Ace Hardware CEO John Venhuizen Q & A

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Ace4John Venhuizen is the Chief Executive Officer of Ace Hardware, which is the world’s largest retailer-owned hardware cooperative. Ace Hardware stores are owned by individual business owners who face many of the same challenges as other entrepreneurs.

I sat down with John to share his perspective on how small business owners can be successful in a highly competitive business environment.

Can you give us the background of your career at Ace and when you took over as CEO?

I’ve been at Ace for 23 years and have been very fortunate to have received a lot of opportunities in a number of varied roles. What has kept me here are, predominantly, two things, as well as being very fortunate to get a lot of interesting positions. A lot of us like showing up every day with a little chip on our shoulder, knowing we compete with some of the biggest, best, most well-funded companies on the face of the earth, literally. We get to duke it out every day with small, mostly family-run businesses around the world in a really competitive business.

I always joke with our folks here. It is the ultimate David and Goliath story. There are periods of the year where Home Depot might have more cash in the bank than we may sell in a year. As you may know, David wins that fight and we plan to, as well! Secondly, sometimes it’s not so much what you do; it’s who you do it with. There’s just something about the people at Ace, be it in the field, at corporate, or storeowners who have been a joy to work with. That’s probably defined my career. It’s what we do and who we get to do it with.

Ace is the world’s largest retailer-owned hardware cooperative. Can you explain how that makes business different compared to your competitors, and what challenges that presents for you as CEO?

Two seconds on a cooperative. A cooperative is nothing more than a business entity structure. It’s subchapter T of the IRS Tax Code. You could be public, you could be private, sub-chapter S and we’re T, which means that we operate the business on behalf of the owners. We need to distribute meaningfully all of the earnings back to those same owners. That’s what a cooperative is. For us, there’s no perfect governance structure. There are pros and cons being public, private, co-op, S Corp, you name it. In the cooperative, it’s very interesting that our shareholders — the only owners of Ace — are our customers. Our customer, in a very real way, is our boss and our owner. There are definitely some challenges there.

The positive that we try to accentuate here is, when your customer is your shareholder, it becomes very difficult to lose sight of who it is you serve. We want to act differently because of that. The truth of the matter is, everybody claims they like to serve their customers, but they’re trying to make as much money on them as they possibly can. It’s not the case when it’s the shareholder so that gives us an opportunity to act and walk, and lead in that servant-hearted way that we think makes us a little different and gives us a competitive edge versus most.

One of the things that’s beneficial for a business is to undergo a review of its operations. When you took over as CEO of Ace, what were the strengths you saw at Ace, and what were some of the areas you wanted to improve?

The world seems to become increasingly competitive. A constructive critique of the business is critical and I’d argue it has to happen every day. We talk about the three C’s here. In our business, like most, it seems to get increasingly capital-intensive. It’s requiring more and more money. It seems to get progressively more complex. The world doesn’t seem to be getting simpler, and it is absolutely competitive. Not only physical stores, but digital, the omni-channel, e-commerce and digitally ubiquitous nature of it all. In light of that, the ability to constantly step out of the churn of day-to-day operations and look, how are we advancing in light of all of that change, to constructively try to criticize our own business and our own business model so that we can compete and win the future? I would say it’s become nearly a daily task.

How important do you think it is for a business, big or small, to take a candid look at itself so it can become better?

It’s imperative. You either differentiate or die. We humbly say to our folks — look at some retailers, many of whom were better and smarter than us and had more money and they’re dead and gone. Circuit City, Borders, Linens & Things — gone, gone, gone. Remember when Circuit City went bankrupt and we said, “Best Buy is going to take over the world,” and then a year later they were all going to die because they were showrooming for Amazon. You can just see the disruption and change. If you’re not critically looking at your business versus just resting on your laurels, there’s no chance. Ace is 91 years old. It would be a colossal mistake to think we’ve had nothing but success, everything is great, we’re going to hit cruise control and get in the back seat – no chance. The phrase we’ve stolen is “productive paranoia.” We want to consistently be productively paranoid. Not just paranoid, but productively paranoid. Because, there’s a lot of folks out there with a ton of money that are smarter than we are, trying to knock you off the hill, every day.

