The story of Blackhawk begins in 1976. I as working for Pitney Bowes selling postage meters when I begin to realize that my climb up the corporate ladder might be slow. My compulsion to tell management whenever I felt their plans or policies were ridiculous led me to the conclusion that working for myself might be the most prudent course of action. After goofing off one afternoon at Little Hardware, I realized that I would enjoy running a hardware store.
I threw myself into creating a business plan. After looking at demographics and the locations of existing hardware stores, I concluded that Starmount Shopping Center on South Boulevard at Archdale was the ideal place to locate. With a completed business plan I began the process of looking for investors. I took my carefully crafted master plan and showed it to my friends Curt & Jeanette Gray. Jeanette, a Charlotte native, tactfully told me that my idea for a location was horrible. She suggested Park Road Shopping Center would be a much better location. Her former neighbor and friend Porter Byrum was the owner of Park Road. She offered to show him my business plan. My chance introduction to Mr. Bryum was the first instance of many where dumb luck comes into play in Blackhawk’s history. Apparently, God looks out for drunks, fools, babies and naive dreamers.
In my initial meeting with Mr. Byrum he explained the Park Road was the first shopping center in North Carolina. When the shopping center opened in 1956, there was hardware store called Center Hardware. It was located in the space where The Tennis & Ski Shop is now. He said it had been closed for about ten years and that he had been looking for someone to reopen a hardware store. In what ranks as one of the all time great leaps of faith, Mr. Byrum agreed to lease space to someone with zero retail experience and extremely limited funds. To even describe the venture as “under capitalized” would be overly charitable.
The space agreed upon was the warehouse portion of the vacant Saunders building, a local version of Service Merchandise. The problem with this location was the floor of the warehouse was four feet off the ground, which meant it was not accessible from the street. To overcome the problem, Mr. Byrum suggested we mimic a country store with a large porch he had seen in the mountains. Building a wooden facade with a large porch would disguise the fact the building was a warehouse. The resulting building is now the home of the Great Outdoor Provision Co. If you look closely, you can see the curb cuts where trucks backed up to a loading dock. The original loading dock doors are now a combination of bay windows and entry and exit doors for the outdoor store. Again dumb luck prevails in that solving an access problem ended up creating a very unique looking hardware store. The resulting building looked how people imagine an old time hardware store should look.
As I was lowering a “Coming Soon” sign down the front of the building, luck was apparent again, when I saw my current boss driving straight towards me in the parking lot. He didn’t recognize me and my hardware career did not start prematurely.
Having secured a location I began the staffing process. On the recommendation of a friend I hired our first employee Dan Griffin,who would later become Blackhawk’s first manager. Dan would bring the retail experience I lacked. Dan had just finished high school and had worked in the returns warehouse for Richway while he was in school. Our second employee was Paulette Luczack whose parents had just moved to Charlotte from Buffalo with Gold Bond. She wanted to work a year to establish residency and be eligible for in- state tuition . She fit our mold of having no hardware experience whatsoever. These hires established a hiring pattern that we still follow today. Blackhawk hires for personality and friendliness rather than hardware experience. We have found that hardware knowledge is much easier to teach than personality. The entire operation could be a text book example of OJT (on the job training). Our combined background included virtually no retail, hardware or business management experience. Being rejected for a part time weekend job at another hardware to get experience should have been a clue as to how ill-prepared I was.
Once the staff was in place, we began to up-fit the interior. This was the beginning of a pattern where Blackhawk does everything possible internally, whether its merchandising, fixture construction, computer wiring, or video installation. Having outfitted the interior with cedar boards, we hung antique tools and signs to complete the old store look. We were ready to open.
Although the warehouse was 10,000 sq. ft. in size Blackhawk only occupied 7500 sq. ft. A Radio Shack occupied the front quarter of the building. A wall was erected down the center of the building to make our opening layout 5000 sq. ft., because we only had enough fixtures and inventory to fill that amount of space. The other 2500 sq.ft. was a large empty warehouse.
