Hardware store a 20-year affair for Koslowskys

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Family members who work together don’t always stay together. But one clan has done it successfully for two decades now and shows no signs of parting company anytime soon.

“Just stay flexible,” said Tom Koslowsky about the key to sustaining the relationship he and older brother Ken have enjoyed since opening Hillsboro True Value Hardware 20 years ago this month.

With Tom’s wife, Lori, working alongside them as a full-time team member, the achievement is all the more impressive.

Well, maybe.

“We don’t know what happens after those two go home,” Ken said with a chuckle.

After working at the former B&B Handyman store for several years during the early 1980s, the brothers thought about buying it. But not long after the deal fell through, they found out Cooperative Grain & Supply wanted to phase out its farm store on Ash Street.

The store, with about 3,000 square feet of retail space, reopened under their ownership in October 1985.

“We took over what inventory they had left over there,” Ken said. “They had sold it down pretty far by that point. We took that over and then almost immediately put in a True Value store over there.”

The brothers fell into their business roles quite naturally, thanks to complementary interests. Ken takes care of the financial affairs while Tom oversees merchandising.

“I guess we discussed that a little bit before we formed a partnership, but not much,” Tom said, adding with a laugh: “We knew I wasn’t going to do the bookwork.”

What they do remember discussing was what to name the store.

“A lot of stores attach the last name (of the owner),” Tom said. “We decided ‘Koslowsky’ would be too hard to spell. They might be able to remember the name, but they wouldn’t be able to spell it. So we decided to simplify it.”

When the B&B Handyman building at 125 N. Main came on to the market in 1987, the Koslowskys jumped at the chance to increase their retail space and purchased it.

Since then, the brothers have steadily increased their inventory, services and floor space. In the late ’90s, they bought the Goertz Furniture building adjacent to theirs.

When Larry Klein, the owner of Goertz Furniture, decided to close the business, the Koslowskys decided to expand into that space, and did so in 2001.

“We didn’t in any way tell him we needed it for expansion,” Ken said. “It was his decision. When he closed down, we opened it up-three doorways on (ground) level and one in the basement.

With that addition, the Koslowskys have more than tripled the retail floor space they started with in 1985-they’ve needed it to house the expanding inventory and services they now offer.

“We’ve taken advantage of some openings when they came along,” Ken said. “For example, when Radio Shack was across the street, they decided they didn’t need the UPS shipping thing for the public, so we decided to get into that.

“And the whole small-engine, power-equipment thing was an opportunity that we kind of opened up, too,” he added. “We were doing some power equipment, but not nearly as much.”

Along with those kinds of changes has come a changing makeup in their clientele.

“There’s definitely more female traffic than there used to be,” Tom said. “A lot of it is that farmers are sending their wives into town. That used to happen before, too, but it’s more so now.

“It’s that way generally, even in the cities,” he added. “Female customers are key, and they’re more likely to see your advertising than men are.”

Despite the changing makeup of their customer base, departmental sales trends have remained relatively steady, Ken said.

“We’ve still got certain departments that are pretty much the same major ones-lawn and garden, paint and plumbing would be three of the big ones,” he said.

“Those are still the major departments. Within those, there’s always new things that come out, of course.”

Tom said some of their early assumptions about merchandising have changed over the years to meet customer demands.

“When we moved over here, we thought we would stay completely out of small appliances and things like that,” Tom said. “We didn’t think there was much market for it.

“But we were kind of forced to stay in it because if a coffee maker goes out, you want the coffee maker for tomorrow morning’s coffee. So we kind of got into that cycle of stocking for that. We started with maybe one coffee maker but now we have six to eight-that kind of thing.”

The brothers say the key to their success has been their determination to meet the needs of their customers.

“It doesn’t always work,” Tom said with a smile, “but usually it does.”

Ken said treating each customer as important is part of doing business, especially in a small town.

“You’ve got to remember you’re in a small town, and whoever walks in today you’re probably going to have face them again tomorrow and next week and next month and next year,” he said. “Life is too short to cheat them and then lay awake worrying about it.”

Tom said their customers are willing to pay slightly more for products for the convenience of having a supplier in their home town.

“Probably very seldom are we the cheapest price out there, but if you don’t overcharge, I think most customers understand that in a small town it’s just not going to be that way,” he said.

“We don’t try to take advantage of it; we try to give good value for the money. Generally, they may have to pay a little bit more.”

Added Ken: “But it’s still less than having to go out of town for it.”

The Koslowskys say they have no immediate plans for further expansion, but they do plan on being around to serve the hardware needs of Hillsboro customers for a long time to come.

“We appreciate everybody’s business for the last 20 years,” Tom said. “It’s been a great run and we hope it continues.”

“It’s good being in business in a small town,” Ken added. “It’s given us the opportunity to start small and kind of gradually get to where we are now. It’s just a relaxed way of doing business in a small town.

“It’s enjoyable.”

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