Call of Leadership

The Call of Leadership

Running a Business During Covid-19 with Adam Barden, Owner True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar

Adam Barden, owner of the True Value stores in Frankenmuth and Vassar, shares with us how he made an abrupt career change to go into the family business.  We talk about “Doing the Right Thing”, not only in your job but also in your business.  Also managing a small business through the stay-at-home order.

Links from the Interview:


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Cliff Duvernois (00:10):
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the call of leadership podcast where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership. We will hear the powerful stories and get their advice. Now today’s guest is really big in community. He was the president of the DBA and Vassar for a number of years. He now sits on the Frankenmuth chamber of commerce committee. He’s a loving husband, a caring father, and a fanatical basketball coach for his kid’s basketball team at st Michael’s. He’s the owner of true value in Frankenmuth and Vassar. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show Adam Barton. Adam how are you?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar

I’m great, cliff, thanks for having me on today.

Cliff Duvernois (00:50):
Thank you for carving out time. Cause I know with the current climate today, a lot of small businesses are really scrambling to try to stay afloat. So I’m, I’m grateful for the time that you’re able to carve out for us.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Yeah, I’m I’m looking forward to this and it’s a nice break from the craziness we have going on right now.

Cliff Duvernois (00:50):
Oh, I absolutely bet we’ll, we’ll talk about that in a little bit. First off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about where are you from? Where did you grow up?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I actually grew up in Vassar. I was, I was born in Lapeer and spent the first few years of my lives, my life, just a short distance away from here in Otisville is where my parents originally lived when I was born. I’m the oldest of three. When I was four, my parents bought a little hardware store in Vassar.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (01:31):
We moved to Vassar and I, I grew up in Vassar after that. Excellent.

Now you grew up in and Vassar, did you graduate from Vassar high school?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I did 1994. 94. I graduated in 89. Well, not that far apart. No, not that far apart at all. So after high school you decided to go off to college.

Where did you go?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to attend Lawrence technological university in Southfield where I, I went and I obtained my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

What made you decide to go into mechanical engineering in high school.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
and you know, all of the aptitude testing and classes that you take. You kind of get some advice from people and my, my aptitudes and my interests kind of pointed me in the direction of engineering. I really enjoyed math and, and did well at it and I, I liked putting things together and building things.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (02:27):
So engineering seemed like a pretty natural fit for me at the time.

Then you wound up graduating from college and you went off into the private sector and you got a job. What were you, what were you doing at the time?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
While I was in, in college, I started on a co op program. So the last two years of my undergraduate degree I worked on while I was going to school for a small, relatively small in the automotive industry, a company called the Fayette tubular products. And what we made were the air conditioning and tubing hoses, some ways that go into the hood of your car to transport the refrigerant from one component to the next. I was fortunate enough that when I graduated they had offered me a full time position and I got my first real job after, after I graduated and took that job.

Cliff Duvernois (03:15):
Excellent. Now you’ve, you had the, you, you were working out there in the manufacturing engineering world for a number of years, but at some point in time you decided to go back and get your master’s. Why did you do that?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Yeah, I had, I had always had visions on furthering my education. I actually initially thought that I would probably pursue a master’s in engineering and continue in that course. But at the time in the, in the late nineties, early two thousands in the automotive industry MBAs were pretty well regarded and highly valued for, for people that were moving up in, in companies as a young enterprising person that I was, that was, that was high on my mind. So I elected to pursue the MBA instead of furthering the engineering degree path. And you know, in retrospect, I’m pretty glad I did because it helped round out my education a little bit and gave me a different perspective on the financial management of a business and things like that.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (04:14):
But there, there were a lot of debates internally about which way that should go. But in the end I think I made the right choice. And I know we’ll probably talk about that a little bit more when we, when we talk in to you being in business,

you graduated with an MBA and you still, at that point in time you were still working in engineering and manufacturing. Yeah. But then you segue to back into the hardware business, specifically a true value. What made you, what was the, what was the event that made you walk that route?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Well, I, I was as, as we’ve talked about, I had kind of started to work my way up on the automotive industry. I had moved up in the company, I was into a relatively high level of management, not quite in the executive suite, but close to it.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (05:04):
And then the you know, the economic downturn happened in 2008 and things got really ugly in the automotive industry. Jobs were being lost left and right. Everybody’s sales were down, profits were down and everybody was scrambling trying to figure out what we were going to do next. And my job really had evolved from when I first got out of college, being a real engineer, which what I mean by that is actually designing products and you know, prototyping them, testing them, and then moving them into the production phase and seeing how they went on vehicles and then it transitioned into more of a managerial role and that that managerial role, particularly in those times really became a exercise in determining who’s, who’s going to keep their job and who wasn’t going to keep them after about, after about a year of that or so of going through that and dealing with that, it was a, it was actually the 4th of July.