On January 13, 1977 Blackhawk opened for business. Our first day sales were $141.95 to 46 customers for an average sale per customer of $ 2.88. The first month we sold $ 8036.07 to 2234 customers. I am pretty sure the owners of the 20 or so other hardware’s in town were not laying awake worrying about the new hardware juggernaut on the scene. The business vaulted to sales of $152,912.99 for the first year.
The next couple of years saw slow but steady growth. The next major event in our history was Barbara Wilkerson joining us. My wife Barbara was working as a systems analyst with Burroughs Corporation in their hospital computer division. She had kept her job so that we could live on her salary and plow what cash the store generated back into inventory.
Barb’s arrival marked the beginning of what has become a hallmark of Blackhawk, the establishment of unique niches that take advantage of our customer base. One of the first things we noticed when we opened was the large volume of female shoppers. They would walk in and say how they loved a hardware stores, stay five minutes, and leave. It became obvious that we needed to find something to take advantage of the traffic we were getting.
Barb enjoyed cooking and watching Julia Child, which led us to the idea of opening a kitchen shop within the store. This necessitated our first trip to the Atlanta Gift Mart to find sources for gourmet kitchenware. For the following thirty years we have gone to the mart twice a year for at least a week to look for new items and niche opportunities.
For the kitchen shop we created a raised area in the front of the store to house what became the “Kitchen Connection”. It quickly became apparent that broadening our scope of merchandise was a good move as sales to our female customers grew dramatically.
Finding more niche opportunities became our new goal. By listening to our customers we found our second area of specialization. At that time we carried what was then the standard four foot display of Amerock cabinet knobs. People were always asking if there were any other choices in knobs. Our first move was to add another four feet of Amerock and twelve feet of knobs from another company. With the expansion we began to get requests for higher end solid brass knobs and added the Ives and Colonial Bronze lines. When we reached a thousand knobs we created an ad campaign that had a drawing of a knob with the caption “1001 Knobs on Display.” We ran in the local section of the paper two to three times a week. In addition to attracting new customers, employees of other stores saw the ad and began referring customers to us. We realized that being dominate in whatever niche we chose was important to our success.
On our trips to Atlanta we had found a startup company called Charleston Forge which had a very upscale builders hardware showroom in Lenox Square Mall. The store had an impressive selection of Baldwin Hardware’s interior and exterior locks mounted on display blocks. It became a biannual stop for me to look at their selection and the display methods they used. On one visit we arrived just as they were starting a going out of business sale. With a little bargaining and a lot of soul searching we agreed to buy all the Baldwin lock displays for $2500. Not having enough money in the store checking account to cover the purchase we wrote a personal check. We loaded up the car with lock displays and headed home not knowing if Baldwin would even sell to us.
We literally had to beg the sales rep for Baldwin to agree to sell to us. He only wanted to deal with “stocking” dealers. Since we could barely afford to buy the samples, it was impossible for us to commit to buying the multiple variations of deadbolts and interior knobs that each display would require. After a lot of talking we were allowed to buy but at a much lower discount than a “stocking” dealer. Our main competition at that time was old line builders hardware distributor Delph Hardware.
One thing that our advertising of cabinet knobs accomplished was getting the sales people at Delph to send customers to us for cabinet knobs. They didn’t want to take the time to look through catalogs at knobs for individuals who were remodeling their homes, since the big money was in selling a complete hardware packages for the entire house. From these referrals we began to get a limited amount of business from builders whose clients found their cabinet hardware at Blackhawk.
By this time, we had torn down the wall between the store and the warehouse to expand into that space. The entire back wall became a display of cabinet knobs. Once again, dumb luck played a big part in Blackhawk’s success. Delph Hardware had been purchased by a company from Winston Salem and renamed Delph Context. Apparently, the company had overextended in it’s expansion process and began to have cash flow problems. The sales people at Delph were telling contractors that their locksets were on “back order”. Contractors were getting desperate to get the hardware so they could close sales on homes. When word of Delph’s financial problems finally got out, we had an immediate flood of people wanting to buy hardware. We were not stocking Schlage locks at this point. But quickly realized that this was where the bulk of the lock sales were. From this point on we began a steady expansion of our builders hardware till we now have one of the largest selections in the south.
