Family business staying strong
Four generations involved in Valley Home Hardware stores
The era of big box stores has not replaced family-owned businesses in the Valley.
First-rate products and customer service still matters, and certainly, the owners of the Palmer group of Home Hardware stores know that. They regularly turn family meals into business discussions because of the focus they have on the six stores they operate.
John and Margaret Palmer of Morristown started with a small outdoor sawmill in the 1950s. He logged his own trees during the winter and she handled the bookkeeping.
He once recalled selecting the trees he’d cut with his customers.
“We would leave enough good growth to harvest again in 20 to 25 years. With today’s clear cutting, it takes much longer to grow forests back.”
In time, the Palmers expanded, building a small factory to produce apple bins and boxes. Later, it was converted to produce window sashes and a line of hardware was added. The couple often loaded their truck with vinyl flooring, travelling as far as Digby and beyond to make sales. By 1974, John E. Palmer Building Supplies in Morristown was their sole concern.
The couple’s three daughters and their husbands all got involved with the business. They adopted new technology, like a point-of-sale computer system, home design software and the Valley’s first boom-truck service.
In 1996, the Palmers purchased Rafuse Building Supplies in Wolfville and, later, an Annapolis Royal store. They purchased the Berwick Home Hardware store in 1998. In 2012, a merger took place with Berwick Building Supplies after a 2001 fire in Morristown.
The group also includes Maple Leaf Home Hardware in Canning, an Antigonish store and its satellite operation in Sherbrooke, along with Rockwell Home Hardware in Kentville. The Kentville store was purchased back in January and rebranded in May. They all carry the banner of the Home Hardware co-operative, which is operated by more than 1,000 independently owned stores nationally.
John and Margaret’s granddaughter, Jyl Bishop Veale, began working on inventory as a teenager and now her daughter, Olivia, comes in to count stock, picking up her first paycheque.
She’s not alone. Olivia’s cousin, Ben Smolenaars, has been working part time for the past five years.
The family involvement, says Bishop Veale, “is part of who we are.”
She recalls the blizzard known as White Juan in 2004, when there was no power for several days. Because the Wolfville store was locally owned, a way was found to open up and sell generators to those who needed them.
“The fire department with staff member Adam Forsythe came in and shone lights. I remember those who were on cash had to guess at the prices. That’s one of the benefits of living in a community.”
Now that John Palmer is 94, the business group has six owners amongst the third generation. Bishop Veale’s husband, Brian, works full time as a manager and her father, Ray Bishop, contributes his accounting skills. Her brother, Andrew, his wife, Melissa, and a cousin’s husband, Charlie Smolenaars, all have years of experience from the warehouse level up.
The firm has about 140 employees and they all wear the red Home Hardware uniform. It is the owners who accumulate the most overtime.
“Most people work an eight hour day. Mine can stretch to 12 or 14 hours, but I love my job,” said Brian Veale. “The associations, the staff, the customers and the vendors. We’re part of the community and proud of what we do.”
When asked what motivates them, they all have a similar answer. Ray Bishop says a caring community, Melissa Bishop says relationships and her husband, Andrew, adds the fact that the profits stay in the community is important to him.
The varied charities the Palmer Group aids are all local, from the food banks to sports teams.
Three generations ago, no one foresaw the growth of big box stores. Charlie Smolenaars adds change in the retail climate that brought about the demise of chains like Sears and Rona could not have been imagined either.
Fortunately, these six intend on staying current and flexible for the sake of local consumers.
“In this kind of (retail) environment you don’t know where things are going to go,” said Bishop Veale.
Given the amount of local competition and so much business happening online, she says, the stores intend to stay relevant into the future.
The Palmer group, which operates six hardware operations in Nova Scotia, has more than three generations of family involvement. The principals include Charlie and Kimberly Smolenaars, left, Jyl Bishop Veale and Brian Veale, Melissa and Andrew Bishop.
John and Margaret Palmer of Morristown were photographed more than 60 years ago when they were starting their own business.