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Marine Home Center's Charles (Chick) Tennant showing a customer how to fix a storm frame.

Nantucket's Marine Home Center

Jonathan and Andy in Hardware

Marine Home Center’s island location is what General Manager Ron Foster euphemistically called “operationally challenging.“ On a good day loading up the store’s trucks in Hyannis with orders appropriate to priorities, given restricted ferry space, is someone’s cankering ulcer. During the winter of 2014 it was like boxing with Frazier—the blizzards or “near blizzards” just kept coming back. Marine HC has standing reservations on Steamship Authority ferries but when boats are cancelled, the reservations are nullified not deferred to the next boat running. That means the person managing orders scrambles to realign priorities. With lots of construction jobs depending on those priorities, he can only pray the blizzard has knocked out the phone lines. Not to mention the fact that 23 of Marine’s key staff commute from the mainland on the company’s small planes. Six times this winter they couldn’t fly and took boats. Three times they couldn’t do either.

“So how many times did the store close because of winter storms?” I asked. (I teach at a university in Philadelphia and we had 4 “snow days” this winter.) “Oh we never close.” Ron replied. “We see ourselves as an emergency business and so we never close.”

I had never heard a store characterized as “an emergency business” so I asked Chick (Charles Tennant who manages hard lines) to interpret Ron’s comment. “Well sure,” Chick’s face shifts from age 63 to 18 when he smiles, “What if someone needs a sump pump because of flooding or plywood to cover windows or a generator because of outages? I only remember closing once in my 29 years here.” He reconsidered, “Well, first we opened two years ago during a blizzard. The roads were closed and no one came, so after a while we went home.”

This last winter the roads were also occasionally closed to anything but emergency vehicles but that didn’t keep caretakers from making their rounds to check on the condition of the houses they’re charged with. They consider the potential for damage to a house an emergency and the police usually wave them past. The same sense that duty calls kept Marine HC open. Because when these caretakers go on their rounds, they’re bound to need something the store supplies. Anyone can figure that staying open under these circumstances isn’t bottom line practical, at least not in the short term, but developing a community reputation for reliability has long-term rewards. In an era of daily profit calculations, made possible by computers, Marine HC can be credited for persisting in thinking long-term.

When I first began ruminating about why Marine staff perform so well, it hadn’t occurred to me that they felt a sense of mission or service to the community.  But of course they do. They are a critical link in the fundamental economy of the island. Like sail cloth and barrel suppliers to Nantucket’s whalers, Marine HC to Nantucket’s building trade is at least the left atrium of the blood supply. That’s why it was patently obvious to Chick that if a caretaker needs something, he and the store have a responsibility to provide it.

Chick Tennant came to Marine in 1985, after seven years at D F Bedients Hardware in Ridgefield Connecticut. Founded in 1783, Bedients (which closed in 1998) was the second oldest, continuous-in-same-location hardware store in the US. At Bedients Chick absorbed the neighborly culture of a Mom and Pop shop and the first principle of what customer service means in his business—communicating information. “We’re in an information based business. Not just product knowledge but knowledge about how things work, how to fix things, how to do it right.”

What attracted Chick to Marine HC in the 1980s was, well, Bud Egan who owned the business at the time. Chick’s office used to be Egan’s. As Chick spoke about him, it was clear that their common ground, both metaphorical and literal, resembled a family inheritance. Egan was a man, as Chick described him, whose life work was running a good business. For 50 years he worked at it, coming into the store every day. When at one time staff members suggested they might extend the Christmas holiday to the day after Christmas, Egan insisted that was precisely the day when islanders were likely to need something—batteries for instance. So they opened.

 For ten minutes I watched Jonathan Amaral in Hardware use the store’s swagging tool to squeeze metal loops onto two cables that were going to secure a customer’s boat trailer. The metal loops cost $1.70 each and the customer bought four of them. A boat trailer is hardly a trade necessity but as far as Jonathan was concerned, safety is and so is doing small favors. “Besides, “ as the customer pointed out laughing, “It’s my reward for spending five million dollars a month here.” The customer is a landscaper. He’d been working starting at 6am every morning for the past three weeks. He needed a boat break.