Our business was beginning to pick up speed at this point. We took another unusual step in our expansion journey when we decided to add 2000 feet of second floor warehouse and office area while keeping the sales floor area below open. At one point we had four foot square holes dug in the middle of aisles to install footings to support the overhead floor. We had welders come in at night after we closed to erect the steel sub-flooring. Business actually increased during the construction phase as people seemed to gravitate toward the danger of open pits and the chance to be knocked unconscious by falling construction material. As the business continued to grow we needed more space. We approached Radio Shack and offered to upfit a new space for them to occupy between our location and what is now Omega Sports so we could use their 2500 sq ft space. Once again, the shopping center helped us make it happen. With the additional space we had now grown to 10,000 square feet. Unfortunately there was no more room for expansions at this location.
At this point in our history, our first big competitive challenge moved to Charlotte. For a number of years we had been traveling to Harrisburg Pa. for hardware co-op buyers markets. We would go through Washington D.C. and visit a hardware chain called Hechingers. It had what I considered the best merchandised and nicest stores in the country. When I heard that they were expanding and coming to Charlotte, my heart sank. When I found out that they were going to be two miles away at South Blvd. & Woodlawn Rd., I felt we were toast. The first two years they were open we experienced a slight drop in our customer count,. But our sales increased slightly as the cabinet hardware and kitchen shop portions of the business continued to grow I realized just how important our location & niches were to our success.
In Atlanta the Orange monster was starting its rampage across the south just as Godzilla had in Tokyo. When Home Depot finally arrived in Charlotte, a fierce battle occurred between The Depot and Lowes. Since this was the first place they had gone head to head and was in Lowes’ backyard, a price war developed. It became such a furious battle, we started buying product from both since they were selling items below wholesale. It was nice for a while, since we used their credit cards, bought at great prices and financed the purchases for thirty days. They did balk when we started ordering and asking them to deliver.
It took us 10 years for us to reach $1,000,000 in sales per year. It took until 1990 before we got within a whisper of doing $2,000,000. But our growth had slowed as we reached the limits of what we could be done with limited warehouse space and no outside sales area. In fact every piece of merchandise or bag of concrete we sold had to go down a flight of steps from the overhead warehouse and down another set of steps and out the front door. We began to look around the shopping center for a larger space. Our initial preference was the A&P store, which is now a Michael’s, since it had about 20,000 sq. ft. of space and would offer outside sales area in the rear. Then out of the blue JC Penny announced the closing of the Park Road store. It was a BIG opportunity since Penny’s had 30,000 sq.ft on the main floor, a 20,000 sq ft basement, and 3000 sq. ft. of offices overhead.
Once again Mr. Byrum showed his faith in our ability and potential and agreed to let us have the space. Apparently that faith was not shared by everyone since a number of people took time out to tell me that it was one of the dumbest thing that they had ever heard of anyone doing. I was only thinking about my earlier trips to Hechinger’s and how much that operation impressed me and having the space to try to duplicate it. We began planning how to utilize that much space and what other niches we could try.
We came up with a plan and had ordered a $100,000 worth of shelving and several hundred thousand dollars worth of inventory, when our hardware co-op asked for a copy of our new lease When I told them I hadn’t signed one yet, they looked at me like I was from outer space. I explained that Mr. Bryrum had told me I could have the space and that I would rather have his word than a signed lease from someone else. Apparently the southern concept of a man’s word being his bond was lost on the co-op.
We took over the building and covered the windows with brown paper so we could begin the remodeling and up-fitting of what was then a 35 year old building. The first sign that this might be a good move was when people seeing the Blackhawk Hardware coming soon sign began banging on the door. They wanted to know when we were going to be open since they needed some hardware. When we told them that we were already open up the hill they would give us a blank stare. We had to take them out into the street and point up the hill, to show them where we were located. Although it was exciting to think of the potential being in the center of the shopping center had, it was also a little disconcerting that we had been open for 15 years, sent out hundreds of thousands of circulars and spent several hundred thousand dollars on newspaper ads and this many people who were already shopping in the center didn’t even know we existed. It really gave me a perspective on how difficult it is to build up a good reputation and customer base.
