Walter Hachborn - Co-operative Leadership Celebrated at 15th Annual Mayors’ Dinner

Walter Hachborn grew up in Conestogo, Ontario. In 1925, at the age of four, he moved with his family to St. Jacobs where his father was the millwright at Snider Flour Mills. It is in St. Jacobs that the Home Hardware story has its beginning. Walter grew up directly behind Hollinger’s Hardware Store and that was where he started working when he finished school.

As guest of Honour at the 15th Annual Mayors’ Dinner, Walter Hachbom is being recognized as a St. Jacobs hardware retailer who developed a national vision. His idea was to inspire 120 independent hardware stores to form a dealer-owned distribution network. This kind of co-operation would make each of their local hardware stores viable and stronger. Walter has been recognized particularly for the significant scope of this endeavour when he was named Hardware Retailer of the Century. This was a fitting tribute to a man who, through humble leadership, had steered the successful development of a network of 1200 dealer owned stores.

The story behind this achievement needs to be properly recognized as a reflection of the enterprising nature of Waterloo County. How does a small town, with a population of little more than 1000 people, figure so prominently in the development of a national hardware organization?

Retailing in North America has been one continuous process of centralization over the last hundred years. Up to the 1880’s peddlers and family-owned businesses were the means of purchasing daily necessities. Old directories from 1891 list the kind of main street businesses that were established in St. Jacobs - blacksmith, general and hardware merchant, wheelwright, tin ware, stoves and implements, wagon maker, carriages and wagons.

From this point on regional corporations began to aggressively compete in local markets. The T. Eaton Co. Limited, a family owned conglomerate that established itself in large and medium sized cities was the popular Canadian example of this trend. However up to the 1950’s local family-owned retail businesses were still able to create a living in this field.

Hollinger Hardware, where Walter took a job after high school, was a family owned retailer that had experimented successfully with regional wholesaling. By 1961, two trends could clearly be seen. The first was that Walter was now a joint owner with Henry Sittler and a silent partner of the rapidly expanding Hollinger Hardware. The retail hardware store and wholesaling operation now employed fifty-two people, a night crew and an expanded building with about 45,000 square feet of warehouse space around the retail store. This store is the present site of Home Furniture in St. Jacobs and is celebrated as the first Home Hardware.

The second trend was that large discount department stores like K Mart, Woolco, Savette and Towers were moving in on the hardware market. This threatened local hardware dealers. In fact, between 1955 and 1965, almost one thousand hardware stores closed due to uncertainty throughout the business.

Walter had heard of American hardware retailers joining together to form dealer-owned companies, thereby eliminating the wholesaler. The crux of the innovation that took shape in St. Jacobs was to take this general idea and turn it into a successful Canadian example, dedicated to supporting its members through co-operative and shared services.

The first phase was an exploratory meeting that was held in St. Jacobs in a room above the Fire Hall with 25 dealers from southern Ontario. The second phase was a visit to an American dealer-owned operation. By March of 1963, 122 Ontario Hardware dealers met at the Flying Dutchmen Motel in Kitchener and committed to the research, meetings and information gathering to establish the network.

In September 1963, Walter and Henry Sittler agreed to sell Hollinger Hardware to the dealers who would form a cooperative association to assist each other. Hollinger Hardware would become Home Hardware and Walter would become the general manager, providing the kind of leadership that would have to inspire hundreds of independently minded people.

Home Hardware’s mission is, as a completely dealer-owned company, to supply Home dealers with quality products and services, assisting them with programs to help them operate effective and efficient stores at a profitable level, allowing them to serve the customer with competitive prices and superior service. This has meant a wide range of programs from financial, advertising, sales support, engineering, store systems etc.

Walter has tried to accomplish a very difficult task. How to build an organization that treats its people well? The larger the organization, the harder it is to succeed. Walter has been the leading advocate of a dealer-owned network that stresses people values from the leadership onward. A Toronto dealer described it this way:

“No matter when you call, from the president to the warehouse staff they are always there to help you, not only on a business level, but on any level where help or support are needed. Over the years we have become not only business associates, but more important, one big family.”

It has been almost 40 years since the Home Hardware network took shape. Operating out of St Jacobs is a distribution system for the dealer- owned network that includes over 1,000,000 square feet of warehouse space with over 1300 employees. A further 800,000 square feet of warehouse space is located in Nova Scotia and Alberta. In 1964, the first year shipments totalled $4 million. In 1999, annual sales of the 1200 dealers totalled 1.2 billion, almost all of it administered out of the warehouses and offices in St. Jacobs.

Walter’s spirit is imprinted on so much of this activity. As General Manager for 34 years he is known for generously sharing his insight, expertise and incurable optimism. In the history of Home Hardware, he is everywhere, supporting individuals, planning warehouse space, planning catalogues and sales promotion, loading and driving trucks, recreating stores, or developing national and international links. He was always moving forward as a progressive force.

Walter’s service to the community is another of his trademarks, and includes Woolwich Township Planning Board, the Board of Governors of Wilfred Laurier University; Executive Board of the Lutheran Church of America (Canadian Synod), Chairman of the Building Committee of St. James Lutheran Church and St. Jacobs Arena, Founding President of United Hardware Wholesalers Ltd. and Interlink International, Director of J.M. Schneider Inc., volunteer for Canadian Executive Service Organization (where he served in Panama, Czech Republic, and Canadian native communities), Director of the Asthma Society of Canada, Woolwich Community Health Centre and the Waterloo Historical Society.

Walter has been married to Jean (Brown) since 1947. With Walter, Jean has lived a lifetime within Home Hardware and then some! As well she has looked after the Hachborn household and raised their three children Susan, Elizabeth and William.

Walter has also been recognized in several ways such as Citizen of the Year in Woolwich Township in 1976 and he received an Hon.L.L.D. from Wilfred Laurier University in 1985. In 1988 he was named Distinguished retailer of the year. In 1996 He was named Master Entrepreneur and in 1999 he was named Retailer of the Century. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2000 and was inducted into the Waterloo County Hall of Fame in 2001.

Join us for the 15th annual Mayor’s Dinner where the mayors of Kitchener and Waterloo will recognize Walter’s outstanding commitment to co-operative development.

A national vision grew from humble beginnings in St. Jacobs. Walter writes about this in the introduction to The History of Home Hardware, March 2001.

'It is my greatest wish that the history of Home Hardware presented in this book reflect the spirit of Canada the great nation we serve. Canada is an endlessly beautiful country, populated by a rich diversity of peoples. Our country is a collage of peoples, from the indigenous First Nations, followed by French and English settlers, to the great flow of people from every country of the world that made Canada their home. While each province and territory is different from its neighbours, with its own integrity, history, culture and treasures, we are united by commonalities, which have allowed us to create a peaceful and prosperous nation. Similarly Home Hardware Stores can be found in provinces and territories of our country, owned and staffed by people who live in the communities they serve. Their diversity reflects that of our population, as do their enterprising spirit and commitment'

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