I remember in 2008 that we were, we were at my parents’ cabin up in Sanford Lake and I, I got a phone call from my boss that I had to get on a conference call because we were going to, we’re going to talk about a whole group of people that were going to get laid off the following Monday when we went back to work. And I came back from that meeting, you know, totally deflated. And I told my wife, I said, you know, I, I just don’t, I don’t see another 20 to 30 years of this in my future. I just, I don’t have any control over these decisions being made. I don’t, the decisions being made aren’t good decisions. They’re being made for, you know, either political and or legal reasons, not necessarily what’s the right reason to keep these people. Obviously cuts had to be made, but not the smartest cuts were being made.

So that’s kind of where it started. And we just started talking and my wife and I looked at a number of different business aspects. I always have had an entrepreneurial spirit and I really wanted to have my own business. So we looked at everything from car washes to renovating homes and selling them. And one day my wife said, well, have you ever thought about talking to your parents about their store? Because they, my parents were getting very close to retirement. As a matter of fact, they had, they had started to sell down inventory in the store in Vassar, in the, with the idea that they were just gonna basically sell the inventory down and close the store. So I pick up the phone one day and I called my parents and I said, Hey what do you guys think about selling me the hardware store?

There was silence for quite some time on the other end. They were totally shocked and never expected to get that phone call from me. So yeah, we, we met after that and started talking about it and that’s kind of where the transition happened. That’s interesting. You mentioned something before about how you had felt you always had this entrepreneurial spirit. How would you describe that? Like how, like if you were, if somebody was sitting across from you and just said, and they said, I don’t really know what that means or understands well, how would you describe that feeling? I would summarize it by when you work, especially when you work in corporate America and you see decisions being made that are just clearly wrong decisions and the, the, the level of frustration that you feel with not being able to affect that decision or change that decision.

I think if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you say, I’m going to do something about that. You know, I’m not, I can’t, I can’t continue to tolerate these types of poor decisions being made and not being able to do anything about it. So I’m going to put myself in a position where if a decision has to be made, I’m going to be able to have something to say about it.

Cliff Duvernois
I do what you mean. I was working with a client who, him and I were having a listen, a heated conversation, but we were diverging in our, in our talking and he said something to me I’ll never forget. He said, he said, I don’t care about people, I only care about production. And you know, right there, it reminded me why I enjoy working for myself because my response to him was, if you take care of your people, production will take care of itself.

Cliff Duvernois (08:59):
Right. You know, so it was just, yeah. And I totally get what you’re saying when, when, when you’re talking about that. So, yeah. I’m glad you brought that up because I know you said that your parents actually bought a hardware store. Did you ever work in the hardware store with them?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Yeah, yeah, yeah. As a kid growing up in school, and that was my summer job, I after school job. So I worked at the hardware store growing up quite a bit actually. And the hardware store that your parents purchased was an actual true value hardware store at the time, right? Yeah. Well actually when they purchased it, it was not, it was a Western auto, which you may remember, but yes, some of our younger friends might not. But yeah, it was actually a Western auto when they purchased it and then they, upon purchasing it they converted it to a true value hardware store.

Cliff Duvernois (09:42):
So then you elected to reach out to your parents and you said, I’m interested in buying your shop and they agreed. So you took over management of that shop. Now how long did you manage that particular hardware store before you got the itch to expand?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Well, I, I bought the store from my parents in 2009 we closed the deal in September of 2009 my mom continued working for about six months after that and my dad for about a year and then they both fully retired after that. And then probably around 2014 is when I started thinking about what’s the next thing that we want to do or what do we want to look towards for growth. And then in 2015 is when we ended up opening our store in Frankenmuth. Why did you decide to open up a second hardware store? There’s, there’s obviously with a, with a store that’s been in a community for, well this year is our 40th year in Vassar, which we’re pretty proud of, but there’s there’s only so much growth opportunity there.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (10:46):
So we have, obviously we have a store that’s been run very well for a long time and we feel like we’ve maximized pretty much what we can do in that store location just because there’s only, there are only so many people in the community that we can serve. So the decision was, you know, if we want to continue to grow and continue to try to get better, we’re probably going to have to look at a second location versus expanding our existing location, you know, into a bigger store or something like that.