Do you have systems in place to determine how your customers view Ace, and how important is feedback for any business?

Yes, lots of it. Both formal and informal. We have a lot of formal mechanisms in place to make sure that our customer — when I say customer from this office, I’m talking about a storeowner – is heard from and listened to. Ultimately, the end consumer is what really matters — those neighbors who shop our stores. We have a lot of formal mechanisms in place to constantly solicit feedback from our stores. We just finished one this year — we call it the “What’s on your mind?” survey. We get almost three-quarters of our stores weighing in with quantifiable and qualified comments. It’s got to be 150 pages of comments — I read every one of them.

In addition, when your customers own you, they know that you’re readily accessible. One of the powerful things at Ace is the power of informality and access. These aren’t store managers who have a difficult time getting to someone from corporate. We are constantly getting feedback from storeowners — not store managers — which is good. It can be taxing and it can be a lot, but it is very good, as well as getting out into the field on a regular basis.

I’ll end by saying this. There’s two really, really important buildings at Ace, from which a lot of information needs to be garnered — and you and I are not in one of them. It’s a store and a distribution center. That’s the core of our business — not the corporate office. We’re always trying to make sure that we embody the fact that we want to be the most bottoms-up company in the world.

What are you most proud of during your tenure at Ace?

Definitely the team. By the team, I mean the enterprise. We use the slogan around here — “Together we are Ace.” This means, distribution centers, field staff, stores and corporate. When we join hands and go somewhere together, pretty awesome things can happen. We are not nearly as large of a company as, say, Home Depot — our stores sell roughly $14 billion to their consumers — Depot sells $80 billion so they’re a much larger company. But, this will be the third year in a row where we’ve grown faster than them on the top and bottom line. That’s all because of the team. I would just say, the efficacy of teamwork, which is not natural for people, is the driving force. I’m proud of the team’s ability to overcome the natural tendency to strive for control and credit and in turn, muscle up the discipline that it takes to move forward as a team. I find them to be inspiring.

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What do you attribute to the success of Ace as such a well-known brand across America?

We’re fortunate to have a brand that’s pretty well-beloved. There are hundreds of things. It’s never a silver bullet or some pixie dust. But, two things in particular have been very very important as to the efficacy of our brand over a long period of time. One is, the consistency and clarity of the brand promise. For almost 91 years we have been telling consumers the same thing — “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware folks.” We’re going to out-serve our competitors to our neighbors. We don’t call them customers — we call them neighbors. Stores in the neighborhood, locally owned, serving our neighbors. We’ve used different agencies and creatives. All with varying degrees of creativity and success, but throughout all of it, consistency and clarity has been there. I’d say it’s a brand promise that consumers get and understand that matters. You notice I used the word promise — it’s because we believe brands are promises.

Which leads us directly to the second thing, which is arguably the most important, and that is fulfilling a promise. That’s why our stores get all the credit. Every company talks about customer service. Our stores live it — they truly do want to live out being the best, most helpful store on the planet. When your promise is clear, there’s passion around it and when you deliver on it, good things tend to happen. I give our stores all the credit for that. Delivering on the brand promise is what counts.

How do your independently owned and operated stores and storeowners define success?

There’s variety here, but three things are clear. Ultimately, if you own a business, the economics of that business have to be financially superior. Unit-level economics or store-level economics are ways we talk about it in our retail business. You can say all you want, but if your business is not performing financially, the rest is second place.

Second is customer engagement. Consumers love their neighborhood Ace store. We love when we do consumer research around our stores and they call it their Ace — it’s “My Ace.” You don’t hear a lot of folks say, “My Walmart” – though they are a terrific company. But we regularly hear consumers say, “It’s my Ace”. That’s an emotional engagement that, we think, matters.

Third — I’m not arguing 100 percent efficacy, but what’s very cool about local ownership is, just as important as profit and customers that love them, is giving back to their community. Being able to have a distinctive, unique impact in the neighborhoods in which they live. I’ve not experienced any businesses that strive harder to serve their local communities than what I see from Ace Hardware owners. You put those three things together and that’s a very special and unique business, and most of our owners — not all — but most of them, they’d take a bullet for any one of those three things.

