How the Largest Family-owned Hardware Store Chain in America Ties Business Strategy with a People-focused Culture
Next time you’re out for a drive in the quaint, bucolic New England countryside, chances are good you’ll hear a commercial for a hardware store chain with big growth aspirations.
No, not that big box retailer with the orange aprons.
I’m talking about a business that started in 1908 with just a single store in Massachusetts and has steadily grown into the oldest family-owned hardware chain in the country: Aubuchon Co.
If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, it will eventually. Aubuchon (“oh-bah-shon”) has plans to expand beyond its home base in the Northeast U.S. and add to its tally of more than 100 stores. Expansion, I should stress, doesn’t mean cutting corners on the very ideals that made the company’s culture.
“Our purpose is to serve those who depend on us and build on our heritage with passion and humility,” Will Aubuchon, president and CEO, proudly proclaims on their career site.
I find it fascinating to watch a family-owned business stay true to its roots, even while growing larger through acquisitions and bringing in new talent under the same corporate umbrella. How does Aubuchon maintain talent consistency, I wondered? How do they find people with the right fit?
Now, I’ve staffed plenty of multi-unit operations before, but never a hardware store — so I invited Aubuchon’s Chief People Officer (CPO) Jillian Montmarquet to join me on “Smarter” to hear the secret to their people strategy.
Growth is the Name of the Game
Aubuchon currently operates eight brands in nine states, but up until last summer didn’t have a CPO. Montmarquet joined the company in August, attracted by a passion for business.
“The draw for me is an appreciation for business. I love getting involved in operations, and I love figuring out how to drive business strategy forward,” she said. “People are the way to do that.”
They are, for sure.
Carving out a new HR role on the senior leadership team says a lot about management’s intentions around the people side of the business. Montmarquet immediately picked up on that while interviewing for the role with the CEO and CFO, Will and Jeff Aubuchon, respectively.
“What I quickly learned,” she said, “was that every conversation started and ended with people.”
She also learned just how deeply involved the Aubuchons are in creating a culture where everyone is family — regardless of surname. That means plenty of leadership visits to its 100-plus stores, empowering people to make decisions and care for the customer, to do the right thing.
The intentionality behind creating special experiences where people can contribute and be appreciated for the work that they do convinced Montmarquet that this was the place for her.
“It was a little bit of a leap of faith, but through the process, there's been a continued appreciation for ‘How can we invest in our people? How can we make sure that there is someone bringing the people strategy to the forefront in all of our business discussions?’”
With Montmarquet on board, Aubuchon now has someone in place to help staff up while the company expands into new regions.
“Growth at this point is the name of the game,” she said. “I would anticipate that we'll see 10-plus percent growth in our workforce annually. It's probably closer to 20-plus percent.”
CPO as Player-Coach
Montmarquet’s roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-it-done approach isn’t what is thought of when you see the title CPO. Yet, I find that there are many talent executives of growing companies leading from the front. Jillian epitomizes the player-coach who leads a small but mighty HR team.
“Anybody that's working in a small- to mid-size organization needs to be a hands-on strategic leader,” she said.
I believe many of my readers can relate to this style of work. Being a player-coach brings a valuable dimension to the CHRO’s role. It creates a real understanding of how the business needs to work and how your team can get the job done by doing more with less. One way to accomplish that is by finding opportunities to scale the support using technology.
Digitizing the Talent Experience
Like every organization today, Aubuchon is wringing out greater efficiencies through technology. It plans to launch its first in-store self checkout by the end 2023, on top of a broader digital e-commerce transformation that began several years earlier.
“So it was a natural fit to start a conversation with Phenom around how we upscale our internal work, and focus on talent acquisition in new ways where we can meet candidates where they are,” said Montmarquet.
At first, though, her instinct was to do what others in a similar situation would do — allocate budget dollars to hire a talent acquisition person.
“That’s what you do,” she laughed. As talks with Phenom deepened, however, Montmarquet began to approach the situation differently.
“As I started to work with the team at Phenom, it became clear to me that with the same spend, I could actually touch candidates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
She’s exactly right. Reducing redundant tasks and supporting candidates in the off-hours is an important part of partnering technology with a great TA team. Even the most committed recruiter in the world is not going to be logged on at 2 a.m., but a chatbot will — 24/7.
How Culture Ties In With Career Paths
I've had my fair share of mergers and acquisitions. I’ve also opened new facilities, and they both have their own staffing challenges. That’s why the culture piece is so important.
One of Jillian’s C-suite colleagues, Chief Operating Officer Josiah Gates, actually started his career at Aubuchon as a part-timer after graduating high school, before climbing the ranks as a store manager and executive.
The culture must be extraordinary, because Gates has been an employee for more than 30 years. The reason is simple.
“Aubuchon invests in its people by recognizing talent and nurturing further development,” Gates said in a company article. “We have a career tab on our website that shows potential employees that the position they are applying for isn’t just a job for us to fill,” he added. “We say from the start: A job with us can be a career.”
It’s not just talk; this company is all action. They offer a range of benefits, including access to a grant fund that their 1,600 employees can either contribute to or tap from when things get a little tough.
Montmarquet, who’s been with the company less than a year, is surprised at the other benefits she hears about.
“What I've been finding over the few months that I've been here is every time I turn around I go ‘Oh, we do that? That's really cool. Oh, we offer that? That's really cool. No one told me that.’
“We need to tell people that!”
Fear not, Jillian! I’m helping you get the word out with this blog.
Passion and Humility
Passion and humility. Those aren’t marketing buzzwords, but an actual way of life at the company. The best thing you as a people leader can do is let individuals on your teams be exactly who they’re supposed to be. Then, layer technology on top of your team to help them do what they need to do faster and more efficiently.
And I just love how Aubuchon is already looking ahead to the concept of employee experience and engagement. They’re relaunching employee engagement surveys this year and I can’t wait to hear what they learn, because that’s going to be a critical part of their strategic planning for years to come.
I learned a ton from my conversation with Jillian Montmarquet, and I hope you did too. If you’ve got an interesting perspective to share, reach out to me on LinkedIn. Maybe I’ll have you on my podcast. Or, if you just want to talk through a talent issue, I’m here for that too.
“Smarter” is a podcast where I engage with top experts and senior leaders to uncover the big people trends, unlock the insights, and listen for new ideas related to purpose, people, and the processes that work the best. Let’s get smarter together.
Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.
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