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When Builders Store owner R.W. Wolfram joined Hardware Wholesalers Inc. in 1945, as member No. 50, he moved his heating and electrical supply business from Walkerton, Ind., to South Bend.
He later moved the store again to its present South Bend location in 1953. At the same time, his son Paul took over the family business after serving with the Army in Germany as a commissary officer.
After that, the store began to offer hardware and appliances in addition to its heating and electrical supplies.
Builders Store got out of the appliance business more than 30 years ago, and slowly grew out of the heating and electrical supply business. Now, the hardware store is all that’s left.
“Early on…we tried to be in houswares fairly deep as well as hardware. Eventually, hardware and plumbing supplies became our main focus, and it’s been that way now for about 30 years,” said Paul Wolfram, now 80.
The store has also found success with the lawn mower and snow blower industries. He said they currently specialize in Toro brand equipment.
Wolfram admitted that the store’s business name doesn’t exactly match what’s inside. “Our store name is misleading, as we’re not into lumber but just neighborhood hardware, lawn supplies and paints,” he said.
In his 57 years in hardware retailing, Wolfram said he’s always maintained a conservative outlook on the business.
“We’ve not been real aggressive in our advertising. We’ve been at a fairly moderate pace of advertising. I’m just a little more low-key,” he said.
This strategy has served him well, despite being sandwiched between two Lowe’s, two Menards and a Home Depot—much different from when he joined the business.
“Over the years, it’s been a big change. In the olden days you had fair trade and you could make money on lawn products and things. Now that you have to compete with the big boys, you have to cut your margins quite drastically. You either stay competitive or you’re going to be in trouble,” he said.
His conservative attitude plays a big part in sticking with the co-op his father signed with 65 years ago. “It’s been important that Do it Best has stayed a little bit conservative, and has stayed solid and solvent, which in turn helps us to stay solvent.”
In fact, Wolfram said there have been years his company’s very fate was decided by the end-of-year rebates the co-op doles out.
“By and large, it’s been a very important relationship to us being in business,” he said. “[At the end of the year], we call it a rebate. If it weren’t for that, we would have been out of business a long time ago. We don’t go for all of their programs, but a lot of them are key to keeping us going.”
Today, Wolfram is semi-retired. His son Mark handles the day-to-day business, but Paul still shows up for a good portion of the workweek.
“I take a few afternoons off, but still get in more hours than my wife thinks is necessary,” he said.
And Wolfram is still keen on passing along his conservative business method to his son. He touched on the basic principles he’s tried to pass on over the years.
“You have to take care of the customer. He’s been better than I on taking care of special orders and getting back to them on that. And my biggest concern is to remain a little bit conservative. As far as advertising or trying a new this or that, you have to be a little bit cautious.”