In a classic tale of Canadian bootstrappery, Walter Hachborn began in the hardware business as a 16-year-old stock boy at Hollinger Hardware in rural St. Jacobs, Ont., sweeping floors for $8 a week (half of which went to his mother for room and board). A dozen years later, Mr. Hachborn and two partners bought the store.
Spurred by turmoil in their industry, the trio would go on to establish Home Hardware Stores Ltd., which today has almost 1,100 independent outlets across Canada (plus one on the French island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, off southern Newfoundland) and annual sales of $5.8-billion, all built on a co-operative business model. As the company boasts, it is 100-per-cent Canadian-owned and operated.
Still headquartered in St. Jacobs, in the heart of Ontario's Mennonite country just north of Waterloo, the company grew to become Canada's largest independent home-improvement retailer, incorporating the Home Hardware, Home Building Centre, Home Hardware Building Centre and Home Furniture banners.
The retailer ranks a close third in sales to Rona and Home Depot, reported The Globe and Mail in 2014.
The canny Mr. Hachborn "was the driving force behind developing a Canadian co-operative hardware business during a time when big-box retailers, with manufacturer-direct buying power, were coming to Canada," said a company tribute. "He encouraged independent dealers to band together to form a dealer-owned hardware cooperative with an equal share and voice for every member."
Mr. Hachborn and his partners, Henry Sittler and Arthur Zilliax, were driven by dire circumstances in the business. Between 1955 and 1965, more than 1,000 hardware stores closed in Canada "because they couldn't compete with the mass merchandisers," Mr. Hachborn told Canadian Press in 1999, when Hardware Merchandising, a trade publication, named him Canadian Hardware Retailer of the Century. "I thought there had to be an answer."
Inspired by the success of the dealer-owned co-operative model in the United States, Mr. Hachborn and his partners organized the first meeting of 122 independent store owners at a hotel in Kitchener, Ont., in 1963 to plan a similar setup, and on Jan. 1, 1964, Home Hardware Stores was born, with Mr. Hachborn as president and general manager. The company's objectives, noted CP, were to eliminate the middleman's profit, allow dealers to pool and share buying power, and build strength to withstand any competition.
Sales in the first year were $4-million, but more importantly, the business model worked, for it allowed independent dealers to fend off "with personal service by its individual store owners wave after wave of American corporate chains from the 1960s to more recent times," noted Steve Payne, editor of Canadian Contractor magazine, in his tribute to Mr. Hachborn. "Revered among the dealers, the man was equal parts entrepreneur, business ethics preacher and community leader," Mr. Payne wrote.
The company successfully branded itself as uniquely Canadian, Mr. Payne noted, with its red-jacketed owners and "folksy, small-town flavoured TV commercials" that featured catchy jingles and promises of help for do-it-yourselfers.
The company's distinctive double-h logo caught fire in 2003, when Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne wore a Home Hardware T-shirt on Saturday Night Live. Thousands of the shirts flew off shelves in the coming days, with proceeds donated to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.
The following year, Canada Post issued a 49-cent stamp honouring the company on its 40th anniversary. "We're a nation of builders for whom the local hardware store is more than just a business," Canada Post explained. "It's the cornerstone of the community."
Mr. Hachborn, who died in Elmira, Ont. on Dec. 17 at the age of 95, was propelled by traits some might consider quaint: A profound work ethic and a sense of duty to his community. The company's dealers and employees "are driven by more than just the bottom line," he declared in 2004. "They care about building friendships, helping people and serving their communities. That spirit is what defines Home Hardware in the Canadian retail landscape."
He was also known for his deep Christian faith. Though he flourished among Mennonites, Mr. Hachborn was a leader in his Lutheran church in Elmira. However, as his son Bill eulogized, his faith was not unquestioning. Jesus had indeed died a sacrificial death, but what about Mr. Hachborn's friends who were killed in the Second World War, he wondered? Didn't they make the ultimate sacrifice, too? (Mr. Hachborn enlisted in the army during the war. Based in London, Ont., he procured supplies, and was told he was too valuable in that task to be sent overseas). He was a generous philanthropist but gave mostly anonymously, moved by the biblical dictum that "when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."
Under his leadership, the company instituted a policy in which staff dispensed with exchanging Christmas gifts in favour of donations to causes. These included Special Olympics Canada, Tree Canada and the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation.
"Walter used to say we're not in the hardware business. We are in the people business," eulogized Paul Straus, former company president and CEO.
Trim and bespectacled, Mr. Hachborn sported a trademark bow tie because he didn't want to get a long tie dirty and, because he made the rounds to stores, warehouses and factory floors, a regular tie could get caught in machinery. Some of his neckwear was incorporated into a quilt local artisans created a few years ago.
Walter Jacob Hachborn was born in Conestogo, Ont., on July 24, 1921 to William and Florence (Ritter) Hachborn. He was four when the family moved to St. Jacobs, where his father was a millwright at Snider Flour Mill. Walter attended a two-room schoolhouse across the street, and lived directly behind Hollinger Hardware, now Home Hardware's flagship location. He left high school in 1938 to begin work but later earned his diploma by going to night classes. The hardware business became his life.
In 1996, he worked alongside former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in a Habitat for Humanity building project in Kentucky.
Accolades were many: He received the Order of Canada in 2000 for being "as committed to small business in Canada as he is to the well-being of his community." In a local interview, Mr. Hachborn said he was stumped by the honour. The Order of Canada "was very nice and quite an experience, but as I asked the lady when she called, 'Why me?' There is not much to say about me. I am really a dull person."
In 2007, he won the Retail Council of Canada's Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 2015. Mr. Hachborn retired from day-to-day operations in 1988 but held the title of president emeritus until his death.
The company merged with Western-based Link Hardware in 1981 and bought Beaver Lumber from Molson Brewery in 1999. Home Hardware is a Gold Standard business in accounting firm Deloitte's annual list of Canada's Best Managed Companies – a winner for four consecutive years (2012 to 2015), noted Canadian Business magazine recently.
For company executives, the dealer-owned formula was easy to explain. "It's a culture of service," Terry Davis, who became CEO in May, 2014, told Canadian Business recently. "Retailers are normally controlled and owned by the head office. Our only purpose here is to serve those dealers in the stores, so we just have a different mindset," Mr. Davis said. "We are here to look after them. We are like a concierge service at the best hotels. I absolutely believe that makes us a strong competitor."
Mr. Hachborn's wife of 67 years, Jean Marie (née Brown), died in late 2014. He leaves behind a sister, Lorraine Mahn; his children Susan Heard, Elizabeth Hachborn and Bill Hackborn; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.