Many small business owners rightly feel threatened by “big box” stores, but not Rob Grill, co-owner of Gus Bock’s Ace Hardware store in Dyer. The way Grill sees it, his store has developed a loyal customer base by offering unique products and services—things even sprawling home improvement stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s don’t carry.
“You want to make big purchases, [so] I understand you’ll want to go to the big stores,” Grill says. “But they’re not going to be able to fix things,” Grill says. “We have a service department where customers can get items fixed.” With a licensed mechanic on staff and unusual product lines in stock—the store offers hundreds of work boots, plenty of work clothing and rentable equipment—Grill is confident that Gus Bock’s can co-exist with the big boxes.
Some of that confidence might come from having worked closely with his father and brothers during the last 30 years to keep the business going. It’s done more than survive the arrival of bigger stores during those years—it’s thrived.
“We have tons of loyal customers, ranging from homeowners, contractors, handymen and custodians that have been with us for years” he says. “It’s nice to see the friendships that have been made at our stores.”
Grill began working part-time at age 14 in the original Gus Bock location in Lansing, Ill., which his father bought from Bock’s family in the late 1970s. The Dyer location was opened in 1990, and a third store was opened in Munster in 2004. Grill and his brothers Keith and Tom bought the business from their father upon his retirement in 2006; it’s been going strong ever since.
“My only other job was a newspaper deliver boy,” Grill says, laughing. With some bookkeeping help from his wife, the 42-year-old now manages the Dyer location, while his brothers manage the other stores. “We all take pride in carrying on our father and grandfather’s business [his grandfather worked in a Midlothian, Ill., hardware shop] . . . Dad did a great job of establishing a very solid business by focusing on taking care of our customers, and everything else seemed to fall in line.”
Keith Sr.’s conservative approach to building the business, which is affiliated with but independent from the Ace Hardware brand, has helped the Grill brothers weather the current economic recession relatively painlessly. It also helps that the hardware business is, according to Grill, “pretty recession-proof. When money gets tight for our customers, they are more prone to doing thing themselves such as painting [or] cutting their own grass, instead of hiring someone to do it for them.”
The family doesn’t release sales figures, but Grill says sales are up 10 or 15 percent this year thus far, a nice contrast with last year’s 2 percent decline. “It’s fair to say that our stores perform well above average compared to our peers,” he says.
Beyond the niche product lines and repair service in Dyer—to which customers in Munster and Lansing are directed—Grill thinks the secret of Gus Bock’s success is fairly obvious: “It’s a local feel, with local employees,” he says. “We live in the town. We’re part of the community, we give back to the community.” (Fans of Dyer’s little league and softball league may have seen Gus Bock’s teams in action.)
The hardware business is the only business Grill has ever known, and he has no plans to leave it. It’s a family affair, and something he’d like to pass on to his children. His oldest son Matt, who’s 10, has expressed interest. “I would love to see my or my brothers’ kids get involved in the hardware business,” he says. “But, it’s up to them to decide what’s best for themselves.” If current trends at Gus Bock’s continue, that shouldn’t be a very difficult decision; loyal customers in Lansing, Dyer and Munster—and perhaps other towns—may soon be helped by the fourth generation of Grills in the hardware retail industry.