Do it Best Corp. is truly a great American success story. What began with little more than an idea in 1945 has grown into a multi-billion dollar company. Its success is due to a unique tradition of hard work, innovation, and determination.
Arnold Gerberding's vision
Do it Best Corp., formerly known as Hardware Wholesalers, Inc. (HWI), began as the vision of Arnold Gerberding. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1900, Gerberding worked in the hardware business from the time he graduated from high school in 1919. Working as a buyer, he faced many challenges and frustrations getting products at good prices to compete with the popular and rapidly growing catalog and retail chains like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward, Inc.
He was always looking for a way to improve his store’s pricing and was impressed by the local farm co-ops. He started investigating this type of idea within the hardware and home improvement industry. He discovered that several regional co-ops had already been established and were experiencing success. In the late 1930s, he immersed himself in developing the concept for a new co-op that would serve independent retailers in the Midwest. Co-ops were based on a simple idea: many stores buying together could get better deals from vendors than if they bought separately. Not only would independent hardware stores become members of the cooperative, they would be the company’s shareholders as well. The profits made by the co-op would be returned to the members as a yearly rebate.
Once he had developed his idea for the company, he began approaching retailers to generate interest in getting it off the ground. After getting some positive responses, Gerberding quit his job and started contacting perspective members for the new company. For the company to move forward, Gerberding had to find retailers who were willing to pay $1,000 to join the co-op. So he went out on the road and met with independent retailers throughout Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
One of the first retailers he met with was C.A.E. Rinker, owner of Rinker’s Hardware in Anderson, Indiana. Gerberding stopped by Rinker’s store at 4 p.m. and was asked to wait because Rinker was too busy to meet with him. An hour later, Rinker closed the store and was planning to go home without talking with Gerberding. Gerberding asked Rinker if there was a place to eat in town and Rinker ended up inviting Gerberding to eat dinner with his family - where they spent hours talking about the idea for the new company. Later that evening, Gerberding was able to get an invitation to spend the night at Rinker’s house. The next morning, Rinker signed his store as one of the charter members of the company. “I met a man I never knew late in the afternoon,” Rinker remembered. “I invited him to my house for dinner, had him stay all night, provided breakfast in the morning, and invested $1,000 in a company I didn’t even know existed.” Such was the power of Gerberding’s persuasion that became the cornerstone for the company’s success.
Seven retailers met on June 28, 1945, in Fort Wayne to formally incorporate as Hardware Wholesalers, Inc. The first board of directors was elected and was formed entirely of co-op members - a tradition that remains to this day. The first annual meeting of the HWI shareholders was held in November 1945. There were 96 members and the decision was made to start operations as soon as possible.
The early days
In February 1946, HWI purchased 10 acres of property on Nelson Road in nearby New Haven. Due to federal restrictions on building after World War II and shortage of building materials, construction did not begin until August 1947 and was not completed until May 1948. In the meantime, HWI located its offices in small building in downtown Fort Wayne. A storage space next door was used as a warehouse. When that space became too small, additional warehouse spaces were found around the city.
Right from the start, staff were taught to focus on increasing efficiency, keep a watchful eye on expenses, and continuously improve operations. Fixtures in the newly-opened Nelson Road facility were built from scrap lumber and an old barn on the property was taken apart and the lumber used to build storage racks. This spirit of keeping costs low and efficiency high still drives the company to this day.
The first buying market was held in 1946 at the Catholic Community Center using a 66- by 90-foot auditorium for displays. In attendance were 60 members who viewed displays from 25 vendors. Early markets were held in the warehouse; later they were moved to a tent in the parking lot. As the markets grew, they moved to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Finally, in 1975, they moved the markets to the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, where they have been held ever since.
Gerberding was a big believer in using incentives to increase volume. In 1948, he started the one-order-a-week club. At that time, members would purchase in large quantities four or five times a year. Gerberding believed that retailers could be more profitable if they would order once a week. They could sell more items and would have less resources tied up in inventory. While this type of thinking is standard operating procedure today, at that time it was truly innovative.
The first advertising circular appeared in 1949. It was a single piece of paper with one color on both sides. Beginning with one circular per year, the program expanded to four per year and direct inserts were added. These flyers were originally designed to combat Sears’ catalog in rural areas, but they soon became a tool for announcing seasonal sales.
By the mid-1950s, HWI was an established, rapidly growing regional cooperative. Membership had increased three-fold, boasting more than 200 independent hardware and lumber retailers. HWI continued to add major product lines, recruit members, and expand membership services. Although most co-ops simply distributed product, HWI was one of the first in the industry to offer training programs for its members to improve their sales and merchandising skills.