Ace recently launched the Ace Center for Excellence. What is the Ace Center for Excellence, and how did the idea to open the Center originate?

Here’s my hypothesis. I joked with Dana Larsen – the woman that leads this initiative for Ace that when I first heard about the concept we now call the Ace Center for Excellence -, I felt like it was the epitome of arrogance. Who are we to go around telling other companies what to do? In hindsight, I now understand it was more driven, not by hubris, but necessity. We just won the ninth consecutive J.D. Power Award in our category. Nine years ago they started measuring customer satisfaction in home improvement and we’ve won every one of them.

After about three or four in a row, we started getting folks reaching out to us — how does Ace do it? You go up against some of the biggest, baddest companies on the planet and people want to know how we are doing this. After some time, we had to respond to them in some way. I’d argue the Ace Center for Excellence is just our humble way of saying, there’s a culture around here of not just talking about service, but living it in our DNA — that we can talk about in non-competitive ways, share the principles and help other businesses deploy them so they can have a similar culture or perhaps similar results. That’s how it originated – more folks were asking us for some insight. We said we should formalize it and launch the Ace Center for Excellence as another means to extend our brand promise.

To expand on that, why was the Ace Center for Excellence founded and, what is the goal of the Ace Center for Excellence in terms of your ability to impact the community?

The side benefit is, whenever we get in front of other companies and start talking about what Ace does, we learn from them too. Essentially, it’s to share our principles — why and how we do what we do. The why is probably as or more important than the how. We spend a lot of time on that. Then we help other companies deploy that into their own culture and permeate that throughout their organization through keynotes and workshops. So far, it’s been a pretty new, but very successful venture for us. Not just because we get to talk about ourselves, but because we get to learn from others.

What is appealing to some of the companies we’ve worked with, is, unlike some others you might be aware of, we didn’t go outside of Ace and hire a bunch of bubbly communicators, bring them in and try to share our story. No, we use actual people that are living it—people that are part of the Ace team. I think it was Dana that coined the phrase — we talk from success rather than about someone’s success. That resonates with most people in business because they’re in the trenches living it too.

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How does the Ace Center for Excellence differentiate Ace among its competitors?

That’s it. I’m not aware of a lot of other companies, if any, that you can tap into some of the insight that they bring from the folks that are actually living it. For example, the Disney Institute — we’ve used them and it’s excellent, but they’re not executives of Disney. These are outside people that come in and are very good communicators and they convey the Disney story and the magic moments. We chose not to go that route. We think there’s something about the DNA and heart of our service that we wanted to use our own folks. That has resonated with the companies we’ve worked with so far.

What is your vision for the Ace Center for Excellence going forward in the future?

Right now, I would tell you this, which may not be what you expected, there’s not a grandiose vision for this, other than we’re trying to handle some of what was coming our way and see if we can expand it a bit in a more formal way. Ultimately, if we can help some other non-compete companies and learn from them along the way, we think it’s a mutual, beneficial relationship. I’d argue that it is a two way street. We’ve got a lot yet to learn about how to optimize this. But, from the folks that we’ve worked with, so far, we think there’s a future here to both help and learn.

You’ve said that the Ace brand is a promise to consumers. Drawing upon your experience with Ace, what advice would you give entrepreneurs about how they can keep the promise of their brand to their customers?

