COLONIE — “I just closed on it today,” said John Phillips, 5th generation owner of the eponymous local hardware chain, on Thursday, March 24. He had just signed papers finalizing the sale of his store at 1157 Central Ave. in Colonie, the companies erstwhile flagship store. The decision to sell the location is one of several that represent a major shift in the direction Phillips is taking the family-owned, 130-year-old business.
“As an entrepreneur, things don’t always go in the direction you originally think,” said Phillips. “We’ve always been an acquisition company; we’ve always bought stores. About two years ago, I was in the middle of a major acquisition and presented the plan to my entrepreneur group—we don’t solicit, but experience-share and use each other’s experience to help guide us in the decision-making process—and eight other business guys all said I was crazy. Did I really need it to happen in my life? They helped me to realize that maybe I should look at my company in a different way and so then I pondered and read a book called “Finish Big,” by Bo Burlingham, about succession-planning. Even though I’m 46, it made me think about setting up the company to benefit the 6th generation come into business.”
Phillips said he realized that maintaining older buildings, such as the one in Colonie, would become more costly over the years. “And that site is in the middle of Lowe’s and Home Depot,” he said. “There’s also not a lot of home-building going on in that area. So, we might be able to survive and compete, but would we really be able to grow as the expense of operating the business grows?”
Rather than getting a broker, Phillips said that he asked around to see if there were any potential buyers for the property. In a twist of fate, he was at a graduation party and having a beer with an old friend to whom he was telling his plans. “He told me to give him a price and today we closed. So, it was really easy and right now we have kind of a partnership where he’s letting me run my liquidation and working with me on my exit strategy over the next couple of months.”
The store in Colonie is likely to be torn down and redeveloped, said Phillips. But the buyer is letting him use the location to store and liquidate all inventory that is left over after the hardware company completes its next major change. This month, Phillips finalized a deal to make True Value Hardware their major supplier and has begun rebranding all existing stores. “We’re gutting all of our existing stores,” he said. “We just put in brand new True Value paint departments this week and a week from Monday (April 4), their ticketing crews come in and re-tag all of our stores. At our main store we took inventory of what the stores needed and moved it out to our existing sites, and the rest of the inventory we’re moving into our side building at Colonie and we’ll be having a blow-out liquidation on April 14, 15, and 16. Then, we’ll probably do another one in May.”
The reason for the re-branding, according to Phillips, is that his former supplier lacked brand recognition and was beginning to “private-label” much of their merchandise. “So lots of things have that label and there’s no brand recognition. So, at the end of December, I met with True Value and, in February I went to Texas for a few days, and in March we joined. Because I was selling Colonie and developing the new site, I felt I had to do my research quickly and make a decision. Usually I would only make one of these decisions at a point in time in my life, and right now I’ve made three: selling a store; getting a new supplier and re-branding our entire company; and, at the same time, working on a new site for development.”
The new site, located on 12 acres at 6495 Route 158 in Altamont, represents another shift in Phillips’ thinking. “I got a tip that, in the Guilderland area, there would be more housing coming and that the corner that I own was zoned for gas and fast food and for general business,” he said. “So I met with Red-Kap, a petroleum distributor and we formed an agreement that I was going to put a gas station on the corner and now I have a fast food LOI (Letter of Intent) that we’re looking to put in a fast food drive thru and a convenience store and a new hardware store, and that has evolved into plans to put a sports bubble in behind that complex.” Phillips will own each business on the property and plans to keep operating costs low by connecting the buildings and coordinating certain services.
“The gas station will actually be connected to the hardware store. It will be one building, so people can go get a 12-pack of beer and a chainsaw. Hopefully, they won’t use them at the same time,” Phillips chuckled. “Even the sports complex, instead of having food and concession and all that overhead, will have a walkway that connects to the convenience store so that all the food will be pushed through there. So it’s really a low-expense way to operate, which will allow me to keep the rates down at the sports complex. I’m involved in a lot of non-profits, so I can use the sports complex for things like Special Olympics events and allow other non-profits to utilize it as well.”
Phillips has been working with architects and has plans drawn up to submit to the town planning committee in the coming weeks. “We’ve been trying to get all of the projects aligned and to meet code and to be in the right spot—but we’d like to submit all of the projects at the same time. If I get slowed down, I may go ahead with one first, but the idea, for cost of construction, is to do it all at the same time.”
Phillips sees the humor in the fact that this new direction and development project arose from a desire to “right-size” his life, but said that he feels his children will benefit from the decisions he is making today. “What I’m trying to do is diversify our company a little bit, but also using a model where each business feeds off the other.”
As yet, Phillips has only rudimentary plans drawn up but says that by the time he presents to the Planning Board, full color renderings of what the complex will eventually look like should be available for viewing.