One of the challenges of the summer population is that serving the community often means diminishing the risks caused by their amateurism when using store products. The day before we met, Chick was helping a customer buy a screw. When he asked what the man needed it for the customer explained that he had just made four steps that would complete the stairs to his basement and he was going to attach them to the wall. The screws that he was looking at wouldn’t have held. Chick envisioned a hapless descent, a final skittering crash of man and stairs and walked the customer through the best way to secure the steps.

So for the Marine HC staff, when school lets out, they do a lot more teaching. I have watched Chris Kirk teach a customer how to shingle a patch on the side of a house---in the aisle that houses metal and plastic downspouts. He lined up random boxes of fittings to act as shingles. He explained precisely where to place the nails and then how to shove up the wood shingle to secure it on the nail. He repeated the make-believe process until he was sure the customer understood.

Chris came to Marine HC after working as a carpenter on the island, doing more than his share of shingling. The experience is evident in how quickly he moves to hands-on demonstrations. Instead of just handing me a box of glazier’s points when I asked where I could find them, he tore open a corner and pulled one out. “You know how to use this kind?” I said I thought I did but my voice told the truth. “Ok, here’s the pane of glass and here’s your sash frame…” We both stared at the corner of a shelf where he was slipping the point over the imagined glass and into his hand (which was the wood frame). I would have placed the point upside down…the night before I had wrestled with one for fifteen minutes because I had placed it upside down.


When Chick hired Chris five years ago, he knew that his construction work would be invaluable but he would have to learn retail. Typically Chick begins staff training with shelf stocking assignments -- the obvious way to get to know the inventory. Given that his department has more than 25,000 SKUs (stock keeping units—those metal poles for hanging) and given that eight out of ten questions asked of staff are variations on where something is, the task of learning inventory is as critical to job function as street knowledge to taxi drivers (before GPS of course). Chick also takes them to trade shows. A three-day Ace Hardware trade show on the Cape, with hundreds of vendors demonstrating products, is in Chick’s opinion, the most efficient training he can give a new employee.

Still the learning curve for Marine employees can only be accelerated a few ways and for the most part a staff member simply improves with time. We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of being bounced around like a ball in relay when sales people are new to their stock. This is why longevity is a critical asset and the store has a remarkable record for that. With 29 years at Marine, Chick is only third ranked for years served. Number one is Jill Lentowski who has worked in Decorating for 39 years, and Mark Songer who has been in Lumber 32 years. Ron Foster began working at Marine two years before Chick.  Andy Caspe in Hardware and Jason Metcalf in Paints have both worked at Marine 17 years. The company offers a good benefit package and the business has been strong enough (and shrewd enough) to ride out cycles of recession in the building business, so job security is a draw to staff who have watched boom years come and go.

Any list of factors affecting job satisfaction includes these points; famously  “job security” ranked number one or two nationally in the years following 2008. Other top five factors include interesting work, good relationships with senior management and the immediate supervisor; good compensation. What doesn’t appear on these lists is the zeitgeist of the Marine HC as a workplace—what I’ve been referring to as their culture of customer service, the satisfaction that comes from doing well by the people you do business with. In most job satisfaction questionnaires anything ethical becomes almost self-serving and is subsumed in a category like “appreciation for work done”.

“So how are you trained in customer service?” was a question I asked a number of Marine staff, imagining some type of Disney Corporation training session where “Smile and say, ‘Can I help you with something?’” is lesson #1. The question generally drew a blank, or at best an acknowledgement that yes, they do attend trade shows. To the staff, customer service means knowing your products, not learning strategic ways to interface with your clients.

But the staff do interface wonderfully, and perhaps even strategically with their clients so we have to imagine that either their hiring is brilliant if not telepathic, or that their company culture is so strong that everyone becomes an immediate convert. And when you think about it, who wouldn’t want to convert to a culture where you can teach someone something without being clocked, where you can cut someone’s window glass and say, “There’s no charge for that.” where you can assuage a customer’s disappointment at your not having something, with the offer to special order it? You’re not a doctor but sometimes people approach you with the same urgency as patients. Something is broken that only you can fix and your company tells you to go ahead. No need to ask for the insurance of a sale.  All day long, people are pleasantly surprised and thank you. At the end of the day, you feel good about your job.

 

Comments

Another brilliant piece by that Lefevre lady!

Chick Tennant is such an asset to Nantucket. And an artist to boot...