Kendall Crosby remembers being at a conference in Atlanta, Ga. and sharing the mission statement for his St. Paul hardware store: “To go above and beyond customer expectations.”
The presenter took the paper he was reading from, crumpled it and threw it away.
“What does that mean?” the presenter asked.
Kendall remembers feeling surprised. And then realizing the presenter was right. They needed more than that.
He decided that day their focus would be on treating their customers with friendliness.
“From that moment on, I changed my process,” recalled Kendall. “Friendly meant friendly. Period. From that moment on we hired friendly, we did business with vendors who are friendly, no matter what.”
That included customers.
“A mean old man yelled at [my daughter] Ashley once and made her cry. I remember telling my wife, Alexandra, that friendly meant everyone. The next day the crabby old mean man came back. This time I was ready. He growled at me. I told him our vision: Friendly. If he wasn’t friendly, he had to leave. Friendly customers only. He let me have it. He was mean! I stood my ground. He never came back. And word spread fast after that. I think the crowd started cheering!”
A CINDERELLA STORY
On Jan. 2, 2024, the “Friendliest Store in Town” at 840 Payne Ave. officially passed from Kendall to his daughter, Ashley Lloyd and her husband, Matt.
“We’ve always felt it’s a Cinderella story,” remarked Kendall. “Ashley and Matt are so very excited. It’s a dream come true.”
Kendall sold his first store, the one at 978 Dale Street, to his son Josh in 2017. He had opened that location as a True Value in April 1992 when he was 28 years old, becoming the youngest hardware store owner at the time in Minnesota.
Kendall took over the 50-year-old Payne Avenue hardware store owned by the legendary Bill and Gladys Godwin in 2005, and it became an Ace Hardware Store. The structure at Payne and Maryland dated to 1942.
Kendall started working at a hardware store when he was 14, beginning at his local hardware store in West St. Paul. He turns 60 this year, and now lives in Highland Park.
As a parent, Kendall focused on teaching his four children “how to work and how to count money,” and he encouraged them to forego college and instead go right into the family business. Ashley and her brother Josh took that route, while the other two didn’t.
“I’m teaching my family how to do wealth,” said Kendall. He doesn’t have cash to hand to his children, but he worked to pass along business skills and a business he had built.
The third generation of Crosby family members is learning the ropes at Kendall’s. Matt and Ashley are parents to two boys: Axel, age 9, and Kaden, age 7. “I’m excited to bring my boys in and teach them how to put things together,” said Ashley. A few weeks ago, the whole family put 100 shovels together. She knows they’ll learn those skills, along with marketing and people skills, while participating in the family business.
At eight years old, Ashley recalls being tasked with selling suckers. She got rid of each and every one. When she told her dad, he asked for the $2 she had earned from each one. “I gave them all away. I didn’t know I was supposed to ask for money,” she recalled with a laugh. It was a business lesson that sticks with her.
She didn’t plan to work at the hardware store. Instead, Ashley wanted to do something with animals, and got a job at a dog boarding facility as a teenager. They roped her into hardware store shifts by telling her that she could bring her dogs to work. Her rottweiler, Tulla, became a store favorite, and Ashley realized that she loved working with people, too.
Over the years, she’s helped arrange animal adoption days at the hardware store, continuing to meld together her interests. When she graduated from South St. Paul High School in 2006, she decided to focus on the hardware store.
A PRETTY COOL FUTURE
Matt is a fourth generation East Sider and graduated from Johnson High School in 2001. He joined the staff at Kendall’s Hardware store in 2005, after having worked at a bunch of other jobs. “I was always a worker bee,” said Matt. “When I started working at the hardware store, it was the perfect fit.” It’s a benefit to be a person of many talents at a hardware store.
Matt and Ashley met at Kendall’s, and now live in St. Paul Park.
“These guys started working together as a team and a love story blossomed out of that,” said Kendall.
Three years ago, they approached Kendall and started moving towards purchasing the store from him.
Kendall pointed out that they’re buying the store from him. It isn’t something he’s giving them. His ability to retire is based on money from the sale. He’s happy to say that he doesn’t have any debt.
“This has been my life,” remarked Kendall. “You know some people have flower gardens. This has been my flower garden.”
He isn’t sure what the next phase will bring for him. But he’ll start with spending time at his lake house in the woods. He’s been walking slower as his brain adjusts to a different pace.
“My biggest stress will be gone, and that’s kinda cool,” said Kendall.
“I can see the future for them and it’s going to be pretty cool.”