Cliff Duvernois
And when you did decide to go for a second store, what made you want me to decide to purchase in Frankenmuth?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I wanted our, our first branch story we’ll call it. I wanted our first brand store to be relatively close to us just because it’s a lot easier to keep your hands around something when it’s nearby.

We’re able to share resources quite easily. We can share staff, which actually right now we’re having to do because of some of the issues going on today, we’re able to share equipment, trucks and even inventory when we need to to help service our customers. So especially being a first time that I manage more than one location, I wanted it to be pretty close just to down on the issues of having to travel a long distance to support a stores or something like that. So we felt it was the safest way to go as a state nearby.

And I do know that, and I hear this a lot when I’m reading the news and stuff, talking about big box stores, squeezing out the little guy, the little independent shop owners or whatnot. What do you, from a true, true value standpoint, you owned your business for five years.

Cliff Duvernois (12:18):
You were successful enough that you felt you were ready to expand and you did. So what was it that allows like a true value, like a small time, you know, a smaller time hardware store to be able to compete against like the home Depot. So the Lowe’s of the world?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Well, I think there are a few things to it. Obviously we service a different market than they do and that they’re not going to open a home Depot in a community the size of Vassar Frankenmuth. You know, you couldn’t support the overhead of one of those stores with the number of people that live in those communities. So that’s probably one of the factors. You know, the things that we pride ourselves on are things that they don’t do well or can’t do well. And that’s really very personalized service to our customers. That means, you know, probably 60 to 70% of our customers, our team knows by name when they walk in the door.

So if you walk in the door, they’re gonna say, Hey Cliff, how are you doing today? And you know, you’re not going to get that at a home Depot. That’s not just a nice feeling because somebody knows your name. It’s, we know what you’re working on. We also know what you like and what you don’t like. We know what you know how to do and what you don’t know how to do. Some cases we know what level of help you want and what level of help you don’t want. Some customers want to walk around and find things on their own. Some customers want somebody walking with them and showing them where everything is. So it’s really a highly focused level of customer service. I think that sets us apart from a big box store to a certain extent. There are big box customers and there are our customers and I think, you know, we know who our customers are and we really focus on them.

If somebody is dead set that they’re going to save 11% every other week, then that maybe isn’t our customer and they’re not going to be our customer and that’s okay. As long as we take the best care of our customers, we feel like we’ll have plenty of customers out there to to be able to keep doing what we need to do. And I know that I’ve actually been inside of the true value, not only in Vassar but in Frankenmuth. And you’re right, because every time that I’ve gone in there, I felt like people have really bent over backwards to try to help me because when it comes to doing any kind of home repair, I am incompetent. I’ll think I’m being generous with that.

What is it that you look for in w, you know, when you’re hiring an employee and you’re bringing an employee on, what are traits that you yourself look for to say, is this person going to be a good fit for the team?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (14:40):
Is this person going to take care of our customers? Well, we try to really hire people. That one we in, you know, this is obviously very difficult to interview for, which a lot of things are, but we really try to find people that share common values with us. And you know, those common values are, you know, we all, we all have pretty strong faith. We all believe in doing the right thing first. That’s, that’s, you know, one of our core values as a company is that we’re going to do the right thing. It might not be the most profitable thing, but if it’s the right thing, it’s the thing we’re going to do. Exactly. So we really try to find that out in the interview process. You know, what does this person do? We think they share those, some of those common values with us because of the skill sets, the knowledge, most of that stuff can be taught. So we don’t, we really don’t interview a lot for experience or skill sets, although in some cases we need a certain level of experience if it’s a position that requires somebody to really hit the ground running. But for the most part we find people that we feel share our values and then we try to train them to learn all the stuff they need to know to do a really good job.

Cliff Duvernois (16:50):
I know that like a lot of businesses out there at the time of this recording, we are, we are still in this Covid 19, Corona recession that’s going on and I know there’s going to be some ramp up times with that with, with regards to the, you know, the shutdown order and everything that’s going on. Why don’t you talk to us about, you know, as a small business owner, what are some of the, like what are the, some of the biggest challenges that you have had to overcome so far?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Well, the biggest single challenge we’ve probably had is just staffing. We’ve, because we’ve had a few employees that have elected to, you know, to stop coming to work just from a personal safety standpoint, which at the beginning of this, you know, we, we talked to all of our staff and we said, listen, this is everybody’s, it’s a personal decision you have to make.

