Kimps Hardware: Serving the community for more than 80 years
By Kat Halfman
HOWARD – Kimps Hardware, located on Glendale Avenue, has served the hardware needs of the Howard community since 1940 – a family-owned business that started in the backyard of current owner Craig Kimps’ grandparents, Bernard and Luella.
Craig said his grandfather, Bernard, ran a dairy business in the mornings, and sold hardware and propane during the day with Kimps Hardware and Propane Service.
Bernard would pick up his merchandise from the train depot and bring it back to his store that was located on Riverview Drive, right behind his home.
Even back then, working in the three-generation-owned store was a family affair with Luella and all five of their children helping with the store in some way.
Back then, Craig said Kimps Hardware sold a wide variety of products from furniture to plumbing fixtures, serving the many needs of the growing community.
The original store went from 2,000 square feet to 3,300 square feet by 1950.
Craig said his father, Gary Kimps, began working in the store and delivering propane in high school, and helped run the business after he graduated in 1962.
Craig’s parents, Gary and Sally Kimps purchased the business and took over day-to-day operations in 1974.
Craig said he joined the Kimps Hardware team in 1982.
Needing more space, the growing business moved to an 8,000-square-foot store on Glendale Avenue in 1987,
In 1989, rental and power equipment were added to Kimps’ list of services.
As business and project offerings expanded, so did the physical building – with Kimps Hardware adding space seven times through the years, now 28,000 square feet.
Craig is the store’s third generation owner, purchasing the store with his wife, Laurie, in 2010.
“In today’s changing world it’s great to be a part of something so good that lasted so long,” Craig said. “Our roots have always and will always continue to be our strength.”
Deep community roots
Times have certainly changed over the past eight decades, however, one thing that Craig and Laurie said has remained constant is the store’s focus on the family.
Laurie said she thinks Kimps Hardware has stayed in business for close to a century because of its deep-rooted, family- and customer-focused service.
“(Craig’s) parents grew up here, his grandparents grew up here, and Craig’s dad was truly a visionary,” Laurie said. “He was involved in the community as a charter member of the Howard-Suamico Optimist Club, and had a lot of connections in the community. He always seemed to have a vision, and even in our meetings today we’ll say, ‘I wonder what Gary would’ve done,’ even though he lived in a completely different time, because there’s still something there that we can look back on and learn from.”
Laurie said a good example of Gary’s resilience came during the summer of 1981, when a sign popped up two blocks from his store which read, “Future home of the Howard True Value.”
“I can only imagine what his thoughts were when he’d been operating this 40-year-old business in a 3,000-square-foot space, and he was suddenly faced with the competition of a brand new store that’s going to be 10,000 square feet,” she said. “He kept pushing through that, and he sought out the property where our store is actually still located today, just two blocks from where the new True Value would be, and purchased it.”
Craig said he asked his dad why he bought the property, and Gary answered him with: “In case we need it.”
Craig said even in the face of a new business, his dad stepped up rather than backing down, and by 1988, he was building the new Kimps Hardware where it still stands today, and the True Value had already gone out of business.
Laurie said the COVID-19 pandemic was a big unknown, a hurdle no one could have predicted.
During the unprecedented and scary times, Craig said he took time to speak with each of his employees and gave them all the option of taking time off, with the promise of their job back when they were able to return.
He said more than 10 employees took leave, with others picking up the slack until almost all of their employees returned.
Craig said the store, as many others are, is feeling the strains of supply chain shortages.
Through the ups and downs the next two years brought, Kimps Hardware relied on its claim to fame – customer-focused service.
Laurie said for a small business, customer service is everything.
She said many of the store’s employees started out as customers – now mirroring the positive experiences they felt to their customers.
Craig said the phrase “customer service” is thrown around a lot, but said, “In truth, it’s a culture.”
“You’re a product of your environment, and I think that when you start with it, like my grandfather and dad did, in order to survive 80 some years, you have to prioritize customer service,” he said. “I think that’s a necessity to survive in a world with all these competing businesses. I think once you have a good strong foundation for that culture, the new employees embody the old employees, and that customer service culture just keeps growing.”
Expansion into Ashwaubenon
Just as increased business in Howard prompted the original move and subsequent expansions, the increased interest in the family business by Craig and Laurie’s children triggered an expansion into neighboring Ashwaubenon.
The new stores – Paulson Hardware, located at 2248 South Ridge Road, and Ace Hardware, located at 2110 South Ridge Road – were added with the intention of eventually combining the stores’ offerings to the Ace Hardware location.
After seeing everything the Paulsons had done serving Ashwaubenon, the Kimps decided to make an offer.
“The Paulsons stood the test of time,” Craig said. “They know the community in Ashwaubenon and they have long-time customers there that are really happy to have them.”
He said, come to find out, the owner of the Ace store was also getting ready to retire.
“So, we bought two buildings with the intent of merging them into one. The Paulson building was very similar to ours, so we were looking at how we built our strong points from the Howard store into the Paulson store, because it was about a third of the size. We’re very strong in paint and home decor here. We’re very strong in grilling. We have an outdoor garden center with outdoor decor. We have a rental center, and none of those things were going to fit in the Paulson building.”
Yet, Craig said they saw the Paulson Hardware store a staple to their growth.
“So, then the question became, how do we fit all of these niches and strongholds of our business into this smaller building?” he said. “What are we gonna give? What are we gonna take? So when the Ace store became available, that really put our vision together to combine these two stores into one and make one really, really nice store that mirrors all the services we have at our Howard store.”
Though both in the Village of Ashwaubenon – Craig said Ace Hardware and Paulson Hardware had two different sets of loyal customers.
“The Ace store survived 17 years and the Paulsons since 1955, so they had two unique sets of customers,” he said. “One of the things was that the Paulsons were super strong in core hardware and outdoor power equipment, whereas Ace had a larger breadth of hardware, because the building is so big.”
What does the future hold?
Laurie said first, they have a lot of thank-yous to address, to their loyal customers, all of their employees, both old and new, and to the Paulson family for their efforts in transitioning from their long-time business into part of the Kimps family.
As for the future? Craig said they don’t know just yet.
“We’re third generation right now, and the fourth generation is already here,” he said. “My oldest son, Wes, came into the business years ago. My youngest, Clint, and his wife, Alexis, are now a part of the business, and our oldest Dana’s fiance Ben has also come into the business. So family is really central for us, and the fourth generation already plays a large role in our decisions. If you’re in the store enough, you might see the fifth generation, who are nine, eight, and one-and-a-half years old, mopping floors and helping put out merchandise. The one-and-a-half year old comes in mostly for moral support, so they’re very often in the store here.”