HARTVILLE Last year was a busy year for HRM Enterprises.
Last February, the privately owned family business bought Centerra Hardware and Lumber Center in Middlefield, Geauga County, and added locally owned Hartville Contractors Supply in June.
Then HRM announced last month that it would buy the Lehman store in Kidron, Wayne County. The deal, which developed over several years, brought together two iconic family-owned brands from Northeast Ohio.
More:Hartville Hardware owner buys the historic Lehman business in Amish land
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HRM has grown significantly over the past few years, and it might be a good time to take a break, said Gary Sommers, the company’s CEO. Not that the right deal couldn’t be made.
“We are open to evaluating opportunities,” he said.
Sommers is the fourth generation to run the company. Its origins go back to Sol Miller, a Hartville farmer who decided in 1939 to open a cattle auction. After the auction, Miller’s wife Soloma opened a lunch counter in the barn. They later allowed the sellers to open a flea market.
Sol and Soloma’s son Howard R. Miller Sr. began running the auction after his father died in 1958 and bought the business in 1962. He later bought a hardware store, opened a restaurant, and tried other businesses. Some worked and some didn’t.
What worked has grown into a company that employs 850 people in companies across Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Hartville Kitchen, Hartville Marketplace, and Hartville Hardware are the best known. Located in 100 acres of buildings in Lake Township west of Hartville, the company attracts an estimated 2 million people each year.
HRM has proven itself as a retail destination.
“It’s something we do that makes us feel good,” said Sommers.
The addition of Lehman goes well with the established activities of HRM. The company was founded in 1955 and established itself as a business with connections to a simpler, older lifestyle. The Amish Country, Ohio location has made Lehman’s its own retail destination.
Relationship leads to partnership
The Miller and Lehman families have known each other since the early 1980s and shared business advice.
Howard R. Miller Sr. visited the Kidron store and talked to Jay Lehman, the store’s founder. Howard R. Miller Jr. befriended Jay’s son Galen, while Vernon Sommers – Miller’s younger brother-in-law and Gary’s father – joined Lehman’s board of directors.
The two families share the same values of integrity and customer service.
“We have a lot of respect for their business,” said Gary Sommers.
A few years ago, he spoke to Galen Lehman and planted the seed that HRM would be ready to listen if the Lehman family ever wanted to talk about a merger.
Lehman’s will operate as an independent company, making it the fifth company in the HRM family of companies. In addition to the three popular Hartville destinations, the company operates Top Advantage Surfaces.
Top Advantage is located on campus west of Hartville and has locations outside of Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Dayton. HRM bought the company in 2006, initially as an extension of Hartville Hardware. But the business grew and went in its own direction.
According to Sommers, Top Advantage is a counter business that works with kitchen and bathroom dealers, home builders, and contractors in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The company handles around 400 projects every month and supplies business customers.
While Top Advantage and Lehman’s have links to the hardware business, both are independent of Hartville Hardware, HRM’s largest brand.
Gary’s brother Scott Sommers is President of Hartville Hardware. That segment started expanding in 2018 with the acquisition of Henry Bierce Co., a hardware store in Tallmadge. This store is now operated as Hartville Hardware 2.
The various Hartville Hardware locations are set up to meet the needs of their community. The Tallmadge store is strictly a hardware store, while the Middlefield location is initially a lumber yard, but sells hardware.
Alignment with a community and its needs has always been important. While the companies on the HRM campus attract customers from afar, support from the nearby community has helped the company grow.
“This community has been so supportive of us,” said Scott Sommers of Hartville and Lake Township.
Hartville Hardware locations also have a reputation for stocking items that are hard to find when shopping from major national chains. Both the Tallmadge and Middlefield stores were tied to the Do It Best cooperative, which was already supplying Hartville Hardware with hardware, lumber and building materials.
While Lehman’s offers hardware, it specializes in “off-grid” products such as hand tools and devices that operate without electricity.
Supplying the unusual and simpler lifestyle products has helped Lehman’s become a destination retailer, said Gary Sommers. The company began selling these products through catalogs and taking business to the Internet.
According to Gary Sommers, Lehman’s internet business is tied to similar activities that HRM has developed over the years with its established brands.
Business strategy, culture
Having a similar business strategy that fits HRM’s strategy is important for expansion, said Gary Sommers.
Equally important is whether a potential partner adapts to the culture and team at HRM, he said.
The Miller family has always valued their Christian faith.