The remodel brought a few interesting surprises. The first venture into the basement was a surreal experience as we wandered in the dark with flashlights through a thirty five year collection of mannequins. It would have made a perfect setting for a slasher movie. The building was built during the height of the cold war. The basement was an emergency bomb shelter complete with the rations that would see people through an atomic blast. The mannequin/slashers would never go hungry if they liked really stale crackers.
As with our previous expansions and remodels we did as much of the work as possible. The part of this project that stands out the most in my mind was putting windows in the upstairs office so we could overlook the sales floor. We first had to cut out a large section of suspended plaster ceiling to clear a site line from above. Next we had to knock a hole through the brick office wall for the windows. The building must have been build on a cost plus contract because it was the thickest most stubborn wall I can imagine. We had a rather large young man who was home on summer vacation tackle the job. In fact he was a tackle on the South Carolina State football team. He would hit the wall with a 12 lb sledge hammer and the whole floor would shake with barely a dent in the wall. The wall was 18 inches thick and the bricks were laid in an interlocking pattern. It took a day to knock 18×24″ hole. I also learned first-hand that concrete hardens over time. When we began digging the trench for the computer and power to the cash registers, the jack hammer literally bounced off the concrete.
Once the remodel was nearly complete we started merchandising the new store. We closed the old store on Sunday September the 8th 1991. A collection of employees friends and relatives boxed up the inventory from the old store and moved it across the parking lot to the Penny’s location. We were closed a total of one half day and opened in the new location Monday morning at 8 AM.
The opening of the new location required us to adopt a new way of thinking about how to operate a retail hardware. In the past everyone worked the entire store and could help a customer in any department. With a 30,000 sq.ft of space this became impractical since we would end up with ten associates in nuts & bolts trying to wait on people and none in lawn & garden. We adopted a system where we had a department manager and associates assigned to each area. The big adjustment was in lawn and garden bag goods. It was a psychological struggle to commit to buying a half truck load of various mulches. We had never had a forklift or a large storage area. Ordering half a truck load was a stressful decision. Nineteen truck loads later that spring we were much more at ease with that decision. The new housewares department was larger than our original store. The grill & birding departments became major contributors, while lumber, vanities, doors & wallpaper were eventually dropped. The first few months were a succession of firsts; first month of sales greater than $200,000; first day with a paying customer count of 1000; first month of sales greater than $300,000 & first year with sales greater than $2,000,000. The following year saw a 50% increase in sales.
In spite of, or as a result of the rapid sales growth we began to experience cash flow problems. The sales increases required that we rapidly increase the inventory size. We also refused to lower our customer service standards. The size of the location required more personel than the sales would support. The next couple of years made the questions about the sanity of such a dramatic growth strategy seemed valid. After several years of loses we turned the corner and began to be profitable again.
During this period we developed a strategy to improve customer service that has become a cornerstone in our effort to provide world class customer service. The change came when a customer came to me and complained that he could not find any help. When I looked out on the floor, I could see at least eight associates. In a fit of anger I grabbed a roll of black electrical tape and went to three key spots on the sales floor and taped a “X” on the floor. The instruction was that someone was to stand on the “X” and use the radio to make sure that every customer who entered the area got the help he needed. The next couple of months brought extended discussion among both managers and associates about the wisdom of this idea. As the number of customer comments about the level of service increased the idea gained acceptance.
