Strictly Business: National chain with local input

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor



Walk into the brightly-lit, spacious Parkrose Hardware store in east Vancouver, and you’ll almost certainly be greeted by one or more employees offering help you find something. These are people who know their merchandise, from the small fasteners that are nowhere else to be found locally to the big power tools suitable for a construction site.

The store has been a welcome sight on 164th Avenue for struggling do-it-yourselfers since 2003, and it’s secured a niche in the heart of big-box retailing. The fact that the Vancouver store, along with its older sibling in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood, are enjoying sales growth that’s double the industry’s average shows that local hardware stores still have services and products that customers want, says Bryan Ableidinger, Parkrose Hardware’s president. But like any business, it can’t afford to sit still.

The family has a long history in hardware. Ableidinger’s father got into the hardware business in 1965. The business passed from father to brothers Bryan and David, and now two of Bryan’s sons work for the company.

But the family felt it had taken the store as far as they could without major investments — and was ready to move on. So this month, they sold the two stores to a Memphis, Tenn. company called the Central Network Retail Group or just CNRG.

We know how stories like this usually end. We’ve all watched retail stores lose that elusive, special quality in the hands of corporate owners. Down goes the customer service, the hard-to-find, low-profit bolts and screws, the products that may not fit into a national retail format.

Bryan Ableidinger, who lives in north Clark County and cares about the business his family built, worries that local customers anticipating such a scenario will be disappointed about the new ownership. The story he wants to tell is what makes the new ownership firm different from other nationals swallowing up local small businesses and why he thinks the ownership change will be good for customers and the community.

In its three-year existence, CNRG has acquired 45 retail stores operating 10 different brands, mostly in Southeastern states. The company’s approach is to find a balance between the economy-of-scale advantages of national affiliation and local decision-making in managing products, services and staffing. And the right balance tilts toward strong local control, with the national affiliation there as support.

With Parkrose Hardware, Ableidinger sees CNRG lending its expertise in finance, marketing and technical services, while also offering “best practices” ideas from other stores. David Ableidinger is retiring but Bryan will stay on as a consultant. He’ll advise other retailers on Parkrose’s successful practices while spreading the word about CNRG to other mom-and-pop hardware store owners. He sees a strong possibility for more Parkrose Hardware stores to pop up in the area.

CNRG’s approach is a promising response to the industry’s constant change. Let’s hope that a trip to Parkrose Hardware a year from now, or five years from now, will feel just as good as it does today.