Meet the Owner - Old School Hardware

posted Wednesday, June 08 by Phil Lepanto
logo for Old School Hardware

Business Name: Old School Hardware
Owner/Contact: Phil Lepanto & Katherine (Katie) Swanson / William Hester, Manager

How Long Have you Been a Business Owner?
My wife and I started purchase talks with Todd Pfeiffer, the former owner, in October of 2009. We managed to close on the deal on July 10th, 2010.

How did you get into this business?
My wife and I have lived in Mt. Pleasant for many years. We were so pleased to see Todd build up his hardware store and we were sorry to hear that he had decided to sell. It sparked a conversation about how valuable small, local business ownership can be to the health and vibrancy of a community. Even though we don’t know that much about the hardware business, we know what it means to walk into a store and get great customer service. We began to grow more and more excited about the prospect of directly investing in our community.

What did you do in a previous life? What was your first job ever?
Katie, the brains of our operation, has worked as an environmental engineer, an intelligence analyst, and as an auditor for the U.S.A.I.D. Inspector General’s Office. I came to Washington and stumbled upon a career in web development oriented to political and public affairs campaigns. Since the internet has been evolving for as long as I’ve been working, there has always been a certain entrepreneurialism to the work that I’ve done. My first job ever was operating an amusement park ride in West Virginia, my home state.

Is this your first entrepreneurial experience? Did you always want to be your own boss?
We are both excited about owning our own business and in owning a business together. We don’t see ourselves so much as entrepreneurs as much as we see ourselves as investors in our community. You don’t have to innovate to run a hardware store. We can see the secret to success in this space by looking to great local hardware businesses like Logan/Tenley/City Vista Hardware, Frager’s, 17th Street Hardware, and Strosniders. Our goal is to emulate them and to provide the same service that they provide to their communities to our neighboring communities in Ward 1.

Why should customers choose you? What makes your business different from you competition?
Wow! This is a real doozy of a question.

Part of the answer goes to knowing who your competition is. If you say my competition is Home Depot or Target, I would say that if you are reading the Think Local First website you already know a bunch of good reasons to shop with us and what makes us different from them. On the other hand, there’s a healthy hardware industry in this city and we have a lot of great competition, some of whom we admire very much. If we don’t have it in stock, we’ll typically to send you to one of our local competitors.

A good portion of our customer base appreciates the convenience of our store primarily from a proximity standpoint. But a lot of our repeat customers appreciate how willing we are to accommodate special requests and special orders. We’re also starting to see interest pick up in our Customer Courtesy card program. We’re getting a lot of business in the bicycle maintenance and accessory category because we recognize how important cycling is in to our community. We also have products that are environmentally friendly, like no VOC paint and landfill-ready batteries. Finally, people like being able to talk to our team members and get personalized attention and service that you just can’t get in a larger store.

What’s been really interesting to me has been the transition from customer to store owner. For a long time, I thought that one of the big differences between the big boxes and the small stores was that the big boxes charged less. But the truth is, most of the time our prices are what makes us the SAME as the competition, even the big box stores. We run almost every product through Google Shopper to make sure our prices are fair. A lot of people I talk to will tell you that folks who care about their community are often willing to pay more to a locally owned store than to a big, corporate chain. My answer to that is that it is a false choice. As I said, most of our prices line up almost exactly with the big chains. The hardware business is just that competitive. But, a lot of people will compare our prices to their hardware store back in their hometown. I’m from West Virginia and I can tell you the prices there are lower than the prices here. As any DC resident knows, that’s true of everything. The bottom line is, our customers care about value for their dollar and we try to offer good products at a competitive price.

The best part of doing business in DC is_____________________.
“the other local business owners trying to serve the community”

What are your upcoming plans or events?
· This weekend, we’re launching a Bike Clinic Prescription Pad to give to the volunteer Farmer’s Market Bike Clinics. Sometimes the volunteer wrenches have a laundry list of parts that a clinic visitor will need and we’re helping by making sure our store has what the customer needs on an easy to use sheet. The pad does have our logo, but we encourage the visitor to take it to any “Local Bike Shop”.

· We’re also working with the Columbia Heights Community Market Place to sponsor the entertainment they have on weekends.

· We’re reaching out to local, small businesses across Ward 1 to see if we can create a B-to-B relationship where they order cleaning supplies, tools, lightbulbs, mulch, plants, etc through us.