The next fifteen years brought steady growth and a refinement of store layout and procedures. In 2003 came our next major expansion was the opening of The Gardens of Blackhawk. The location for The Gardens is another interesting story. In the early 1980’s there was a restaurant/bar in the basement of Bridge’s Furniture, where the piano store and clock shop are now located. The Flying Tiger karate school is in the basement area where the restaurant was. Three young guys bought the bar and renamed it Whispers. This was at the height of the disco craze and the bar became a phenomenal success. People of a certain age often comment about their experiences and memories from this place. Charlotte’s night life at this point was extremely limited. In fact, downtown on a Saturday night looked eerily like the movie scene where a newspaper blows down an empty street just after space aliens have obliterated the human race. Whispers became the “in” place and grew to take up several basements under the shopping center. The room for underground expansion ran out at the wedge shaped opening where the shopping center makes a bend and starts up the hill. In this outdoor area Whispers owners built a patio bar. They spent several hundred thousand dollars enclosing a open air bar with stucco walls and iron work. It was a beautiful layout and became the home of the Hawaiian Tropic bikini contest on Wednesday nights during the summer. The contest finals drew 5000 people at its peak The original owners got married and started to raise families and decided to get out of the night club business. For the next fifteen years a succession of people tried to reopen restaurants or clubs in this location with limited success. The patio bar never was reopened.
During this time I would drive by the abandoned patio area and think that it would make an incredible place for a garden center. When the lease on the area finally ran out, we approached the shopping center about leasing the space. Once again they demonstrated faith in us that we would take a space with visibility challenges and be successful.
In our normal pattern of doing things we tackled the design and building of a garden center. Our first challenge was refining our concept for the garden center. Most garden centers have large outdoor areas and are plant focused. We have a limited amount of area relative to most operations and decided to implement a boutique garden center concept. We would concentrate on having unique plants in a setting much like a customers own garden. Rather than concentrate on having huge numbers of plants we would have unique specimens. We would also be stronger in hardscape items like fountains, statuary and planters. We worked for a couple of years trying to get the “look” we were after with limited success. Luck again played a significant part in our success. We hired a young lady who had left another garden center. She immediately made a difference. She enjoyed working with us and recommended another part time associate from her former employer who was struggling with the down economy and reducing staff. As months passed they raved about their former manager’s merchandising and display skills. When it became apparent that their old employer was shutting down, they suggested we talk with their former manager.
In our initial interview he showed interest but didn’t want to lose his old assistant manager, We ended up hiring both. We ended up with a complete crew with the skills and knowledge that we had lacked to this point. The garden center began to “blossom” as our displays and plant varieties were upgraded by our new crew. Shortly after this the sewing shop that was in the adjacent basement became available. This afforded us 2000 sq. ft. to further expand our selection.
In the process of writing this I had to do a lot of looking back and research. While reviewing sales data, I realized that from our opening day of $141 and 46 customers we have gone on to sell $130,000,000 worth of hardware to over 6,000,000 customers. Even in my wildest dreams I could never imagined that we would do this. If you somehow managed to read this far, you will have noticed that I have mentioned very few associates by name. This was on purpose. I realized I would never be able to properly recognize everyone that helped make Blackhawk what it is today
While the term “Family business” is often used in an unflatering manner to describe a small businesses, it really does describe Blackhawk. We are a family business both literally and figuratively. We have had people work through high school & college with us and now their children are working with us. We have several couples working now and I can think of at least eight couples who met and married while working here.
Blackhawk consists of a group of people of who enjoy what they are doing, and with whom they are doing it. That is reflected in how they treat customers. On exit interviews with people who are leaving for what they feel are better opportunities any number have said that Blackhawk is the best place they have ever worked. I feel this is one of the primary reasons for our success. Our associates take ownership in Blackhawk and have pride in what has been accomplished. As a result they provide what we feel is world class service.
We hire with the thought “Would I like to sit down and have lunch
with this person for the next five years”? The average an employee has been with us is over 7 years. Of our 75 associates, eight have been with us more than 20 years, twenty over 10 years, and forty four have more than five years of service. Of that seventy five, nine have managed other hardware stores before joining Blackhawk . Combined our associates have over a thousand years of experience in the hardware business. It is a pleasure to be involved in a business where people know what needs to be done and do it, ans where everyone takes pride in being among the “Best of the Best”. Without this wealth of talent and dedication we would never been able to achieve ths success we have had.
Having just completed my first novel, I am wondering if I should change my name to Ernest as in Hemingway ( not T. Bass).