The Youngs' Rise to Ace Hardware Empires in the Mountains - TribPapers
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The Youngs’ Rise to Ace Hardware Empires in the Mountains

Erik (right) and Karl outside the new south Asheville store.

Asheville – Bill Young and his wife had always wanted to retire to the mountains. So, when the day came to say good-bye to a 30-year career as a program manager for IBM, Bill and his son, Erik, who had just gotten a degree in speech communication from the University of Georgia, were scouting around the Asheville area for a business opportunity.

“To make a long story short,” Erik said his father “had a connection” who suggested they look into owning an Ace Hardware store. They did some calculations and found the prospects workable, so they set up shop in the old Bi-Lo store in Weaverville in 2004. 

The business was doing fine, so they opened a second store on Merrimon Avenue in 2009. Another reason for getting a second store was that they knew Lowe’s was coming to Weaverville, and they wanted to “soften the blow.”

The original store was eventually moved into the Ingles’ plaza across the street. Erik said renting from Ingles has been a great synergy, as people can now do one-stop grocery and hardware shopping.

The Youngs now run five stores. They opened one in south Asheville in 2012, one in Mills River in 2015, and another in Enka-Candler in 2018. They also added Erik’s younger brother, Karl, to the ownership team. Karl has been working with the company since he started as a cashier in 2016.

Most recently, they moved their south Asheville store a few blocks south into the old Harbor Freight building. Erik said the move was motivated by the NC Department of Transportation. The Youngs learned six years ago that the building was going to be condemned for the widening of Mills Gap Road. But before they moved, they had to find another place, wait for Harbor Freight to move, and then revamp the interior.

Erik explained that ACE stores aren’t franchises. Instead, the company is a co-op, in which each retailer is a shareholder of Ace Hardware Corporation.
Erik said that by owning an Ace, store owners have more autonomy than they would with a franchise. For example, he gets to decide what products he wants to sell. He doesn’t even have to buy brands that seem to be synonymous with Ace, like Stihl or Big Green Egg; and he can even place special orders for customers.

Erik said it just happens that he likes Ace products, like Benjamin Moore paint. “I will not paint with anything except their high-end Aura.” He explained that it covers well, and he likes to use quality waterproof paint because he has three kids at home.

He buys about 90% of the 20,000 items he stocks from Ace and receives two shipments a week from a warehouse stocking over 60,000 items in Jackson County, Georgia. He buys from other retailers, and he likes to bring in products with local flavor to support the local economy. The racks of hot sauce and lotions at the Enka-Candler store’s POS are illustrative.

The Youngs also have popcorn machines in all their stores. “It’s just something we do,” he said. Kids will even beg their parents to “take them to the popcorn store.”

When asked why anybody would go to Ace when they could go to a big box store, he had a lot of reasons. For one, the stores are what the industry used to describe as “speedy-sized.” The parking is close to the door, and the stores are staffed with knowledgeable, engaged, and helpful associates.

Erik said Ace’s inventory is for home preservation, whereas that of big box stores is for home renovation. The big stores sell lumber, appliances, and flooring. If a closet door falls off its track, Ace will probably carry the hardware but not the door. Also, if somebody splits a washer or needs a couple nails, they can buy just what they need instead of a bag of ten. 

Erik said another difference is that he’s local, so he gets to base his purchasing decisions on the pulse of the community. He listens to what people are saying inside and outside the store, and he sees trends. 

He has an incentive to anticipate and right-size his purchases because once he buys something, he owns it. He can’t just ship it back to the warehouse. Selling hardware is seasonal, and failing to stock up on items like propane can make natural disasters worse than they have to be. 

Erik says he’s part of the community, and he’s not going anywhere. “I live in Mills River; I have three kids, and I enjoy being in it for the long haul,” he said.