Hardware, Heritage and Heart: An Interview with Tom Glenn
Jul. 3, 2018
At the Highway 58 Elder’s Ace Hardware store, it’s crowded on a Wednesday afternoon. I briefly wonder how all these people are running errands during business hours in the middle of the week (I’m jealous), and if I’ll find a parking spot. I manage to snag one, and friendly Ace employees greet me and direct me to the attached offices where I meet with Elder’s Ace Hardware President and Chamber incoming board chair Tom Glenn.
He tells me it’s intentional that the offices are attached to the busy store, one of 20 Elder’s Ace Hardware locations across Chattanooga, Cleveland, Knoxville and North Georgia.
“I want to smell the sales floor,” Glenn says. “And I love being able to go chat with a customer, or say to one of our store employees, ‘Hey I'm working on something back here, what do you think about this idea?’”
Glenn’s passion for the business his father started, Elder’s nearly 500 employees and the Chattanooga region begin to shine in the first few minutes of our interview, and it’s clear we’re in for a treat with Glenn in our Chamber’s top volunteer leadership position.
Trend: Does being president of hardware stores mean you’re an awesome handyman?
Glenn: Let's see; I’m trying to think if my wife is likely to read this article or not. (Laughs) I don't remodel the bathroom or replace floors for fun, but I can fix a leaky faucet or a toilet problem.
Trend: Where was your first job? Did you grow up working in the business?
Glenn: I've been around this business all my life. My grandfather and great uncle were in the hardware business in Chickamauga — Glenn Brothers Hardware. My Dad worked with them and later launched our Ace Hardware stores with three partners. I was 9 when this store opened and our family came here on Sundays, when we were closed, to help set up for the week.
My brother and I had to cut galvanized pipe and thread the ends using the pipe machine. Back then, a retailer couldn't buy different lengths of pipe from a wholesaler.
I think we got paid a nickel a pipe. Pretty sure you have to be 18 now to cut and thread pipe, but child labor worked for us. (Laughs)
Trend: What pressures are associated with family business? Did you plan to take over?
Glenn: No, there was no pressure at all for me. Dad always said, ‘If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, I'll sell the business one day. It's no big deal, do what you want to do.’
After college, I did a year in banking, went to grad school and worked for a national accounting firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a few years, then I came back here.
I became president within a few years, and my brother Grif is our CFO.
I think I was more passionate about small business than the hardware business - the flexibility to choose your path, but I do love our business. I just love everything about this place: the people, the products, the ability to go in any direction since Ace is a co-op.
We own the stores, and we own the cooperative too. It's very flexible. We need a certain core assortment of merchandise as part of Ace, but we can be very entrepreneurial.
In terms of our name, we were just Ace Hardware for 45 years and four years ago we updated it to Elder's Ace Hardware after my Dad. We wanted it to be personal, and we wanted the local aspect to resonate since Ace Hardware is also a national brand of 5,000 stores formed in 1924 to capture the buying power of a larger group.
Trend: How do you see your dad’s legacy reflected in the business?
Glenn: The privilege of working with my Dad has been the most significant experience of my career. Dad was always open with me, and we'd talk, but it wasn't the talk I learned from. It was watching who he was. He was always positive, humble and a Christian gentleman.
One of my biggest takeaways from him was the importance he placed on people. He was obsessed with knowing your name. And he wasn't really that good at remembering names, he just worked at it, and I do as well. I even try to learn many of our employees’ spouse's and kids’ names too.
One of my favorite stories — and we're lucky we were able to get him on video telling this before he passed away in 2014 —is from Dad’s later years. He happened to be on the sales floor when a customer came in with two 5-dollar rebates he had never received. And Dad went to the cashier and got 10 dollars. The gentleman’s name was Walter, and so he gives the 10 dollars to Walter, and he said ‘Look, if the rebates show up, come back and pay us the 10 dollars, and if you forget, don't worry about it.’ Sure enough, within the week Walter came back and gave Dad the 10 dollars.
What I love about the story is the way Dad finished it with, ‘From that point forward, when I saw Walter in the store, I’d call him Walter and he’d call me Elder.’ And so that relationship was built on a problem well-handled.
