Dave Ables on hardware, lumber and synergies between the two

Ables’ latest move is the recent acquisition of Tri-County Lumber based in Clearwater, Minnesota–a business that started in 1941 and was under the same ownership from 1998 until Ables closed on the acquisition on Jan. 2, 2024.

Below, Ables shares more context regarding the acquisition, while offering up plenty of practical guidance and revealing what constitutes his family’s “Field of Dreams.”

Q: Generally speaking, why and when did you make the decision to expand into lumber? 

This was the model we were looking for as I looked over the landscape of the small-town hardware stores in our target market of central and northern Minnesota, where we saw a gap and a need. 

Many small hardware stores in communities that are too small for a big-box store have a golden opportunity to provide more than just hardware. So, Tri-County Lumber was the perfect addition to provide us with a platform to supply building materials to our retail store in Big Lake and to feed the other acquisitions we are working on in this region. 

While at the same time, it opens us up to working with contractors who have been Tri-County’s staple of success since the early 1940s. Tri-County and Three Sons sell “service,” whether you are a contractor sourcing building materials or a homeowner wanting to understand how to fix a toilet, we are experts at providing you with the products you need and the instruction to complete the task at hand. This will remain our core as we continue to grow our footprint. 

Q: Is there more demand supplying a wider range of products these days? (How much hardware do you expect to sell vs. building and lumber?)  

Sales will always be lopsided.

One lumber company will do the same revenue as 10 rural hardware stores, generally speaking. Where we plan on mixing this up a bit and synergizing off of one another, is for our builder contractors to now have access to our entire portfolio of tools, rental items, hardware and conveyance items, literally thousands of SKUs you can order and have jobsite delivered with your building material orders.

On the flip side, our retail hardware customers will soon be able to order lumber, decking, windows, millwork and all of our Tri-County Service & Material offerings right in the comfort of our retail store—and they will be delivered direct to your home or cabin. If the customer wants to build a custom deck, garage, pole building, shed, fence or entire home, we can assist with the design or utilize their plans, provide an estimate and even provide recommended installers.  

Q: What’s the biggest selling item or category in your hardware store now?   

Biggest items for us today are hardware, plumbing and electrical. As far as addons at our Tri-County Showroom, that’s TBD, as I become more acclimated to our customers’ needs.

Presently I am making it a point to speak with every contractor that comes into the showroom to better understand their needs. When I sent out our first monthly invoices early in 2024, they included a welcome letter and questionnaire on how we can service their needs better. 

Q: Can you share your growth plans for your business? (Are these combo stores going to be redesigned? What’s the thinking behind the floor plan, including loading docks and merchandising?) 

The first two Three Sons True Value Hardware and Tri-County are separate facilities, and as we move forward with acquisitions, we are focusing on owned, free-standing facilities with enough acreage to build out mid-sized 25-40,000 sq. ft. combo stores.  

That said, that’s not our only focus. We are still interested in acquiring both hardware and building material locations that are self-supporting.  The key for our future is a mix of individual hardware sores, lumber yards and then combo facilities where the fit is right.  

Q: Are there any tips for readers about adjusting their own hardware store inventory, as the market demands, to serve customers with a selection of lumber and building products?  

This is market-specific. We focus on rural communities where they most likely don’t have solid options for hardware and/or lumber. If you are in these areas, then I’d definitely suggest a nice mix of both.

If you are down the street from a reputable building material dealer, not so much. Just stick with your core items, and of course have a limited selection on hand of lumber so when the contractor runs short on a Saturday and the building material dealer is closed, you can save the day. The contractor or homeowner in need will be forever grateful! 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add on how hardware spreads into lumber? 

There are multiple synergies. Start by understanding your market, your consumers or contractors, and build out what they and the community need. Think: “Build it, and they will come.” As it turns out, hardware and lumber have become my family’s “Field of Dreams.”  

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Dave Ables on hardware, lumber and synergies between the two:

Ables’ latest move is the recent acquisition of Tri-County Lumber based in Clearwater, Minnesota–a b…