South Park Street hardware store changes name but remains a family-owned business
Scott Novotny’s nickname was well deserved.
Each fall, the hardware store “Mr. Salty” bought from his parents in 2006 would become rimmed with pallets of ice melt in preparation for the inevitable slick sidewalks and driveways that accompany Wisconsin winters. The 50 pound bags would be stacked in front of the store along the South Park Street sidewalk and wrap around the south side of the building into the small parking lot and dwindle away as spring approached.
But in July 2017, Novotny died from bone cancer that was diagnosed just six months earlier. He was 55.
His death could have meant the end for Quality True Value Hardware but the tons of ice melt and the family business have been retained along with Novotny’s legacy and philosophies.
Novotny’s wife of more than 30 years, Sherry Novotny, continues to own the company while their three children have taken over the day-to-day operation of the 3,000-square-foot store that is split into two levels at the corner of South Park Street and West Olin Avenue. And just in case there’s any questions about how things should be done, there are not-so subtle reminders strategically tacked and taped up throughout the store.
The “WHAT WOULD DAD DO” signs can be seen, among other places, below the screen of the cash register at the front of the store and on a bulletin board in the store’s office downstairs. They help guide his children and the store’s two other employees in their approach to the business, that has been a staple here since 1945 and that has survived recessions, a fire in 1988, a few robbery attempts, the arrival of big box retailers and on-line sales.
“We find ourselves asking that quite a bit,” Shawna Novotny said of the signs about her father. “It’s been very difficult but we also have the sense that we’re making him proud and following through with what he wanted. We’re carrying it on and following in his footsteps.”
Shawna, 29, is joined by her two brothers, Shane, 34, and Skyler, 27. All three have worked at the store since before they graduated from Oregon High School and had been taking on more responsibility even before their father got sick. Only now, the weight of the family business is on their collective shoulders and has also undergone a slight name change to just Quality Hardware.
True Value was purchased by Acon, a private equity firm, earlier this year, a move that did away with the company’s co-op and left retailers without a majority say on the board of directors. The transition allowed the Novotnys to end its relationship with True Value and switch to Orgill as its primary vendor.
Orgill was founded in 1847 and is one of the fastest-growing independent hardware distributors in the world. The Tennessee-based company serves more than 6,000 retailers, has seen its sales double over the last 10 years with sales in 2018 expected to hit $2.5 billion. The move is allowing the Novotny family to lower its prices on 75 percent of its 16,000 items in the store.
“It ’s something that we’re really excited about,” said Shawna Novotny. “I feel some may associate going independent with slightly higher prices due to a lack of purchasing leverage, but that’s not the case.”
Shawna’s grandparents, Ralph and Gloria Novotny, took over the hardware store in 1971 with Scott and Sherry buying the business and switching to True Value from Ace just a few years before the 2008 recession. The closing of the Dorn True Value on Broom Street in February has pushed some customers to the Novotnys but with over 800 commercial house accounts, Quality Hardware derives just 20 percent of its sales from walk-in customers from the neighborhood. The remaining 80 percent is to management companies, UW-Madison, construction companies and other businesses. Although, the percentages are on their way to a more 70-30 ratio.
However, the store, with just two other employees besides the Novotnys, is not open on Sundays.
“We want to draw in more (business) from the neighborhood,” Shane Novotny said. “That’s one thing we’ve always struggled on and a lot of it has to do with the pricing perception. We beat or match (the big boxes) constantly on everything from snowblowers to faucets.”