‘WE NEVER SAY NO’
The East Side may be St. Paul’s second poorest neighborhood, but the hardware store is well-loved and supported. A small store their size typically sells $150-$175 a square foot, observed Kendall. The average Ace store is $250 a square foot. Kendall’s is $525 a square foot.
Sixty thousand cars a day pass by the Phalen/Payne intersection. To make the small store function best, they have designated seven department managers who work full-time positions. These employees manage ordering and stocking for their departments. Previously, their computer system might have said they had something in stock when they didn’t. The new system has eliminated those errors and helps them track the 38,000 individual SKUs in the store. Plus, now merchandise is put away within 2-4 hours instead of sitting on the floor for a week.
When customers enter Kendall’s, they are greeted by a staff member who helps them find exactly what they’re looking for by walking them directly to it.
“People are always going to need to buy something. They want to get in, get what they want, and get out,” said Matt. The way they compete with the larger box stores is by helping people find what they want quickly, and making sure they have a great experience while they’re there.
The East Side gets attention for negative things, Matt observed, but he believes that if you treat people well, they will treat you well. “I believe in this community,” he said.
“People feel like they are at home when they come in and shop here,” said Ashley.
They’re also known for special orders. “We never say no,” said Ashley. “If a customer asks for something, we say we can get it.”
PROACTIVE VERSUS REACTIVE
The 5,300 square foot, three-story building at Phalen and Payne cost $2 million and took seven months to build. The timing didn’t quite work out, so they were out of business for three months. They kept paying their employees so they didn’t lose them, and it was a tight time.
Kendall has never had a back-up option, and the stores are where he worked to build wealth for his family. They designed the new building to do $1 million in sales a year. Last year, the store did $3 million.
Paying their staff more has been a part of their business model. They took the minimum wage and added $2, and are now at a starting wage of $16 an hour. Pay increases to $17 at 60 days, and $18 at 90 days. “Sales went up when the hourly wage went up,” remarked Kendall.
He told staff, “The more you sell, the more money we all make.”
When they expanded into the new building, they added staff, growing from four to 23. “We’ve had to learn how to hire and fire,” observed Matt. That’s when they added the 30/60/90 day check-ins, and they found that made a huge difference in how much turn-over they had.
And while many advise against it, they hire friends and family.
Every Wednesday they have a potluck for staff.
Kendall is grateful to Ace for the tips and ideas they share among their hardware stores. “Ace will be here 100 years from now,” he remarked.
“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to be a real hardware store, and being an Ace Hardware Store is the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Ace advised stores to begin selling online, and offered the software necessary to do it so Kendall’s Hardware was already managing online sales when COVID-19 hit. They were poised to fill the growing demand for online sales and delivery. The store is two minutes from Interstates 94 and 35E, and now delivers throughout the Twin Cities, including Edina and south Minneapolis.
“People are brand loyal,” stated Kendall. “They like their Ace Hardware stores.”
“We’ve always had a vision of being proactive versus reactive,” said Matt.
Ace advised them to sell grills, and although they take up a lot of space, they made room. They’ve been popular items, and this year they’ve brought in even more to sell.
COOLEST STORE AWARD
There are 5,800 Ace Hardware stores scattered across the United States. Each year, 400 earn the Pinnacle Award. For the last three years, Kendall’s has earned that coveted spot. And in 2023, Kendall’s received the Ace Coolest Store Award, beating out the much larger stores who have gotten it in the past. Matt and Ashley attended the awards ceremony. “It was pretty humbling,” said Matt. “It was an amazing experience to be recognized like that.”
In addition to being friendly, artwork by Kendall hangs throughout the building, directing customers to housewares, paint and more. The front ‘Windows by Alexandra’ are known for their creative displays, with props that are made in-house. Kendall’s wife, Alexandra, had worked at Macy’s and Dayton’s doing window displays, and enjoyed designing them at the hardware store. This year, Ashley and her aunt, Tina Wasson Poletes, took them over.
Ashley and Matt don’t expect to make any big changes at the store, and say it’s business as usual. Customers can still expect the free popcorn, and stop to say hello to the two store cats (Stanley and Makita) and store dogs (Cleo and Lila).
Their repair shop downstairs is a busy department with about seven people repairing windows and screens. True to their nature, they rigged up a slide on the stairs that can be flipped up and out of the way to make it easier to transport things up and down.
For some, the hardware store is their first job, and they work there while in high school or college. “It’s such an honor to be able to mentor kids and be a strong part of the community,” remarked Matt.
And perhaps the best part of working at a hardware store?
When people come in with a problem and they’re able to pinpoint just what is needed. “We get to be the savior of the day,” said Matt.