“It permeates our business and is part of why we do a lot of the things we do,” said Gary Sommers.
Zach Coblentz, a cousin of Gary and Scott Sommers and Chief Operating Officer of HRM, recalled a story where students asked his grandfather about the company’s success. Howard R. Miller Sr. stated that he followed Biblical principles in conducting his business.
HRM has a guideline that is, “Why we exist. To honor God by serving and caring for others.” Putting God first is a core philosophy, along with giving back to the community and treating customers, suppliers and employees how they would like to be treated.
That hasn’t changed as younger generations ran the business, Coblentz said.
“We try to live by them,” he said. “We teach them too.”
This approach and attitude was characterized by a group of students from Malone University studying HRM as part of a class project. Gregory Miller, Malone’s provost and history professor, said the students were inspired by Howard R. Miller Jr. and his family’s approach and how he shaped the corporate culture.
Gregory Miller (not related to the HRM family) said the students saw what can be achieved through hard work, strong morals, faith and family and how it is anchored in the corporate culture.
It was also evident how family members planned in advance, said Gregory Miller. “You are always looking to the future and working to improve. You are open to the next steps.”
Strength in the family
The descendants of Sol and Soloma Miller play a key role in the ownership and leadership of HRM. Howard R. Miller Jr. is the company’s chairman.
“He’s a fantastic leader and mentor,” said Scott Sommers of his uncle.
Other members of the third generation remain active on the board of directors or in the management of the company. Howard and Wayne Miller, Rich Wittmer and Vernon Sommers are HRM directors. Vernon is also President of Hartville Kitchen, while Howard and Wayne continue to serve at Hartville Hardware. In addition, Howard, Wayne and Vernon, along with Gary and Scott Sommers and Zach Coblentz, form the HRM leadership team.
“You did well,” said Scott Sommers of the third generation of the company.
There are 83 family members and 20 are business owners, 12 of whom are actively operating.
Family members work to maintain close relationships, with regular family gatherings. “We work hard to keep relationships strong,” said Zach Coblentz.
Some fifth generation high school and college members are already working with the family business. But Sommers and Coblentz said they aren’t pushing the family business with the next generation. They want their children and cousins to be happy where they end up working and not feeling committed.
HRM has benefited from the help and guidance from employees unrelated to the Miller family, said Gary Sommers. So many others have made the company a success, he said.
“When a team like Lehman’s comes in, they’re part of the family,” Sommers said.
Based in Lake Township, west of Hartville, the company has five companies: Hartville MarketPlace, Hartville Hardware, Hartville Kitchen, Top Advantage Surfaces, and Lehman’s in Kidron. Here are key moments in the company’s history:
- Founded in 1939 when Sol Miller opened a cattle auction on Edison Street and Market Avenue NW. As the business grows, Miller and his wife Soloma add a lunch counter and open a flea market for sellers.
- Sol Miller died in 1958 at the age of 52. Soloma and the couple’s son, Howard R. Miller Sr., run the business.
- In 1962, Howard R. Miller Sr. bought the auction and property from his mother.
- The Country Kitchen opens in 1966. There are several Soloma recipes on the menu.
- In 1972 Howard R. Miller Sr. bought the hardware store Lake Value & Service and let his 19-year-old son Howard R. Miller Jr. run the business as True Value Hardware.
- In December 1974, the hardware store moves to a new building on West Maple Street and eventually functions as Hartville True Value.
- In 1993, Hartville True Value purchases a timber company owned and operated by Ray Hall on Duquette Avenue NE. The company moves to Hartville True Value in 1993.
- In 1995, Hartville Kitchen and Hartville Collectibles opened in a new building at 1015 Edison St. NW.
- Hartville True Value decides to partner with hardware supplier Do It Best and changes its name to Hartville Hardware in February 2002.
- In 2002 the Hartville Flea Market moves to the property behind Hartville Kitchen and functions as the Hartville MarketPlace.
- Top Advantage Surfaces, a Hartville area company owned by Jimmy Domer, is acquired in 2006.
- In November 2010, the foundation stone was laid for the 305,000 square meter building that will house Hartville Hardware. The new store will open in early 2012.
- Henry Bierce Co. in Tallmadge is purchased in April 2018 and converted into Hartville Hardware 2.
- The Centerra Hardware and Lumber Center in the midfield will be purchased in February 2020.
- Hartville Contractors Supply will be acquired in June 2020.
- Lehman’s, a Kidron-based retailer, will join HRM in January 2021.