True Value ready to fight rivals after fixing finances

Thursday, March 23, 2006

CHICAGO -- True Value Co. CEO Lyle Heidemann spends a lot of his time shopping these days -- and that's a good thing for a chain that had lost its way in retail.

Roaming the aisles of big-box competitors and other retailers that have put hundreds of its member stores out of business, Heidemann and True Value are actively on the prowl for more customers after a restructuring that has cleaned up its financial problems and given it new momentum.

Whether it can regain business lost to home improvement behemoths Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Cos. remains questionable. But after years on the defensive, the 6,000-store member-owned cooperative is fighting back again with an aggressive marketing strategy and what its first-year CEO calls "a whole new beginning" for True Value. The quest: Attract more "weekend warriors" away from the giant stores.

Heidemann said they are trying now to put together a strategy for growth. "And ... probably the biggest difference is that we're focused on retail versus wholesale."

True Value always acted as a wholesaler to its retail members, but now it is focusing more on what will help them improve store sales and profits, he said.

Heidemann is pounding the aisles of big and little stores alike, taking mental notes in search of competitive tips.

True Value was synonymous with hardware for many Americans for decades after its establishment in 1948 by hardware wholesaler and distributor John Cotter, who formed a Chicago-based cooperative of 25 dues-paying retailers and called it Cotter & Co. By his death in 1989, sales exceeded $2 billion and nearly one in four U.S. hardware stores bore the True Value name.

Since then, the cooperative -- which became TruServ Corp. and then was renamed True Value Co. last year -- has been buffeted by the relentless expansion of giant discount-store competitors, financial losses and accounting errors that led to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and a restatement of earnings for 1997-99. More than 1,000 members have left, most closing down but some defecting to rivals such as cooperative Ace Hardware.

Financial specialist Pamela Forbes Lieberman was brought in to straighten out the mess in 2001 and headed the company until last June, when she was replaced with Heidemann, an industry veteran. Heidemann spent 36 years with Sears, Roebuck and Co. before retiring in 2003, overseeing at various times its hardware, tools and paint, and lawn and garden businesses, among others.

The 61-year-old Heidemann credits Lieberman with leaving True Value in solid shape, including four straight years of improving profits and same-store sales growth of 2 percent last year, when revenues totaled $2.04 billion. That momentum has enabled him to undertake new retail initiatives, such as adding regional items -- for example, snow shovels in the north, fire ant killer in the south and moss killer for the Northwest -- and changing pricing and inventory procedures, along with making the marketing push.

Despite the financial recovery, retail consultant Howard Davidowitz isn't sure True Value and its independent operators can be viable in the face of continuing growth by the discount powerhouses.

"They do have a convenience element, and they have some niche businesses," said Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc. in New York. "But in this environment of Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and Lowe's, can they be competitive on price? I think the book is out."

The continuing loss of 150 to 200 members a year, which hardware industry trends suggest is likely to continue, underscores the challenge.

Hardware stores are seeing their share of the do-it-yourself market shrink steadily, with sales growing in the low single-digit percentages annually while their big-box rivals grow at a double-digit clip, doubling their sales in about the last five years.

"Home Depot and Lowe's are going to get bigger and bigger and they're going to take more market share away from small mom-and-pops," said Morningstar analyst Anthony Chukumba. "They have much more purchasing power, a wider selection and lower prices, and at the end of the day that's what customers are really looking for."

Heidemann says True Value, which also operates Grand Rental Station, Taylor Rental, Party Central and other stores, isn't trying to be "a little box carrying all the big-box items." But it is providing its member stores with more detailed information about competitors' prices in individual markets in order to help them compete better head-to-head in its core areas: plumbing, electrical, lawn and garden and paint.

By dropping its decade-old advertising slogan "Help is right around the corner" this spring, the company acknowledges that a reputation for knowledgeable, available service isn't enough. Its new print and television campaign introduces an updated tagline -- "Start right. Start here." -- reflecting the consumer trend away from repair and maintenance and the billions of dollars now spent annually on home upgrades, alterations and enhancements.

After listening to customer focus groups for months, True Value is targeting not bargain-hunters or advice-seekers but the "do-it-yourself enthusiasts" who already account for an estimated 43 percent of its sales. The goal: to get them to go to True Value first, not Home Depot or Lowe's, for small projects such as painting, refixturing a bathroom or changing lighting.

"We are a very well-known brand," said Carol Wentworth, vice president of marketing. "But the key in retail is to be top of mind when someone says 'I'm going out to do a project' -- who do you think of first. And when you do a survey of the entire industry and all the customers who are active in the industry, True Value's not top of mind."

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