First and foremost, there would need to be a rigorous, almost skeptical, analysis of what your brand promise is and a determination of, whether or not, any consumers give a rip or not. That, in and of itself, can be a real problem for many companies. Everybody likes to talk about the brand and the esoteric nature of it. Well, what is it? Forget what you and the corporate office think. What does a consumer think of your brand and do they care? Starting there, is paramount — if you don’t get some satisfying answers to this first question, the next question doesn’t matter. If there is some clear, distinctive, relevant proposition that your brand stands for then I’d say the next step before you get to the customer is, “Do you have the passion and capabilities within your organization to fulfill it?” If a brand is a promise that means the delivery of that, whether it be a service or product, has to come from people. Do they buy in, are they passionate about it and are they capable to deliver it? If not, you’re going to fail. The best way to kill a brand is to break a promise. Promise-breakers kill brands. Make sure the customer understands it and cares and then, make sure your own organization is passionate around it and have the capability to deliver it. If you’ve got that, delivering on that promise becomes who you are. You can sense a problem because we all experience brands and services and can see when there is a disconnect. In my opinion, those two things are the starting points, or everything after that will be up-stream swimming.

We live in a highly competitive world, and Ace has focused on customer service as a way to give your dealers a competitive advantage against the big-box stores. What role does great customer service play in the long-term growth of a business like a neighborhood Ace hardware store, and what is the lesson other entrepreneurs can learn from Ace?

For us, helpful is our weapon in the world. We plan to own helpful. We believe that if you look at 100 years of retailing, the high-touch, high-service, local ownership business model is one that has and will hunt for another 100 years. In any business vertical, whether it’s grocery, electronics, hardware, or home improvement, the retailer that can best serve their customer in a convenient, friendly, local way, has a place for their business.

It’s sort of a bifurcated strategy, where on one end of the continuum you have a big box, low-price, somewhat cookie cutter retailer. And then the other end of the continuum is where the small, convenient, local, high touch service retailer operates. We think the key is to never get caught in the middle. I’ll give you an illustration. If you think about grocery, clearly, the Kroger’s and the Walmart’s of the world have taken a lot of market share on the big-box, stack-it-high, watch-it-fly, low price model— there’s certainly a place for that. But, on the complete other end of the spectrum, almost like the opposite end of the continuum is a Trader Joe’s or the communities locally owned grocer, which is a small, local and convenient. That’s exactly what we believe Ace is — a small, local, high-touch, high service business. Depending on one’s business model, if you’re not the low-price, big-box, stack-it-high, watch-it-fly play, the best place to be is, don’t get caught in the middle, and leverage that service. The brand of service that has the highest engagement because they’re delivering consumers at a superior level, tends to have a wonderful place in the market. And, you can’t fake that for very long.

Economically, being the low-price leader is a difficult proposition. But in terms of fulfilling that brand promise, if I say I’m low-priced, it’s pretty easy to fulfill operationally. I’ve got a bin tag – or a price – on a product. It either is the lowest price or it isn’t. But, being the best at service is all about people. And that is where things get difficult. At Ace, we’ve got 100,000 people around the world that are waiting on and serving customers. Doing that as your brand promise — serving one’s neighbors better than the competitors — that’s a difficult proposition and why we say you’ve got to have it baked into your DNA because you can’t fake service for very long.

What are the core business principles for success which drive you every day, as the CEO and that you try to teach to your store owners?

I would honestly tell you, in terms of teaching our storeowners, I learn a lot more collectively from our retailers than they ever get out of me. That’s why I say, we want to be the most bottoms-up company in the world. If you think of Ace as a franchise, we might arguably have the least restricted policies, which can make your skin crawl sometime, but we think, in balance, it is a wonderful model. Because, empowering local owners who are going to know their local customers better than we ever will – is infinitely more valuable than what we can dream up at the corporate office. From a principles perspective, I’d say we believe the best way to lead is with the heart of a servant and the mind of a small business owner.

I say this humbly as the leader of a somewhat big business. Big is almost always bad because it leads to so much bureaucracy and bureaucracy just suffocates the life out of people. Especially when those people are both your customers and your shareholders. The worst thing a local Ace owner has to experience – or any small business owner for that matter is their corporation or their mother-ship — whatever you want to call it — suffocating the crap out of them with bureaucracy. Big far too often leads to bureaucracy. Whereas, small is almost always informal and informality liberates people. That’s why I go back to informality and access as a really powerful tool at Ace. We try to make sure that we are constantly — however big we may get, first and foremost, trying to think like a small business owner – like you own the place – with – the fragility and nimbleness of a small business owner.