Getting products to members in a timely fashion and in good condition was critical. Even though the warehouse was expanded several times starting in 1952, members could not always depend on a regular delivery day. In 1955, HWI added a private truck delivery system that provided members with lower cost freight and scheduled deliveries so they could promise delivery to their customers. The first fleet was made up of two 16-foot trucks. The drivers were local taxi cab drivers who made deliveries when they were off-duty.
Another advancement for HWI was its entrance into the computer age. HWI installed its first computer, an IBM 1401, in 1964. It was the biggest technological step in the company’s history. Although the 8K of memory it was equipped with is minuscule by today’s standards, it was an amazing amount of capacity for handling data in its day. The computer streamlined operations for ordering, payroll, and pricing.
After building HWI from merely an idea to a major company in the hardware distribution industry, founder Arnold Gerberding retired in 1967. The growth that occurred in this time was phenomenal; HWI expanded to over 200 members. In HWI’s first year in 1946, sales were $171,000; in 1967, sales were more than $35 million and rebates to members were nearly $1.2 million. In the late 1960s, HWI faced challenges from discount and chain stores. To keep the company growing and moving forward, HWI turned to Don Wolf as the second president of HWI.
Don Wolf brings big expansion
Don Wolf had been with HWI since 1947 when he began work in the warehouse building shelves out of used lumber. Don believed that, in order to keep the co-op viable, it needed to have more than one warehouse. In 1971, HWI opened its first distribution center outside of Fort Wayne in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Today, there are eight centers located in Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and Nevada. These centers have made it possible for HWI to grow from a small, two-car garage company in downtown Fort Wayne to a national operation that serves members all over the country and around the world.
One of the most important facets of HWI’s growth in the 1970s was the emergence of home center stores. In the 1970s, all the hardware stores looked the same, no matter if you were in an HWI store or one from Ace or True Value. HWI decided to differentiate its stores with the Do it center® concept, which revolutionized the way home centers looked. The Do it center concept used bright colors and signs to create a warm and exciting atmosphere for customers and employees. The stores looked bigger and products were easier to find. Test stores were opened in 1981 and the average increase in retail sales the first year was 50 percent. So overwhelming was the response to the new stores that in 1985, the National Home Center News reported that “HWI can legitimately lay claim to igniting the resurgence in hardware retailing, and even its co-op competitors concede its Do it center program has been a rousing success.”
Another notable accomplishment of Don Wolf was his leadership in charitable involvement. He was one of the co-founders of the Fort Wayne and Northeastern Indiana chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and served as the president of the national board of directors of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. Wolf was the founder of the Study Connection Program, a volunteer-based effort to provide tutors for young people in need. This nationally acclaimed program is now being duplicated in communities across America. His legacy of volunteerism continues today. The company supports Habitat for Humanity, the United Way, and Junior Achievement and participates in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and the American Heart Association Heart Walk.
Mike McClelland oversees merger and name change
HWI’s second transition in leadership came when Mike McClelland succeeded Don Wolf as president in 1992. McClelland came to HWI in 1974 and had gained extensive experience in personnel and marketing during his tenure. His focus on getting the most done in the least amount of time was a key element of his leadership of the company. In 1995, McClelland hired IBM and Purdue University to conduct a survey of the membership to determine what they needed to grow and be successful. The result of that survey was the Do it Best Vision, which provided more than 30 new or enhanced programs and services to HWI members.
In 1998 HWI combined with Our Own Hardware, a move that brought together the two most member-focused co-ops in the industry. The histories of both co-ops are closely intertwined: When Arnold Gerberding was researching co-ops in the hardware industry, he talked with George Hall, the founder of Our Own Hardware, to get ideas. As a result of this combination and a general change in the nature of its business, HWI changed its name to Do it Best Corp. to tie together all its members, truck fleet, store designs, and advertising.
Taylor leads co-op forward
In 2002, Mike McClelland retired and Bob Taylor took over as president. Taylor grew up in his family’s chain of hardware stores in Virginia Beach, VA, eventually becoming the president of Taylor’s Do it center®. Remarked one member, “It solves the problem the other co-ops are struggling with – the whole notion of a detached leadership that hasn’t walked a mile in my shoes.” Through Taylor’s broad experience, he continues to sharpen the retail focus of Do it Best Corp. and its programs and services.
Today, Do it Best Corp. is Indiana’s largest privately owned business and continues to return industry-leading rebates to members. Do it Best Corp. is the only full-service member-owned distributor of hardware and building materials products in the industry, serving 3,800 member-owned locations across the United States and in 53 countries. The service and dedication of our employees still exemplify the member-first philosophy established by founder Arnold Gerberding.