Home Hardware’s GM on keeping people, and being ‘people-people’
Most mornings, Frank Geerlinks swings through his favourite Tim Horton’s on his way to work in Lindsay from his home in the Little Britain area.
At the drive-through he is often greeted by a young woman who just “has it” in terms of customer service skills. One day very soon, he says, he will ask this young woman if she wants a job with him, at his family of Home Hardware stores.
He contrasts this with another incident, this time at a McDonald’s drive-through where he took his family through for a quick bite to eat. The employee was a young man who took his money and gave him his change without saying a single word to him.
Geerlinks couldn’t believe it.
He turned to his family and told them he was going to try and get through the entire drive-through experience without ever having to say a word. As he did earlier with the money exchange, the employee handed Geerlinks his food and drinks without saying anything.
Geerlinks noticed there were no straws.
So he just pointed to the top of the drinks where straws would go and held up two fingers, to indicate he needed two. The young man nodded, got two straws, and silently handed them over.
Geerlinks drove off, laughing about the social experiment with his family and yet was astounded at the young man’s lack of customer service skills.
“The woman at Tim Horton’s, though, she’s dynamite,” says Geerlinks. “If people like you, you’ll go a long way in this business,” he says.
Geerlinks calls retail the “personality business.”
“We have to be people-people. If you’re pleasant, if you always try to meet the customer’s needs, people will give you the benefit of the doubt every time.”
That’s pretty much the secret to success for Home Hardware in the Kawartha Lakes, if not elsewhere, where six separate stores try to meet customers’ home needs every day. If store numbers are any indication, they seem to be succeeding. There’s Home Building Centre in Lindsay, Lindsay Home Hardware, and the Lindsay Design Centre, all right here in town. Add Bridgenorth Home Hardware, Kawartha Home Hardware in Lakefield, and Millbrook Home Hardware and it’s a veritable local empire.
But Geerlinks wouldn’t like that word, ‘empire.’ He’s too genial and too good-humoured. The 52-year-old father of two would prefer the word ‘dealer,’ and that’s what makes Home Hardware so unique. These are not franchises or chains in the way other familiar stores are. In fact, it’s unique in Canada in that its shares are held equally and completely by the individual owners of stores across Canada.
In effect, Terry Davis, the CEO of Canada’s more than 1,100 Home Homeware dealerships, answers to those very same dealers – people like Frank Geerlinks.
“It’s true. The head of the company answers to a board of directors, elected by the dealers,” explains Geerlinks.
Geerlinks was just 17 when he started out in the business at Beaver Lumber in Stratford, Ontario, his hometown. From carrying drywall around to doing general clean-up, he started at the bottom rung in the industry. He got a three-year business diploma from Fanshawe College in London and worked in several south-western Ontario towns and cities in the same field.
After many years of accumulated experience he partnered with his brother in the St. Thomas Home Hardware in 2000. Later, Geerlinks moved to the Lindsay area and connected with Steve Gynane and Harry Morrison in 2013. Gynane and Morrison are silent partners in the business to this day, while Geerlinks runs the stores.
One of the reasons he decided to invest in the Lindsay and Kawartha-area stores was the incredible loyalty and longevity of the staff who worked there.
“We have a lot of long-term staff and I think that says this is probably a good place to be.”
At the Home Building Centre, there are 97 employees and 77 of them are full-time workers. Twenty are part-time. (There are about 160 employees overall, factoring in the whole family of stores in the region.)
With all the full-time jobs the Home Building Centre has created, this bucks the so-called ‘precarious work’ trend that has occurred since the 1980s, with more and more employees forced into part-time, contract, or temporary jobs, often without benefits.
“I don’t like training people,” says Geerlinks, and he doesn’t part with people lightly.
“If you don’t look after your people, they won’t stay – and that’s how it should be. It’s shame on me if I can’t keep good people.”
The only downside of having so many long-term staff, he has been realizing of late, is how many will soon be set to retire.
“So my challenge is finding that next generation of my core people.”
When he thinks about the new people he needs, a new high school co-op student automatically springs to his mind. He feels she “has what it takes to succeed” already and she has indicated she might like a career in interior design.
“I told her she can make more than $60,000 a year doing that with us,” says Geerlinks. “You can make a good living here.”
Of course, you have to be people-people.
The minimum wage debate is something Geerlinks jumps into without hesitation. A few months ago, the Ontario government announced that minimum wage would rise from $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018. One year later, it will rise to $15 an hour.
“Look, this is going to sting us a bit. There’s no getting around that. But I think this whole minimum wage focus is a misnomer anyway. It should be called entry-level wage.”
At least at his family of stores, Geerlinks says any employee still stuck at minimum wage a year or a year and a half into his or her job means there’s an issue with the employee.
“I’ve had many people pass through here who don’t want to just carry drywall around or clean a toilet. But the thing is, if you can’t show me you can do those jobs well, why would I give you more responsibility?”
Geerlinks knows that someone making $18 an hour at his stores may have an issue with the minimum wage increases, too, but he underscores to them that this isn’t his choice.
“I’m obligated,” since it will be a Provincial law.
Doing Business in Lindsay and Community Involvement
Geerlinks likes being a part of a small town where he can call the mayor and know that he’ll get a call back, at least within a day or two.
“Our mayor (Andy Letham) is accessible and that’s great. Would I like a little less red tape to do business? Sure, that would be nice. But the City does a good job overall.”
The business owner says there is a very active social committee at his stores and the staff members pick what the store gets involved in. Everything from local parades to sponsorships in the community are organized by the group and Geerlinks thinks it’s good for store morale to let this flourish.
“They help us connect to the community and that’s important for us to do these things.”
Community is what Home Hardware has been doing best for a long time now, and given there are three successful stores in Lindsay alone, surely something right is being done.
When asked what the single biggest reason is for all this obvious customer loyalty, Geerlinks doesn’t hesitate.
“I dare say we know the majority of our customers by their first name — and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”