15 Aug Member Profile: Diana Newton at Bay Hardware
It was Diana Newton’s grandmother that got the family involved in the hardware business. The year was 1956 and Grandmother Betty Shaw got a job as the treasurer at a store in Chicago.
Some years later, Diana’s Mom (Cynthia) started working at Craftwood Lumber Company while she was in high school as a cashier, later returning after graduating from Cornell University while seeking permanent employment. David, her Dad, was a high school classmate of Cynthia, also returned to the area after graduating from the University of Illinois. As fate would have it, the two reconnected, as David was a regular Craftwood customer.
The Brunjes married in 1979 and moved to California a short time later. David had a job as an accountant, traveling a lot, and missing his family. Cynthia handled the bookkeeping for a grocery chain while raising young children. Fate played another card when the owner of Craftwood Lumber called and asked if David would return to Illinois to work back at the store.
“That’s how we all grew up in the business,” Diana says. “I went to college to be a high school math teacher, and that’s what I wanted to do. But, the job market was slim, so I began working at a tutoring company in downtown Chicago.”
In 2004, the Brunjes purchased Craftwood. Their kids worked in the store after school hours and during college breaks. David started looking to expand and found a store in California that was of interest. He kicked the tires and called Diana. “He asked if I was interested in taking it on,” she starts with a laugh, “and I was 25 and stupid, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Diana moved to Seal Beach, an hour southwest of Los Angeles, on her own in 2009. “I didn’t have any friends nor much family. Man, it was the best decision I ever made. Taking this chance and moving out here … It changed my life.”
She’s able to say that ten years on, but those early years were interesting. “People love this store, and I was a young girl from out of town. I’m sure they thought, ‘Who is this and where did you come from and what do you know?’
“I didn’t know everything, that’s for sure,” she continues, “but I won people over. Some fairly quickly, others it really took years. There’s one person that comes to mind where it took years, and now I’m the only one he’ll talk to when he comes into the store.”
Diana overcame the newcomer label, in part, by getting involved in the Seal Beach community. She joined the Chamber of Commerce and Lion’s Club, where she met and got to know her now husband, who was also a Bay Hardware customer, and she spent time learning the area.
“One of the things that made this whole experience so awesome was that I had to prove myself,” she says. “It taught me that there were some failures, of course, along the way and some bumps, but, ultimately, failure was not an option. I had to come in, and I had to make it work. And it did. And so that was cool.”
In the ten years since she took over Bay Hardware, Diana has seen many changes in the hardware industry, in the town’s embrace of the business community, and the national economy.
Changes to the Store
Diana’s first exposure to Bay Hardware came as the previous owner was limiting the amount of inventory on hand. So, both the amount of product and product mixture was lacking. One of her first acts was to change that. She looked at the SKUs that were selling at the store in Chicago and brought them to Seal Beach. Then she adjusted as the local business needed.
Her next step was improving the business of the business. She cleaned up the inventory software and trained the staff on how to use it for something other than an expensive cash register.
“By cleaning all of that up and changing the way we were doing the store order, we went from it taking two people ten hours on a Monday to get done to one person taking an hour,” she states. “We did our best to improve the efficiency of the store so that everything ran smoother.”
Her parents and siblings, who came and helped with the business, were massive supports, especially during the first year of business. “A sinking ship takes a massive effort from a big crew,” she says.
In 2018, Diana started to remodel the 2,800-square-foot store. “As you can imagine, moving shelving and fixtures around such a small store is challenging,” she says. “But, we made it work, and now the aisles are going in a better direction, and there are aisle markers, and it’s more organized. We’re almost done, just fine-tuning where everything is located. Of course, people weren’t happy at first, but now they say, ‘Oh, this makes more sense.’”
Keeping the Business in Business
It’s not news anymore that the Internet is impacting local hardware store business, but Diana sees the benefits of her customers going online before walking into the store. For instance, those customers are researching what’s available and then come to the store for assistance.
In terms of price matching, she says, there are some high dollar items where a retailer needs to be competitive, but that can also be a positive. “If you show your customers that you can compete on those items, then you’re also proving to your customer that they can still shop with you and you’ll be reasonable. So I don’t know, it’s a threat, but also perhaps a strength.”
The more significant challenge, Diana admits, is finding and keeping “people that are knowledgeable, helpful, and passionate about the business, especially younger people. What’s going to happen is you have all these sorts of old-timers who have been in the business forever, and they know where everything is, but at some point in time, those people won’t be around anymore.”
Finding younger people has been challenging, especially in California, where minimum wage increases are going through, and small businesses have to compete on wage. “You can flip burgers or work here,” she says. “They’re going to work way harder here, and they have to be skilled and have some expertise. It takes a special sort of person to want to work in the hardware business. I think we’re all a little weird.” And then she laughs.
One of the ways she’s been able to attract new employees is by explaining how the company is growing. “I’m excited about the last three or four people we’ve brought on because they understand that bigger things are going to happen.”
Growing the Business
In 2013 Diana and the family purchased Lunada Bay Hardware in Palos Verdes Estates and they’re currently looking for new opportunities. “The market’s strange right now,” she reports. “Communities are pricing themselves out of hardware stores. It’s becoming too expensive for a local hardware store.”
Both her recent experience and a reading of the Cost of Doing Business Study inform her opinion. “According to the Report, retailers shouldn’t typically pay more than 10 percent of their sales in rent. What I’m finding in California is we’re moving higher and higher. We’re talking 20 percent, 25 percent. That’s not affordable for a hardware store. You end up working for the landlord.”
She had recently negotiated the purchase of a store in Pacific Palisades, but they could not close a deal with the landlord. “They started at $3.25,” she states. “Like, that’s crazy for a hardware store. The national average for a store that size, it was a 12,000-square-foot space, is $1.25. You’re talking $2 more a square foot. How is that affordable?”
What happened to that location, she adds, is that the local hardware store closed and the locals now have to drive 45 minutes to the closest Home Depot. “Can you imagine trying to get a project done on the weekends?” Diana asks. “You better make sure you’ve got your list, and you didn’t forget anything. I mean, it’s crazy!”
Last year Diana was honored with the Young Retailer of the Year Award from the North American Retail Hardware Association.
“That was pretty awesome. First and foremost, just to be considered young was cool,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. I had read the profiles of the other nominees and to see all of the work and incredible things that they had done, and then somehow I was selected. It was very humbling, and it made me realize that I had done some pretty cool things, too.”
While she never thought that what she was doing anything special, it inspired her to work harder. “It was definitely was a confidence booster, and it made me realize that I still have the fire in my belly to do other things.”