There’s no, nobody’s going to lose their job. Nobody’s going to be punished. If you feel like it’s not safe for you to be at work, then you shouldn’t be at work. We have a few people that are because of that and that’s caused us some staffing shortages, which we had to, we had to adjust our store hours to compensate for that. The other big challenge is we just talked about our customer service model and it’s really difficult for us to stay six feet away from our customers and still help them the way that we’ve trained everybody to help our customers. So that’s been a real adjustment for everybody in our store because you know, if I’m, if I’m walking down the nut and bolt aisle trying to help you find the right fastener, it’s, it’s challenging to continue to stay six feet away from you and do that.

Now we’ve been doing our darndest to do that. Our job is to really help people on a personal level. So it’s, it’s been a real adjustment for us to try to do that from a distance. We’ve implemented some other things too to help make it easier. We do have a curbside website, you can go shop everything in our store, buy it, we pull it and pack it and we’ll bring it right out to your car. So you literally can buy almost anything in our store without ever coming face to face with anybody. And, and phone orders have been through the roof. Our phones never rang so much as it has the last couple of weeks. I can tell you that. So we’ve, we’ve been doing a lot of phone orders, which is fantastic and we really appreciate that our customers are using those tools. Stay at home, don’t go out unless you have to.

Cliff Duvernois (19:04):
Absolutely have to. Do you still find that you’re getting a lot of foot traffic to your stores there on certain days?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
Yes. We’re still getting a fair amount of foot traffic. If the sun’s out, we’re still seeing a lot of customers because they’re, you know, they’re at home and they’re trying to work on projects that they have at home because they don’t have anything else to do. So we have seen some high traffic days, definitely even after the stay at home order was put in place. We certainly are noticing a moderation of that now. And you know, this normally would be the kickoff of our very busy season. Our busiest months of the year are April, may and June. And we’re starting to see now the real difference between what a normal year would be and what it is now. So I think, I think we’re going to have some lean times in the next couple months, especially considering these are our best ones for the year.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (19:50):
But consider ourselves very fortunate in that we are able to still stay open. We’re able to keep everybody employed. So we’re, we’re very appreciative of that fact and we’re definitely trying to help our customers as best we can while still abiding by, you know, the spirit of, of the stay at home order and trying to keep everybody as safe as possible. Have you given any thought to what it’s going to take once this all subsides? At some point in time, the stay at home orders going to be lifted. We might still have to be six feet apart. Have you given any thought of what that might look like? Well, I think for us it’ll probably look a lot like what we’re doing today, which is, you know, we’re, we’re trying to keep everybody apart in the stores. We’re trying to do as many orders as possible through the phone or through the internet.

And I, you know, I honestly see that continuing probably if I had to guess, I would say into mid summer at the earliest, probably at this in time, you know, it’s really difficult to, we, we’ve, we’ve kicked around closing the front door is all together and going to a purely a curbside and phone model. And I, and I, and we definitely ruled that out yet. I think there’s still a possibility that that’s going to happen. Just because I think you have to find a way to continue to service the community, but you also have to really make sure that you’re protecting everybody’s health and safety. And if you, if you have too many people coming out, that might be the only way for us to limit traffic to the point where we feel safe and that,

Cliff Duvernois
I agree. I don’t know when things are going to get back to a point where we all feel comfortable just being out and about at, at a restaurant or at a movie theater and stuff.

Cliff Duvernois (21:32):
So I just think it’s just gonna be, you know, precautions for, you know, the, the foreseeable future. And speaking of impact, cause I know we talked about a little bit about the impact on your business. I know you also sit on the, frankly with the chamber of commerce committee. Talk to us a little bit about what that exactly is.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
The committee I sit on is the promotions committee and what the promotions committee’s job is basically to involve the chamber businesses with the local community and Frankenmuth. So you know, the Frankenmuth chamber kind of has two arms as the convention and visitors Bureau and then the chamber of commerce. Well our job is to really get the local residents engaged with the business community to understand what the businesses have, what they do, get local residents excited about the things we have going on in the business community.

Cliff Duvernois (22:20):
Why did you decide to serve on that committee?

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I was initially I was asked to be on the committee by the chamber, accepted it and I sat on the committee for a couple years and then last year was asked to be the chair of the, of the promotions committee, which has been a great time. We we launched just this earlier this year actually, the Frankenmuth certified program, which we’re very excited about. It’s an opportunity for all the residents and employees in Frankenmuth to learn more about the Frankenmuth community and to be better ambassadors for the community to visitors and to nearby communities.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
I know that you said that you got your degree in engineering, you got your MBA in, in finance. Is there anything from your experiences or your education right there that you feel has really helped you to be successful at running a hardware store and growing a hardware store?

