TRUCKEE, Calif. — When four long-time friends decided to purchase a local hardware store back in 1977, they never imagined they would still be involved in the business and that it would be vibrant and thriving 35 years later.
Howard Jones, John Feighery, Dane Skutt and Greg Hovorka joined forces 35 years ago to purchase the hardware store then known as Russell's True Value at a time when the business wasn't doing well.
“Randy (Russell) owned the business for a couple of years,” Jones explained. “There was two drought years before we took over and business was pretty bad. One day he (Russell) was talking and saying he was thinking of selling the business.”
And Jones and Feighery were interested in buying, while Skutt and Hovorka were looking for a new opportunity.
“We didn't have two nickels to rub together, but it didn't sound like much money back then, and thought, what the heck, let's buy a hardware store,” Jones said.
The day the four friends officially took over the store that eventually became Mountain Hardware and Sports was Sept. 15, 1977.
“It was exciting,” Hovorka said. “Owning a business had been a goal of mine since being in college. I never thought too much about failure. I guess we were young and stupid in a way.”
Skutt, however, felt a bit differently.
“Not having a hardware or retail background gave me a little trepidation to begin with,” he said.
Before taking over the store, Skutt, a Los Angeles native, was manager of the formerly downtown restaurant Grey's Toll Station; Jones and Feighery, who moved to North Tahoe from Los Angeles, had worked together as paint contractors for Sierra Paint and Chemical; and Hovorka, originally from Pocatello, Idaho, worked as an accountant for Tahoe Donner.
Through the help of friends, Skutt said, the four of them were able to navigate their way in the business world.
One of the first things the friends did was change the name of the business from Russell's True Value to Mountain Hardware and Sports.
“Part of the deal was that Randy, the former owner, was a big sportsman, so he had a lot of fishing stuff, which we continued and we've grown on,” Jones said.
Looking around the store today, customers can find a variety of sporting goods such as — but not limited to — fishing rods and nets, tackle, waders and camouflage hunting jackets, along with kitchenware, furniture, clothing, shoes and outdoor gear.
“What I love is trying to meet and exceed expectations,” said Heather Svahn, who's been a buyer for the hardware store since 2005. “When an obscure part or hardware item that you need breaks, more often than not a customer can come in and describe it, and we have it. So we don't just have the basics for which you need with hardware and paint, we go deeper into being an all-needs hardware store.
“Complimenting that is a sporting goods department, a fishing department, home decor and clothing. All of those departments add to the sum, offering just about everything you could need except for food.”
The sheer amount of product selection impressed first-time customers Tonie Denning and K.C. Thornley, who own a second home in Loyalton.
“The extent of their inventory is quite amazing,” Denning said, while shopping Monday morning in the store. “It has everything. Sometimes it's a challenge to see everything because there's so much to look at.”
Guided by customers' requests over the years, the store has been able build up its inventory selection, Jones said.
“We always had a Want List at the register, and when a customer asked for something that we didn't have, we would write it down,” he said. “While we didn't have a lot of capital (starting off), we would review those lists monthly, and say, ‘Oh, here's something that keeps showing up on the list and local people would like us to carry.'”
Once the store became more profitable, the four owners were able to purchase products the customers were requesting, thereby expanding the store's inventory.
“We just try to gear the business to what our customer is looking for,” Jones said. “We're not trying to sell the customer what we have, but have products our customer wants to come in here and purchase.”
From the very start, providing great customer service has been high priority for the business, and it still is today.
“We don't do a lot of pointing when people ask where things are — we take people there,” said Doug Wright, general manager of the store since 1999. “If you come into our store and there are lines, we're calling for cashiers and we will (continue) until every register is open, and there's not a minute where we can't open every one (of them) anytime we're open.”
Adding to the customer's experience is the store's knowledgeable staff, who can direct customers to the right products and explain how they should be used, Wright said.
“I think it's a pleasure to come in here, and I'll be back,” Denning said.
This year, Mountain Hardware and Sports was selected out of more than 4,000 Ace Hardware stores in the nation to be named “Coolest Hardware Store on the Planet,” a distinction only three stores were given in 2012.
The three winners were chosen by Ace based on their diverse product selection and the ability to localize their stores.
“I'm very proud of that honor because that means somebody looks at our store and feels that it is a unique store and it's done right,” Jones said.
Svahn echoed that sentiment.
“It's an exciting award, and we're certainly proud to have won it,” she said. “It's what we do day in and day out, and what we enjoy doing. But it hasn't changed our thought process for what we do and our store values.”
While the store's values haven't changed during the past 35 years, the business itself has evolved and grown.
In 1991, the hardware store moved from its original Gateway Center location into its current spot at the intersection of Donner Pass Road and Highway 89, causing it to expand nearly 17,000 square feet in a single day.
“It was literally one day,” Hovorka said in a press release. “We closed the store down for one day and enlisted the Truckee football team and a few churches to help us move into the new building in exchange for donations we provided to their organizations.”
There were several reasons for the move, Skutt said.
“We were definitely bulging at the seams,” he said. “Plus, the opportunity to move into what I considered to be one of the best retail locations in the state was something we had to go for.”
Another big change for the business happened a decade later — in 2001 — when an employee stock ownership plan was put into place, making the business employee-owned.
“We realized that since none of us had kids who would be interested in running the business, we needed an exit strategy,” Hovorka said. “We knew we had to develop people who would take our place when we decided to leave.”
And that day is soon approaching.
Come this spring, three of the four original founders — Skutt, Jones and Hovorka — will retire, meaning 100 percent of the business will be employee owned. Feighery, the fourth founder, left the business in the 1980s.
As for why they are retiring now, all three founders cited, in part, their age.
“For me it was my age and wanting to enjoy my golden years not working,” Jones said.
Skutt echoed that: “Partly because of age and the ability to retire, and I think it's just a time when the employees are ready to push the business into a new future,” he said.
A future, Hovorka said, that he wishes continues upon the success the trio helped build over the last 35 years.
“(I hope) that it continues to grow and possibly even multiply, and that the business maintains the high level of service that we've always offered,” he said.