|image courtesy/JENNY CHATTERTON PHOTOGRAPHY
The Hardware Sales Family: from left to right, Rich George, LaDonna George, Alta McClellan, Jerry McClellan, and Ty McClellan.
In 1962, Alta and Max McClellan purchased Lee Stevens’ Bellingham “booming business,” Powder Sales. The McClellans sold dynamite and blasting caps to loggers, miners, and road builders, along with Army, Navy, and Boeing surplus items.
Bellingham knows the business now by the name it assumed in 1971: Hardware Sales.
In those early days, current Hardware Sales President Jerry McClellan was a high school student helping the family business by cleaning ashtrays, wire-brushing the rust off ammunition boxes, and sorting the used work gloves purchased from Boeing.
These gloves were used by metal workers and welders, and Jerry recalled fearing that one day he would find a severed finger.
Since its inception, Hardware Sales has assumed a rightful place as a Bellingham landmark and a representation of all that is unique about life in the “Fourth Corner.”
The store offers an inventory of over 100,000 different items in its veritable maze of corridors, shelves, and cubbyholes. Within what at first glance seems an intimidating place roams a staff of expert, friendly souls who can locate an item as if they were negotiating their kitchen pantry.
Alta, still going strong at 90 and working rings around many 40 years her junior, has a simple business ideology. It is the benchmark of the McClellan and George family and the staff at Hardware Sales: all customers get “thank you” service, a “hop, jump and run” service that identifies and solves their problem.
Alta emphasizes as well that this professional, “problem-solving” service must not belittle the customer. She rejoices in the post cards, phone calls, and letters from customers “thanking us for going that extra step,” and mentioned some Bellingham customers who have moved away ask for a Hardware Sales in their new home town.
Max McClellan has passed on and over the years Alta and Max’s daughter LaDonna George, son Jerry, and grandsons Rich George and Ty McClellan have joined Alta in ownership and overseeing the business. Jerry emphasizes the importance of unanimity in business decisions, as these five family members participate in the decision-making process.
One dissenting vote can be a call for more discussion and research. The family works, and often plays, together and this family harmony contributes to a common philosophy and the continued success of Hardware Sales.
The ultimate objective of a favorable experience for each customer informs the decision-making process for the family. The quality (and quantity) of the hardware offered is one key to this favorable experience and will be explored later.
Perhaps even more important to the store’s continued success is the staff, and the hiring of each employee is a decision that can make, or break, the business’s reputation. Jerry says the family is not afraid to hire people “smarter than I am,” and each prospective employee faces a battery of tests and an extensive evaluation process before joining the Hardware Sales “family.” This sense of family is an attitude that flows down from the McClellan family, through the staff, and ultimately to the customer. LaDonna mentions that more than once she has seen romance blossom between employees and has witnessed several marriages among the staff.
Jerry has hired managers from the retail or grocery field, as well as persons from construction trades, former contractors, and some managers form the old Home Base store. While the business of Hardware Sales is, of course, tangible items such as tools, paint, and pipes, loyal customers return for the intangibles: the service and the sense their patronage is valued.
Hardware Sales is actually several smaller companies under a large umbrella. An Industrial Sales Division serves large general contracting firms, the state of Washington, Western Washington University, Port of Bellingham, Whatcom County, various fire departments, Parks and Recreation and local communities.
A Rental Department began with the family loaning their fork lifts to their neighbors: it now offers all the tools the store sells. An Office Furniture Division began with one hundred used office chairs and now occupies over 9,600 square feet.
Hardware Sales also offers kitchen and bath cabinets, designer lighting and fans, and a design staff. In March of 2006, the company began selling tools on the Internet. All of these branches, as well as the over 100,000 items on hand, stem from Jerry’s explanation of the family’s product philosophy: if the customer wants it we will get it; then we will figure out where to put it! Each department has a “wants book” and if an item is requested more than once, the managers will usually add that item to the inventory.
In a more personal note, Jerry suggested this article mention the cost to the community of shoplifting. He says that 5 percent is added to the retail cost of goods to cover shoplifting losses. LaDonna recalls in the early days, customers would come to the store and place the items they wished to purchase in the pockets of their overalls and empty their pockets at the register. Those days are long gone, and Hardware Sales has full-time security staff.
In these times of global corporations and conglomerates, Hardware Sales serves as a reminder of earlier years. It is a local family business that has grown with the community, yet still maintains local, small town service and an array of goods.
Alta, the matriarch of Bellingham business women and her immediate and extended family at Hardware Sales, is moving successfully into the 21st century while doing business with early 20th-century values: Respect each customer, do not take their patronage for granted, and provide expert advice.
Edward Chatterton, Jr. is the founder and director of the Chatterton Research Group, which researches and writes family, business, corporate, and civic histories, as well as conducting research for firms. Chatterton has an MA (History) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.