Co-Opting Change

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Michael Clark is no newbie to the hardware world. Though he landed at Chicago-based True Value Co. just a few months ago—he was named the company’s senior VP and chief merchandising officer in May 2008—hard goods and hardware have dominated his professional career for decades.

Clark’s resume includes a 25-year stint with Sears, Roebuck and Co., where his responsibilities included the buying and retail replenishment of the tools, paint and plumbing businesses. In 2000, Clark joined Sears’ 85-store Orchard Supply Hardware chain as senior VP and general merchandise manager. He led the merchandising team and was responsible for all buying decisions, including assortment planning and management of vendor relationships, as well as visual merchandising, merchandise marketing and inventory management.

At True Value, Clark inherited an updated concept of what a hardware store should be: Destination True Value. True Value unveiled the new format—which is designed to provide customers with a one-stop DIY stop in a female-friendly, upscale environment—in fall 2007. Clark is part of the leadership team charged with incorporating various elements of Destination True Value into more than 1,000 retail locations across the country by 2010, and with adding more than 1.5 million sq. ft. of retail space and $225 million in retail sales over the next three years.

Senior editor Katherine Field talked with Clark about Destination True Value, his role in the company, and the evolution of the business over the course of his hardware history.

How would you describe your role at True Value Co.? 

As the head of merchandising, my role is to drive profitable sales with great products and programs that benefit our geographically diverse members and the co-op. I will drive “the retail mind-set” as True Value continues to become an increasingly retail-focused company.

I’m leading a strong and talented merchandising team that has many recent accomplishments. My goal is to build on this already established momentum and take our team to the next level.

How does this position differ from previous positions with Orchard and Sears? What are the similarities? 

The merchandising aspects of my job are the same—I’m guiding the development of products and programs, presentation and marketing. I’m very much focused on partnering with our vendors to ensure every member is successful. The biggest difference is the business model of a co-op. True Value store owners are independent, which is a new challenge.

What are some of the specific challenges to working within this cooperative arrangement? 

Because True Value members are independent retailers, it is crucial that we earn the members’ trust and respect, and make it easy for them to do business with the co-op.

We provide True Value retailers with the guidance and direction to be profitable and “win” in their individual markets. Our goal is to help make every True Value the best hardware store in town. Destination True Value, our new store format, is a recent example of our commitment to our members. The new format allows members to take advantage of best practices in retailing, merchandising and store decor, and tailor their stores to meet local market needs. The result is a new shopping experience and store environment that meets and exceeds customer expectations.

Recognizing that no two True Value stores are exactly alike, this adaptable format allows our retailers their independence, yet provides a certain level of consistency so our customers know what to expect when they shop at True Value.

What changes have you seen in hardware retail, and retail in general, over the last couple of decades? 

Of course, the greatest change is the consolidation in the retail industry at the retailer and vendor level, and the dramatic growth of the big-box store model, as well as the expansion of the home improvement/do-it-yourself (DIY) industry.

Interestingly, despite the growing presence of big-box stores, independent store owners still lead the industry in customer service, answering customer demand for one-on-one, trustworthy service and local, expert advice. And they serve the maintenance and repair categories within the home-improvement market—a steady business in an otherwise soft economy.

Global sourcing has dramatically increased in recent years. Most retailers have developed direct-import sourced initiatives to capture the sales and margin opportunities in a global economy. I’m happy to say True Value has a strong global-sourcing team focused on quality assurance.

Where do you feel your presence will be most felt? 

With more than 35 years of retail experience mostly spent in home improvement, I will bring a retail mind-set to the co-op and the merchandising team. I grew up around retail—my dad ran a small retail store in Wisconsin where I did everything from mopping floors to stocking shelves.

My experiences with powerful national brands and private labels, years working in retail stores and partnering with some of the best vendors in the industry will be helpful for True Value.

What was your first day on the job at True Value like? 

Busy and terrific. Because the hardware industry is so tight-knit, I already knew some of my colleagues. The culture at True Value immediately felt comfortable to me. It is very positive. I got a real sense that this is a great place to work and am continually impressed with the focused and talented people here.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

I manage about 100 people on the merchandising team, and I’d describe my leadership style as collaborative. I’m passionate about and focused on individual contribution and accountability to the team. Everyone adds value, so people development is key.

Didn’t this position entail a move from California? How have you/your family survived the adjustment period? 

Yes, my wife Connie and I are relocating to Chicago. I grew up in the Midwest and have lived in the Chicago suburbs before, but this is the first time we’ll be living in the city. We’re very eager to settle into our new home and “set up shop” in the Windy City.

Are you handy with tools? 

Yes, but these days my projects are usually much smaller and simpler than in the past. I’m no longer interested in being Mr. Fix-It. I’m an avid boater and, like most boaters, spend any free time maintaining the boat.

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