Owner of Hardware Sales has seen much change in industry over the years
Alta McClellan’s desk is infamous.
Its mountainous piles of paper cascade over tchotchkes, bags of jellybeans and a mound of rubber-band-wrapped dollar bills. Awards, photos, Christmas cards and inspirational sayings climb the walls around it.
McClellan, however, is possibly the most poised 91-year-old business mogul around these parts. Seated amid the cheerful disarray in her office at Hardware Sales, she maneuvers expertly through a bombardment of intercom calls and employee requests in her shimmering violet eye shadow. She’s also quite possibly the most elegant — with ropes of silver and gold tucked between her jacket’s tweed collars and a handful of baubled rings.
Since 1962, McClellan’s hardware store on James Street has grown from three to 120 employees, and now includes an office furniture store, a tool rental store and an Internet sales division.
After her husband and business partner, Max, died 10 years ago, she continued to oversee day-to-day activities, arriving at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
It’s easy to see why she’s become a living legend. Lately, she’s been showered with praise, having been awarded both the Boys & Girls Club Lifetime Achievement Award and the Whatcom Women in Business Professional Woman of the Year Award.
The BBJ sat down with McClellan to discus her passion for work and family, and her occasional gambling habit, too.
BBJ: You lived on a farm in Ferndale as a teenager. How did your childhood shape who you are today?
McClellan: I was born in Ferndale and my dad was a telephone lineman and my mother was an operator.
Our house burnt down when I was 16, and we moved to a farm in Ferndale. My dad got cows and I milked the cows and put up lunches. We lived on that farm when I met my husband when I was 16, in 1933.
BBJ: You and your late husband, Max, bought Powder Sales in 1962, which would become Hardware Sales in 1971. What was the hardware business like back then, and how has it changed?
McClellan: Oh my goodness, it’s much, much, much bigger. Logging is not hardly around anymore. We used to make chokers like you couldn’t believe. We used to sell a lot to fisherman — rope and such — and fishing has gone kaput also. So we just depend on the public now. We are commercial now.
BBJ: You work six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, and start work at 5:30 a.m. What drives you to work so much?
McClellan: When I wake up in the morning, I just get up and go. And I enjoy seeing it grow. Like Max used to say, it’s our baby and it’s growing up, and it surely is.
‘Course he’s been gone now 10 and a half years, and I would like to hear what he would say about this place now. ‘Course, he is still with us — we built the building and he drew the plans up.
BBJ: What do you think has led to your health and longevity?
McClellan: Keeping my mind busy, and the people — the public is super duper. And my family is right here with me every day.
BBJ: You were recently named the 2007 Professional Woman of the Year by Whatcom Women in Business. How did that feel?
McClellan: I was tremendously elated. There were four lovely ladies (nominated), much younger than I am. When they finally called out my name, I couldn’t believe it. I was just dumbfounded and happy.
BBJ: What was it like to be a female business owner all these years? Has it changed since the ‘60s and ‘70s when fewer women held ownership positions?
McClellan: No, I always said I was going to be a businesswoman. My dad always wanted me to be a schoolteacher, and I always wanted to wear suits and be a business lady. He would have been tremendously proud. I’m from a family of eight girls. My mother died when I was about 6 years old and left my dad with a 3-month-old and an 18-month-old baby, and he kept us all together until each and every one of us got married.
BBJ: Hardware Sales has been recognized over the years by the BBJ’s readers’ choice awards for having outstanding customer service. Why has customer service been important to you and how has it paid off in your business’ success?
McClellan: Well, I guess I love to please people. I remember when people would come in in the morning and you could tell they were grumpy, and of course I’d greet them with a big fat smile and a sing-songy voice and next thing you know they were out of their grumpy mood.
Different customers will say, ‘I remember when you were across the street and I was your customer then,’ or the little ones who say, ‘my dad used to bring me in here when I was little — my dad is gone and here I am still buying from you,’ We treat them like we want to be treated.
BBJ: How would you describe your management style at Hardware Sales?
McClellan: I’m very strict. I have an art of telling people to do things and asking them all in the same tone of voice. ‘I would like you to do so and so,’ and they’d better do it. I tell them and ask them all in the same voice.
BBJ: Several family members work for you. What is the most challenging thing about working with family?
McClellan: Oh, we all get along very well together, and that’s very unusual to see a family stick together for as long as we have. But that’s because they let me be boss. And of course they can’t do anything about it because I own the business. I’ve always been very bossy.
BBJ: What do you do when you’re not working?
McClellan: Through the winter, my one and only hobby is football. I’m a little bit of a gambler at heart. There are different places that have football boards, and I put $20 on each board, and I make the cross. The Seahawks are my favorite.
And I do take quite a bit of work home and work on Sundays. I’ve always done that and I take more now that I live alone, because I don’t care about housework and doing dishes anymore. I just like to do my books. So I pack it up, and somebody will carry it down to my car.
BBJ: Have you ever considered retiring?
McClellan: No. My husband was very disappointed in me because I didn’t retire when he did. He had to quit because he had arthritis so bad. He had these little go-karts, and when he bought his, he bought me one too, because he thought I was going to retire. Our doctor told him ‘you make her quit work or you’re going to lose her.’
But I can’t sit still. I can put up with about a week, when I go down south, and the next week I would start climbing the walls.
BBJ: What are you most proud of in your life?
McClellan: Everything. All my family, my health … it’s nice to have your family with you every day.