Clark's Builds Family Hardware Business To New Heights

Do-it Warehouse Is Latest Chapter In 146-year History

September 15, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

The flame-red building screams in yellow letters big enough that a motorist whizzing by on Route 40 can't miss them: "Do it."

"Do what?" might have been the response from Clark's hardware customers in the 1840s. They were mostly farmers and tradesmen who tied their teams of horses in front of the original store on Main Street in Ellicott City.

On Thursday, in a part of Ellicott City that didn't exist when Edward T. Clark moved his hardware business from Main Street to the Baltimore & Ohio rail yards in the 1920s, his grandson Andy Clark will open the doors of a new Clark's Do-It Center.

It will begin a new chapter in the history of Clark's hardware, whose six generations of proprietors have overcome personal tragedy, fires, floods, the arrivalof federal highways and Main Street parking problems.

The 40,000-square-foot warehouse-like structure, costing $2.6 million, is built of cinder block and steel. Inside, banners show customers where to find paint, tools, appliances, lumber and any of about 35,000 items thestore sells. It replaces the Clark's Do-It Center in St. John's Plaza, which carried a mere 20,000 items crammed into 8,100 square feet.

The new store bears no hint of Clark's 146-year history. Clark's Do-It Center name and marketing program is shared by 34 other hardwareand lumber retailers across the country. Hardware Wholesalers Inc. of Fort Wayne, Ind. sells the concept and a line of "Do-It" products, which are generally less expensive than name-brand items.

"Every generation thinks things are going to pot in a bucket," said the 49-year-old Clark about the contrast between his new store and the Clark'sof old, "when in fact there are only changes in the distribution system."

Economies of scale are what decides whether a hardware business survives or not, he said, pointing to 60,000-square-foot Hechinger stores as an example of how buying in quantity works.

The new store will allow Clark's to buy in larger quantities, and have everything in the same building and eliminate the need for its warehouse in Carroll County.

Clark said he could remember working as a youth with laborers unloading boxcars from the B&O rail yard to keep the Ralston-Purina checkerboard painted store on Maryland Avenue supplied.

Despite dwindling business in Historic Ellicott City after Route 40 was developed during the 1940s, Clark's continued to operate on Maryland Avenue after Andy Clark and his brother, Edward T. Clark III, became military officers in the 1960s.

In spring 1972, an automobile accident took the lives of their parents, Marie and Edward T. Clark Jr., and the brothers decided that Andy, then an Army captain, would bethe one to resign his commission and return to run the business.

"The day I out-processed was the day Agnes came through and washed out the store," recalls Clark, referring to the devastating tropical storm that flooded lower Ellicott City on June 22, 1972.

Had the storm hit before he resigned his commission, Clark said, the store wouldnever have re-opened.

The storm caused $70,000 in damage to the store, and local banks were unwilling to lend money to get the inexperienced Clark brothers back on their feet.

"We re-mortgaged my folks' house and that gave me the working capital to get started," Clark said, and the Clarks were able to re-establish the business, often working 18-hour days to keep it from foundering.

The next year they moved the business to St. John's Plaza, ending their chronic parking problems and taking advantage of Route 40 traffic.

After one year in the new location, the store exceeded, and eventually doubled, the national average for hardware sales, Clark said, adding that recentlyit has grossed about $400 per square foot, compared to a national average of $110.

Clark said he doesn't expect or even want to do that well at the new store because he has so much space, and products won't be packed so close together.

The store at St. John's Plaza joined the Servistar hardware wholesale cooperative, but switched to the"Do-It Center" co-op in 1985.

While Clark looks for ideas in modern trends in the nation's retailing industry, such as "hyper-markets," which sell just about everything on a 3- or 4-acre sales floor, he likes to preserve what works from experience.

He decided on a smaller store than many competitors because he learned that 30,000 squarefeet was as large as he could go and still give customers the personal attention they get at his old store.

The new store has 28,000 square feet of sales space, so a single employee can accompany a customer throughout the store. In larger stores, customers usually have todeal with different people in each department.

And unlike the towering shelves found at competing stores, shelving in the center of the store is restricted to 5 feet, allowing customers to see where theyare and find their way around more easily. The existing store has 8-foot shelves only because there isn't enough room for everything, he said.

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