Cliff Duvernois (23:15):
Both degrees have been very helpful to me. As a matter of fact, I’ve, I’ve told a lot of kids that have worked for me that are undecided about what they want to do when they go to college. I’ve advocated many, many of these kids to look into engineering school because I’ll tell people that an engineering degree is the most versatile degree you can get. It is extremely, extremely rigorous. You have to be very good at math. You have to understand physics, you have to understand chemistry and you have to, and they teach you how to solve problems. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, they teach you the methodology of solving problems. So engineering school was hugely valuable to me in teaching me how to solve a problem no matter how big or how complex it is. It teaches you how to break a problem down into its parts and apply the proper methodology to each part of that problem, to fix it.

Cliff Duvernois (24:08):
So again, I just tell kids, I say, if you don’t know what you want to do, don’t go get a general education degree or something that you know you’re not going to do. Make yourself do the work and get an engineering degree and you can get a job in any industry, just about any industry with an engineering degree. My MBA obviously has been hugely important to me in managing a business. You know, understanding what a current ratio is and what a debt ratio is and how to read a financial statement are pretty important when you’re trying to run a business and you you know, you need to know if you have enough money to make a decision, a business decision or if it’s a business decision that you shouldn’t make. So my, my MBA certainly has been helpful in that respect. So honestly the two of them together for me have been have been a great fit.

I’m probably a little bit unorthodox in terms of the number of guys running hardware stores that have that particular background. It’s been good for me, so excellent. And as a recovering engineer I can tell you that you are right about the problem solving cause it just seems like whenever a problem pops up, my brain just goes into problem solving mode, break it down into its smallest parts. Let’s fix this. What can we get done now? You know, the whole nine yards. And sometimes I wish I could shut it off, but you know, it is who I am at my core. It’s my, it’s my training, so I guess our heart, I’ll always be an engineer. I have a sign that hangs in my office in the bastard store actually that my wife bought me and now regrets that she bought me. And that sign says, it says never, but never questioned the engineer’s judgment.

Cliff Duvernois (25:45):
How about you have to get one of those, I don’t know. We talked before about you being a basketball coach for your kid’s basketball team. How did they do this last year? Great. Actually we, I coached, my daughter is a B basketball team at st Michael’s and then my son’s C basketball team at Saint Michael’s and they both had great seasons. Most importantly they both teams really improved dramatically throughout the season. So we were really happy about that. We think we’re going to have really strong teams. We get to the 18 divisions next year for the girls and a couple of years for the boys.

Cliff Duvernois
If our audience wants to connect with you or follow you online with your, you know, running your business or things that you’re doing in the community, what would be the best way for them to do that? Following our Facebook pages for both of our businesses is definitely, probably the best way to keep up with what’s going on with our businesses.

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (26:41):
If you haven’t checked out our Facebook page for our Vassar store, especially, we have a couple guys that work in that store that really do a phenomenal job on our Facebook page. They, they make some hilarious videos that are out there all the time. And even during the coronavirus they’ve put out some some videos about social distancing that I think everybody should check out because they’re pretty entertaining. Especially for some people that don’t know really know much about technology or producing or video editing or anything like that. They’ve, those guys, they always impressed me with what they’re able to do. So our, our Facebook pages are really where we spend most of our social marketing dollars and energy at. We do a do a little bit on Instagram, but not a ton yet. We’re kind of still growing into that and then we’re still, I’m a gen X or so, I’m still trying to figure this Snapchat thing out, but we’re working on that as well.

Cliff Duvernois (27:36):
So it’s tick tock, tick tock, tick tock

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar
The other one that we have to, we’ve got to get our tic-tac game amped up a little bit.

Cliff Duvernois
I have to give her a shout out, but Melissa Hager, apparently she’s a tick tock queen, so maybe she can give you some lessons.

Adam Barden
Melissa is the queen of everything, so she, I’m sure she could give me some lessons on that. She’s a dear friends, so yeah, she’s she’s really great. Actually her episode, by the time this one airs, her episode will have already come out. I interviewed her a handful of weeks ago before this whole Corona Corona thing broke out. So that’s going to be very entertaining episode to release while you, when you talk to her, you ask her about about the time that we worked together on our ladies night last year because she, she convinced me to dress up as a woman in a way that I, I can’t get scrubbed off the internet, so the internet never forgets, man.

Cliff Duvernois
Oh, that’s too funny. Only Melissa would give it somebody to do that. That is absolutely great. Adam, thank you so much for being on the show today. I really

Adam Barden, True Value Frankenmuth & Vassar (28:44):
Appreciate it. Yeah, thank you. I had a great time.