Secondly, in our business, regardless of how successful we think we are we must lead with the heart of a servant. We believe that a servant heart is not the enemy of a profitable business, but rather, the enabler of it. There are one hundred business principles that matter, but if you think within the framework of hands, heart and head, we believe that servant hearts and small business minds are even more important than the discipline of executing hands. Usually, when we botch it up, it’s because we’ve messed up on one of those things.

One of the reasons that store owners, cooperatives or franchises are so successful as a business model is that, in addition to the brand, the corporation creates business systems for small business owners to use in the management of the business. Why are business systems so important to both your store owners and to business owners, generally?

A lot of it is because of increasing competitiveness and complexity. The systems should reduce the time and the amount of complexity. Consistency, excellence, lean operations – we’ve studied and learned from all of that. We’ve studied the Toyota manufacturing facilities, for instance, and tried to embed that into, not only our own corporation, particularly within our distribution centers, but also in the stores. Making sure that the way we receive, sort and put away product is as efficient as possible so the time and complexity of that effort gets reduced and waste gets eliminated. Ultimately, the efficiency matters so that you get freed up on time the stuff that really matters, which is serving—that’s waiting on, taking care and fulfilling the needs of our neighbors, our customers.

What I’ve found on these systems—which is important and it’s critical—very often folks fall in love with the system. They fall in love with the means instead of the end. It’s like falling in love with the mailman instead of the love letter he delivered. The goal is not ever-increasing amounts of systems. The goal is to reduce as much waste and time owners have to spend tasking so they have more time to do what 1) they love and 2) we think they’re good at, which is serving and waiting on their neighbors. It’s really important in any business. But in our business it’s important because we are predicated on relationships and local service. The more we can reduce complexity and task and increase efficiency is the more time you get to spend with your customer.

What you’re saying is the systems have to help with the benefit that you’re trying to produce.

Precisely.

What advice can you give small business owners about the need to manage their cash position and maintain a positive cash flow in the business, which is always a critical issue for small business owners.

Let me give you context. My perspective on this is that business is rather akin to a sport. If you want to be good at a sport, you had better figure out how to keep score and put points on the board. If you don’t, you probably won’t be good at the sport. If you buy that analogy, it shows you how desperately small business owners need to understand how we keep score, which is with money. The way you put points on the board is money. In business, we keep score with money. Business is not about money – but it is the means by which we keep score.

The three most important things — sure, there’s 33 things — but, the three most important things for any small business owner, including our Ace local owner, is first, revenue. How am I generating revenue and what are the drivers of it? Two is, what is it costing me to drive that revenue? Most people call those expenses. A third, which is where folks can really get balled up, is cash flow. Now, we’re attaching the P&L to the balance sheet.

If folks understand what am I doing to drive revenue, how much is it costing me to generate that revenue and what sort of cash is left after I pay for more inventory, capital improvements, quite likely a note to the bank and all those other things that don’t show up on the P&L? They can have a very positive influence on the economics of their company. If not, they end up doing something they may love, but don’t put points on the board or understand where those points are going to be able to perpetuate it. They have to go together or the whole thing falls apart.

One of the things which has impressed me about Ace Hardware is the passion your store owners have about the hardware business. That’s not something you can teach. How important is passion for the business in being successful as an entrepreneur?

Passion could be the X factor. I think most of our Ace owners are, primarily, passionate about serving. They bleed customer service. They enjoy it, they like it, they’re good at it, it’s part of who they are, and, they’re students of it—constantly trying to improve. That passion matters a great deal, no question about it. It’s hard to quantify, but you can feel it and see it, particularly, as a customer. I would say however, with an asterisk, that passion alone is not enough. You have to have talent and discipline, as well.

I joke with our owners, sometimes, particularly those who are investigating whether they want to become an Ace owner and if they have enough passion around service or the business model. I’ll say, if you don’t believe that it takes more than passion, watch the early rounds of American Idol. Lots of passion, very little talent. You need both. Passion coupled with the talent and the discipline, especially, as a business owner, when you put that together, it is special. One without the other can tend to be a pretty average business, if not a train wreck.

