By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Scott Novotny’s nickname – Mr. Salty – suited him well.
Every fall would find the owner of the Quality True Value Hardware Store in Madison, a business Novotny bought from his parents in 2006, bringing in loads of ice melt in preparation for the inevitable slick sidewalks and driveways that are part and parcel of Wisconsin winters. The 50-pound bags would be stacked in front of the store, lying in heaps along its sidewalk, and around the building’s south side, into its small parking lot.
The store is still there but Novotny is not. He died in July 2017 from bone cancer, a condition he had been diagnosed with just six months earlier. He was 55, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
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 business practices.
Novotny’s wife of more than 30 years, Sherry Novotny, continues to own the company, and their three children have taken over the day-to-day operation of the 3,000-square-foot store, which is split into two levels. Just in case there’s any question about how things should be done, there are not-so subtle reminders 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 provide guidance to his children and the store’s two other employees as they go about tending to the business, which has been around since 1945 and has outlasted recessions, a fire in 1988, a few robbery attempts, the advent 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 Novotny, 29, is joined by her two brothers, Shane Novotny, 34, and Skyler Novotny, 27. All three started working at the store even before they had graduated from Oregon High School and were well on their way to taking on more responsibility when their father got sick.
Only now that Scott Novotny is no longer here, they find themselves with the weight of the family business on their shoulders. Many things remain the same, with one fairly big exception. The business’ name is now simply Quality Hardware.
True Value was purchased by Acon, a private-equity firm, earlier this year, a step that did away with the company’s co-op and left retailers without a majority say on its board of directors. The transition allowed the Novotnys to end their relationship with True Value and take on Orgill as their primary vendor.
Orgill was founded in 1847 and is one of the fastest-growing independent hardware distributors in the world. The company has its headquarters in Tennessee and serves more than 6,000 retailers. In the past 10 years, it has seen its sales double; its figure for 2018 is expected to hit $2.5 billion. The switch in vendors is allowing the Novotnys to lower their prices on 75 percent of the 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.”
Her grandparents, Ralph and Gloria Novotny, took over the hardware store in 1971. Scott and Sherry Novotny bought the business and turned it from an Ace to a True Value just a few years before the recession hit in 2008. The closing of the Dorn True Value on Broom Street in February has pushed some customers to the Novotnys. But with its more than 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.
“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.”