies to work for by the National Association of Business Resources. For two years, the company also was among the top 10 employers in the Chicago area as identified by the Chicago Tribune — a tall order for a retailer.
It's not exactly an easy time to be in retail right now, if the bankruptcy tracker maintained by HR Dive's sister publication, Retail Dive, is any indication. On top of a troublesome marketplace, employers in the space also are struggling to overcome a talent shortage that Gartner called the top risk for organizations this year. But Ace has found success in the Windy City through its dedication to culture, even as other warehouses and competitors attempt to move in.
HR Dive spoke with Kane Calamari, senior vice president, chief human resources officer at Ace Hardware Corporation and president of the Ace Foundation, to discuss how Ace stays on top at both the national and local levels. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
HR DIVE: What's driving the identification of Ace as one of the best companies to work for?
KANE CALAMARI: It starts with culture — it’s great to win these awards and we’re honored to receive them, but it begins and ends with company culture. We’ve been in business for 95 years, based in the Chicago area with stores that are individually owned and operated. Our job is to support our stores. We’re fighting for the little guy, competing with the best-funded companies on the planet, and we’re still winning.
Our core values are service, convenience and quality. We make sure staff are trained and equipped with everything they need. They represent our brand every day: When your tagline is "helpful hardware folks," employees know they’re every part of the customer experience. We work hard to leverage that internally and externally. We want the best people, the best brands, the best customer experience we can provide; that relies on employees.
We walk our values, the first being humility. We call it a humble swagger. We want people to have pride in our results but we never take them for granted. At the retail level, it’s about community. When the customers you serve are neighbors you go to church with and coach Little League with, you'd better be a member of the community.
At corporate, we want people to want to be here. We want them connected to the cause and loving what they’re doing. Our CEO is in the cafeteria eating with the rest of the staff, demonstrating that humble swagger. That’s what it’s like to work here.
Where does employee development fit in?
CALAMARI: We know that growing our people is important; more and better leaders make everything better at Ace. We have developed a high-potential program through our "Ace Academy." We look for employees that exhibit leadership skills and work to develop them. We also have our online "Ace Learning Place," which gives employees the opportunity to develop at their own pace. Employees love the fact the company is investing in them.
How do you compete for talent in today's tight retail market?
CALAMARI: The market is very challenging right now. At our retail level, compensation is up to the owner/operator, but we help them with studies to make sure they’re competitive with regard to salaries and benefits. We review these on a regular basis to make sure we’re keeping pace with market conditions.
We’re also helping our owners find better candidates faster. We’ve launched technology called Snag-a-Job that helps identify the best candidates. The owners can screen better, save time and find the right job seeker for their opening.
Is attrition an issue?
CALAMARI: Like all retailers, we are feeling the pressure with retention. But for many of our stores, because they’re independently owned, a majority of associates — we call them "red-vested heroes" — have been with the store for many years. You’ll find the associate in plumbing, for example, that has been there for 10 years.
At corporate, turnover is low, but in the warehousing and distribution ends, we are seeing some increases. When large warehouses move in, we are challenged. But we're doing more with staff to compete, including better onboarding and more mentoring programs. We want to make sure every employee is where they want to be.
What do your engagement efforts look like?
CALAMARI: We’re always looking for ways to improve but our CEO says that what you do and how you do it matter equally. This means living our values and working hard to make sure they’re not just a poster on the wall is job one. Everything we do, from hiring and beyond are guided by our values: wining, excellence, love, integrity, gratitude, humility and teamwork.
To assure our values are translated all the way through the employee experience, we use survey instruments. This is something we’re working on directly with store owners. We love the awards, but more important is that our leaders are thinking about engagement every day.
Where is tech helping?
CALAMARI: We’re leveraging technology to help stores with labor force optimization. There’s a lot of waste in retail. We’re looking at how to have our red-vested heroes spend more time with customer-facing activities and less time on waste. New tech that helps owners optimize labor scheduling is rolling out this summer. It will help everyone from small stores to large locations with a 100 or more staffers, and even works for owners with multiple stores. The object is to put employees where they’re available for the customers.
Acehardware.com has become a large part of our business strategy, although we will always be a brick-and-mortar experience. We’ve saw online gains last year and it's still growing. We know most shopping begins online, but the majority of our products are picked up in store; this gives us the opportunity to connect with the customer for a great store experience.
Have you considered self-checkouts or kiosks?
CALAMARI: Ace will be the last company on the planet that replaces cashiers with tech. We always want someone thanking customers for their business.
What does the future hold for Ace?
CALAMARI: We’re here to serve our customers and our owners. We always say we’re blessed to be in the business of serving others. As long as we remember that, the company will continue to succeed. Our track record proves it. We have seen nine years of in-store sales increases; we’ve opened 170 new stores domestically in the last year, which few retailers can boast. And for eight years in a row, we’re seeing increases in wholesale sales. The metrics show what we believe: As long as we have a great culture, we’ll be successful.