One of the important transitions every entrepreneur needs to make is the transition from working in the business to working on the business. In other words, the business owner has to look out to the future and become the master strategist of the enterprise. How important is planning for the future in your business and for any business owner?

Critical. I think John Wooden might be the greatest coach of all time — clearly, the greatest basketball coach of all time. I think he had it right. He was a big preacher of the 4 P’s. If you want to perform, whether that be in sport or business, you need to plan, prepare and practice. Plan, prepare and practice. Especially when business starts to get good, that can be the first thing to go and you start to take it for granted. You take your hand off the wheel, your foot off the gas and you start coasting. That’s the quickest way to die. But, the discipline to keep after the planning, the preparation, the practicing — business practicing is more like executing — that’s hard, nitty-gritty, detailed, non-sexy work, but in today’s world where there’s several thousand competitors, some of whom you know, some of whom you don’t know, I don’t know how you survive without it. Maybe, there are a few businesses that are insulated and nichey enough and lucky enough where you don’t have to plan, but in ours and in most, no plan is a plan to fail. Plan, prepare, practice or you won’t hit the numbers.

To make good decisions, you have to have good information. What are some of the information reports which help you make better decisions and, what advice can you give small business owners on the importance of creating good, internal systems for getting the information needed to make the best decisions for a better business?

Also increasingly important — we probably say this as often as we say hello and thank you — you’ve got to be fact-based and data-driven. We all have many reports — daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, some historical trending. But, fact-based and data-driven is absolutely critical. Again, much like we talked about before, there are two opposite but equally dangerous ditches one can end up in. The first is winging it with no facts. Facts are stubborn, business-friendly things — No facts puts you in the ditch.

The other ditch is analysis paralysis. With the cloud and big data and all the buzzwords going around, people can get lost and you get analysis paralysis and you end up making no decision at all. We think there’s a healthy balance between being fact-based and data-driven and overly reliant about it. Pick your number, but at 75, 80 percent, pull the trigger. There is still human intuition and gut that matters. It’s why understanding the business deeply matters. But, both of those things have to come together. It’s like the combination of science and art. Both matter. Fact-basedand data-driven to a degree, but at some point, in today’s fast-paced global world, you aren’t going to get to 100 percent before you have to decide. Pull the trigger at 75 or 80 percent. But, make sure that 75 or 80 percent is still fact-based or data-driven.

To drive a car, you need gauges to tell you how fast you’re going and how the engine is operating. That type of dashboard for businesses is found in the reports which give you a quick read on all the critical variables in the business. Do you have a system in place to tell you what you need to know about Ace Hardware when you walk in the door, Monday morning? How important is that for you, as CEO, to have those reports?

It’s like anybody else. There are things I look at daily, some weekly, others quarterly, yearly or even over decades. They all matter and can be quite useful if you have good people who are well informed, listened to and with the ability to connect the dots. But to steal your car analogy, the balance of what you review is important. Many tend to fall in love with but one or two metrics. That can be dangerous. Like driving a car, if you look in the rear-view mirror for too long – you’re likely to end up in a wreck. If you fiddle with the sound button too long – you’re likely to end up in yet another wreck.

One of the things that’s been a big benefit to us, as we’ve looked at historical trends, is how the numbers have revealed some of the weaknesses in our business. When you look at historical trends, you can start to see atrophy that you can’t see in the daily numbers, or within the weekly numbers. Sometimes even the yearly numbers don’t give you a wide enough perspective to see the larger picture which the historical trends can reveal. We’ve used that as a mechanism to try to do two things — use the data for a point of reference to provide the clarity needed for making good management decisions, because data within itself is worthless without context. And, by looking at the historical trends and making the best management judgments we can from those trends, we can leverage our strengths and more effectively address our challenges. Then the management decisions we make become fact-based and data-driven, rather than simply the subjective ‘gut decisions’ of management. The systems we have created have helped us give our management team the data they need to make the best decisions for everyone. I’d argue that it’s not the every-day numbers that help you see the trend, but rather, it’s the historical compilation of all that accumulated data that’s put into meaningful reports which have helped us expose some challenges and weaknesses about our business that we would not have seen without having those systems in place. Then, once you have the data to make the tough decisions, it’s about the discipline and the guts to go tackle it. I’m not simply arguing efficacy here, but at Ace we do have a desire to do that as part of our management principles.

