Title: Owner, Sears Hometown store in Overland
Career: Former president of Central Hardware; more recently, a consultant for a number of home improvement-related businesses
Personal: Lives in St. Louis with his wife of 15 years, Jill Malley-Cohen. They have four children from previous marriages and three grandchildren.
The importance of greeting customers at the door has been ingrained in Jim Cohen from three previous generations in the home improvement business.
So much so that during the course of a recent interview, he got up a half-dozen times to attend to customers walking into his latest endeavor – a 6,500 square foot Sears Hometown store that he opened last month in Overland.
For Cohen, the store is in many ways a return to his roots -- albeit this time with a one-time competitor of his family business, the now defunct chain of Central Hardware stores.
Bridgeton-based Central Hardware was a large local chain that touted its orange-coated experts who specialized in “everything from scoop to nuts.” Founded by his great-grandfather in 1903, the chain grew to about 38 stores in six states at its peak.
But in 1989, Interco sold it to a partnership that included the Belgian retailer GIB and an executive from Handy Andy Home Improvement Centers. Cohen stayed on board until 1992.
“Then they went a different direction and I went a different direction,” he said simply.
Laden with debt from the acquisition, the chain soon found itself in bankruptcy and ended up closing a few years later in the mid-1990s.
But ever since he left Central, Cohen has wanted to run a home improvement store again. The right opportunity finally came about through Sears Hometown stores -- smaller stores, usually found in rural areas, that sell appliances and tools. The Overland store is a bit of an urban experiment for for the format, he said.
“Sears was very committed to filling a void that had been left by the closure of Northwest Plaza,” he said.
And he liked the location at 9034 Overland Plaza. After all, he noted, a Central Hardware store once graced that same development.
So why did the Central Hardware chain close? Was it competition from the Kmarts and Home Depots of the world?
I don’t really think so. We had persevered through most of the competitors. Of course this my opinion, but even though we were a part of Interco, we had been a family-run business for a number of years. We had zero debt to deal with on our balance sheet. So we were really able to run our company as far as I’m concerned as they should be run -- thinking first and foremost about customers ...
From 1989 until the ultimate demise, the focus really shifted to debt, quarterly meetings and all of the different procedures. And I think they kind of lost track of the customer along the way.
Does it feel strange that you’re now working with one of your competitors?
It does, but 20 years has a way of soothing and readjusting your priorities and healing any wounds you might have had.
So have you brought some aspects of the Central Hardware chain into this Sears Hometown store?
Absolutely. That was the whole idea -- starting with my employee base. The Central Hardware group is still very close knit. We do a picnic every other year ...
So I sent a letter to everybody on the mailing list telling them what I was doing and outlining the opportunity here, telling them I would give preferential treatment and priority hiring to anybody who was somehow integrated to that Central Hardware family -- albeit a neighbor, a church member, a bowling team member. So five of the six people who are working here are somehow tributaries of that original group.
Had you looked at other options over the last 20 years to open a retail store?
Yes, I took a look at a lot of opportunities. Two to three years ago I came very close to opening up an Ace franchise. It was going to be in downtown St. Louis -- something I was really excited about doing. Our original store in 1903 was at 811 N. 6th St. So a big part of me wanted to – you know, that passion to return to the roots that my great-grandfather had started.
It came close, but it just didn’t get done. At the last minute, all the wheels kind of fell off the bus. Downtown St. Louis started to experience its situation. We were desperately looking at the Ballpark Village development at bringing a lot of people back in. When that went a different direction, we had to go in a different direction.
So are you thinking about opening more of these Sears Hometown stores at this point?
Originally, my idea was to set up a chain, similar to what my family had done before me. Right now, my current thoughts are to take care of every customer here, make sure that every piece of this business is taken care of properly and see where it can go.
Obviously, there are a number of locations where a concept like this can work. There’s a ton of real estate out there that I’ve looked at. Certainly something east, something west, something north, something south would make a lot of sense. After one year of setting down a firm foundation, then we’ll see where it goes.
The phone hasn’t been ringing a lot this morning, but most often it is and it’s real estate companies calling to talk about other opportunities in St. Peters and St. Charles. So we’ll have to wait to see on that one.