We use that video in training, because those are the stories we have to create here. We can't treat you like a number.
Trend: What is your unique customer service perspective?
Glenn: For me, one of the most important customer service philosophies is that anything that goes wrong in this company is my fault. The inclination sometimes for leaders is to identify the person who’s at fault. That doesn't get you anywhere.
Maybe we didn't communicate something properly, or reinforce it with a system, or a checklist or training. Maybe I'm not modeling something or we just never discussed it. Maybe it's a value we haven't embedded or on-boarded people to understand. So any of the challenges or problems that we have, I accept as personally my fault so I can fix it.
Also, we can't have one standard internally and then think we're going to treat our customers differently.
Our home office has a 24-hour pledge to our stores, which everybody in the office has signed, that says if the stores need something, we’ll get back to them in 24 hours. No excuses. We might not have the answer, but we're going to tell you when we will have the answer. It’s a cultural item to remind our people of our obsession with service, even internally.
Trend: What do you think is the most important aspect of managing people?
Glenn: I think the most important thing is to give them confidence. I feel that way because I was always treated that way. I believe Dad thought I could do anything, and that gave me confidence.
Of course, you have to speak truth and be straight while still preserving the confidence of your people. When our customers are engaging with our people, those customers need to feel comfortable, and most of the time that comes from the confidence that our people have in themselves — confidence that comes from thorough training, communication and empowerment. If I get a call from a dissatisfied customer, one of the things I deeply believe is to never second guess the manager. I’ll have a discussion with the manager privately to understand the situation, but I want them to be empowered.
Trend: What excites you about your new role as chair of the Chamber board?
Glenn: I'm excited about Chattanooga, where we are right now and the opportunity in front of us. I can’t take credit for putting it this way, but the first renaissance in Chattanooga was about place — the aquarium, the riverfront, creating the place of Chattanooga. The second renaissance is about people. The Chamber’s focus on workforce development, inclusion, talent and Chattanooga 2.0 will move the needle, create more opportunity for people and drive equity. I’m confident we’ll stay uniquely Chattanooga while also providing more opportunity for our member businesses and our growing entrepreneurial community.
It excites me to be part of that momentum so we can improve the lives of others. The Chattanooga Chamber creates opportunity for businesses, and by definition that creates opportunity for our neighbors. So, I believe the Chamber accelerates opportunity for everybody.
Trend: How does Elder’s contribute to workforce development in our region?
Glenn: I'd like to think we're a great place to introduce young people to the workforce. They work with a team, we offer a good bit of training and they work with customers. I co-teach our orientation seminars because we want all our employees to feel the family, feel the local, feel the smallness.
And, I'd like to think we do parents a favor by smoothing out a few rough edges. I know my son and daughter benefited from working here while in school.
I give a special pre-orientation class for our youngest employees called My First Retail Job. We go over the fundamentals of how to be successful in this job and beyond. Many of our young people will serve five or six years with us if they start as a junior in high school and work through college, and that’s hugely valuable, especially once they’ve been here a year or so. We touch a lot of young people in the community, and we take that seriously.
We offer various certifications for all our folks and training on customer service and specific products. We have a development plan for everybody in the company.
Many of our employees are very talented with DIY projects. We participate every year in United Way’s Day of Caring and our teams take on many of the tougher projects. In fact, our Director of Marketing partners with United Way to identify qualified projects that’ll be tackled that day, helping determine what’s doable for volunteers and what isn’t.
That said, being the best do-it-yourselfer isn’t the most important thing for us in hiring. Our focus is helpfulness and customer service; you have to have empathy for the customer and relate to them. We offer seminars and courses for learning products and such, and employees learn from customers and their Elder’s peers. We hire for attitude and cultural fit; we can teach you the other stuff.
Trend: What do you like to do in your free time?
Glenn: Family vacations. My daughter is married now and my son’s in school at UTC, but we still spend time together. When our kids were growing up, our summer vacation was almost always a national park.
I'm the vacation planner of the family. And the problem is that the vacation plan is not sleep late, drink a cup of coffee. My vacation plan is, ‘It's 6 a.m.! What are y'all doing? Come on, let's go! We've got to see everything!’
That quickly got to be a joke, so I've tried to ease up.