One of the benefits to Ace’s governance structure is that – while we take quarterly results seriously – and the team works their butt off to beat the numbers – we have the luxury, and I’d argue the benefit, of being able to think and act in terms of success over quarter centuries – not merely quarters.

What’s the best advice you can give an entrepreneur about becoming a successful business owner and remain successful over the long run?

Ace is the place. What other business would you want to be in? That’s my answer. OK, I suppose Ace isn’t for everyone. I do believe — and it doesn’t matter if you’re the owner or you’re an employee within that business. Usually, people love what they’re good at, and they’re good at what they love. It has to start there. I think that’s where you’re going with your passion question. The myth is that, because you love it, or you’re naturally good at it that, it will just be easy. I’ve been in business a long time; I’ve never seen anything easy. If there’s a way to make money in it, there’s a lot of people out there who are better, faster, smarter than you going after it too. So it’s hard — by definition. But, if you love what you do, then the effort becomes worth it. For any small business — particularly hardware retailing — it’s hard, it’s competitive, it can be brutal. The hours are long and the business complex. So if an entrepreneur lacks a passion for the business – I think burn-out becomes a reality sooner rather than later. On the other hand, when entrepreneurs – like most Ace owners – believe they are involved in meaningful work that matters – and they derive joy from the benefits they bring their community; well, that’s the sort of thing that gives you the energy to keep after it. And for what it’s worth, I’d encourage small business owners to do just that. Keep after it. Despite what they may read in the press, small business owners are the fuel for global economies.

Is there any other advice you’d like to offer entrepreneurs?

Maybe not advice, but encouragement. I’m probably biased because we lead a business, which is built on entrepreneurship. But I think entrepreneurs, capitalism and business in general often gets a bad rap. Business owners are too often labeled with a bad brand, particularly, once they become successful. People forget how hard it is to start something from nothing, by definition the work of an entrepreneur. So, I would merely encourage entrepreneurs. Capitalism in general and small business owners in particular – though often vilified in the media – are not only the heartbeat of America, but actually one of the greatest forces for good around the globe. It’s not to say there aren’t some bad apples. Of course there are. But on balance, its’ the small business owners who are doing most of the heaving lifting, job creating and wealth building in this world. Their efforts may not show up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every morning, but every day thousands of them are using their business success as a springboard to significance. Every day these entrepreneurs are delivering jobs, paying taxes and often, using their financial success to help the least, the little and the most vulnerable in society. What would we do without them? Frankly, at Ace, we find it inspiring!

I want to thank you for your interview—your insight and inspiration to small business owners.

John Venhuizen is President and Chief Executive Officer of Ace Hardware Corporation. Venhuizen, 45, is a 22-year veteran of Ace. Prior to this role, Venhuizen most recently served as President and Chief Operating Officer. Venhuizen joined Ace within the marketing department in 1992. After serving a number of roles both in corporate and the field within marketing, category management and merchandising, Venhuizen was promoted to Manager of Marketing in 2000, where he oversaw Ace’s brand strategy, customer relationship management initiative, e-commerce and consumer research, among other duties. In 2004, Venhuizen became Director of Business Development where he led Ace’s aggressive growth strategy and implementation. In 2006, Venhuizen was promoted to Vice President of Business Development. In 2008, Venhuizen served as Vice President, Business Development, Retail Training and International as Ace launched Ace International Holdings to expand brand licensees around the globe. In 2010, he was promoted to Executive Vice President where he oversaw Ace’s supply chain, IT, international and strategy.

About Tom Ryan 12 Articles
Tom Ryan is the director of marketing. Tom has both a law and marketing degree from St. Louis University.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to speak to Mr. Venhuizen about some issues that we can’t seem to get resolved by anyone in lower positions in the company. These have been ongoing since we opened our new store three years ago.

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