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How Does a Company Stay in Business 100 Years?

(Photo by Tom Egelhoff)

I would like to offer my congratulations to a very special business. In my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, there is a company that’s been around for over 100 years. Owenhouse Ace Hardware began operation in 1879 as “Benepe and Davidson” and eventually become Owenhouse Hardware. To put this in perspective, Custer’s Last Stand, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, just down the road about a hundred miles, took place just three years earlier. The Civil War ended 14 years earlier.

This year, Owenhouse Ace Hardware, will be starting their 133st year in business. That’s a pretty remarkable feat when you really stop and think about it. This store began operations when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still attacking wagon trains along the Bozeman Trail. Long before electricity, cell phones, automobiles, faxes, computers and most of the modern conveniences most of us take for granted, and would find it hard to do without, in today’s business world.

How many thousands of employees passed through the doors over this period of time? How many managers, owners? How many products rose in demand and just as quickly became obsolete as technology marched into the industrial and electronic age? They went through a depression, two world wars, ten recessions, and every economic condition imaginable, – yet they are still with us. And, they are still thriving despite the arrival of both Lowes and Home Depot. In fact, four years ago, they opened their second location.

So the question remains… how does a company stay in business 100 years? And, can we learn any lessons from these companies? How does that kind of business “culture,” perpetuated over such a lengthy period of time, survive, despite the biggest change that affects almost every business – The human factor?

Building a “Business Culture” with people

Larry Bowman, owner of Owenhouse, has a very simple philosophy, when it comes to employees. “Hire for attitude; Train for skill.” He feels he can train an employee to be successful in the hardware business, but cannot teach them how to have a good work ethic, and to take ownership of their job. They must possess those attributes before they are considered for employment.

If you stopped 100 people on the street, and asked them which company in Bozeman has the best customer service, nine out of ten would probably say Owenhouse. Customer service training is top priority. All employees have earpieces for communication. When you walk in and ask for help, the counter people will direct you to the area you need, and there will be a knowledgeable person waiting there to help you.

Does it cost more for a company to provide this level of service? Of course it does. But, if you ask customers if they mind paying the same, or in some cases, a few cents more, compared to the service they can expect from the typical “big box” store, most have glowing comments on the service they receive at Owenhouse. This level of service is a shared experience for employees. They know they are doing much more than the average level of service that a customer expects. When they go out in the community they hear the positive comments from people they meet. This is the type of “culture” most businesses try to achieve — but rarely do.

It all comes down to attitude. Will your business last 100 years? It’s what happens inside your four walls that make a business successful — not what happens outside. So here’s a high five from me, and all the people of Montana who’ve passed through your doors. Well done. We hope you’re around for another 133 years.

Do you have Owenhouse Ace Hardware experience you’d like to share?

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