Ed Marcum, Knoxville News Sentinel
Jan. 31, 2016
The Internet has replaced the train and the horse for connecting with customers, but a lot of things about the hardware business are not that different from when Knoxville’s House-Hasson Hardware Co. formed more than a century ago.
People still need nuts, bolts, nails and tools, although the ways of getting these things to them are a lot different now, said Don Hasson, House-Hasson president.
Now, the independent hardware stores served by House-Hasson can make use of a website customized to their stores that displays the more than 50,000 items House-Hasson keeps in stock at its Forks of the River warehouse/headquarters, he said.
“So, Sloan’s Hardware, down in Madisonville, can look like a really big deal on their website,” he said. “You can go click 50,000 items on their website and buy them, and our program is a ship-to-the-store program. So, a customer buys a Skilsaw, and goes down to Sloan’s store and picks it up, which keeps the store in the loop.”
House-Hasson Hardware is marking its 110th year. The company formed in 1906 when C.S. Hasson, Sam House and 12 other employees of Knoxville-based hardware company C.M. McClung left that company to start their own.
They developed the business by sending out salespeople to establish territories. The “railroad men” went by rail and worked the towns along the way. The “bush men” would arrive somewhere by train, rent a horse and explore trails in search of remote communities served by a general store.
Since those days, House-Hasson has grown to become the fifth-largest wholesale hardware distributor in the country. In December, the Hardware and Building Supply Dealer online industry magazine named Hasson one of its People of the Year in the home-improvement industry.
The article noted that House-Hasson had done a major acquisition that allowed it to make a significant expansion. In 2015, House-Hasson acquired the Alabama-based Long-Lewis Hardware Co. distributorship, adding 500 dealers, 10 salespeople and their territories, and boosting annual sales by $30 million.
This is actually the fifth such major acquisition the company has made since he joined it in 1973, Hasson said. These included Paris Dunlap Hardware, in Gainesville, Ga., in 1988; Alabama-based Sheffield Hardware in 1997; West Virginia-based Persinger Supply Co. in 2007; and Alabama-based Moore-Handley Inc. in 2007.
The Persinger Supply acquisition gave House-Hasson a facility in Huntington, W.Va., and Moore-Handley was actually a larger company than House-Hasson. Currently, House-Hasson has about 500 employees between its Knoxville and West Virginia locations, and serves a network of about 3,000 hardware dealers and lumberyards in Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Florida and the Caribbean islands.
“When I started in 1973, we were at $15 million, and this year we will go over $200 million,” Hasson said. “So, those acquisitions have been right helpful along the way.”
The Long-Lewis acquisition will allow House-Hasson to get into new markets in Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle, he said.
As House-Hasson has picked up stores and territories in new areas, it has developed some diverse customers. Each year, the company holds a dealers’ conference in which it gathers as many dealers as possible to check out new merchandise and to mingle. In the past few years, there have been more and more dealers from Amish communities.
“If you had been to our dealers’ market in Nashville, you would have seen a lot of black shirts and black pants and flat hats, because they have become a significant part of our customer base — maybe 15 to 20 percent,” Hasson said. “They make quite an appearance at one of these markets.”
The bulk of House-Hasson clients are independent hardware stores in rural areas, and its salespeople have encountered more Amish communities as they have moved into Pennsylvania and Ohio, Hasson said. His company has had to be flexible, he said. The Amish have different attitudes about what kinds of tools are suitable. Some won’t use power tools, but others do.
“They are different from town to town, and it depends on the patriarch of their group,” Hasson said. “We have some who use computers and communicate to us with computers. We have some who don’t even allow electricity in their stores. We have some who will drive a car and some who won’t drive a car. We have some who drive horse-drawn buggies.”
Getting Amish customers to attend the dealers’ convention in Nashville was a bit of a challenge. Some of the Amish dealers would not drive a vehicle, but did not object to going as passengers, so House-Hasson chartered a bus to take them from Pennsylvania to Nashville.
Dealers from the Caribbean make up nearly 20 percent of House-Hasson customers, Hasson said. The dealers’ market in Nashville saw a good representation of people from Belize, St. Johns, Nassau and other Caribbean locales.
“We had a real good bunch of folks who had never seen snow before,” Hasson said. “One of them even got out there and made a butterfly.”
House-Hasson moved into the Caribbean market about 18 years ago. Three salespeople cover the territory by air, working out of Florida.
The Caribbean is an interesting market because it has no “big box” stores, which are usually the arch competitors to House-Hasson’s dealers, Hasson said.
“You don’t see Home Depot and Lowe’s out in the Caribbean. They’re just not there,” Hasson said. “So the hardware stores can be ‘the guy.'”
One of the largest House-Hasson accounts there is Al Thompson’s Home Depot, on Grand Cayman.
The 130,000 square-foot store is a giant in its locale, Hasson said.
“And he was named Home Depot before there was a Home Depot so he just kept the name. He has done very well,” Hasson said.
Much of House-Hasson’s success has been because of its efforts in helping its independent hardware store clients compete against big-box retailers, Hasson said. Custom websites linked to the House-Hasson website, custom marketing programs, help with social media efforts and other types of assistance have been crucial, he said.
But, even with so much being done to help stores make use of the Internet to compete, sometimes it’s still necessary to do things the old-fashioned way. Maybe not with trains and horses, but close.
“We still make a paper catalog for about 20 Amish customers,” Hasson said.