Do it Best Corp. proudly serves 4,000 member-owned locations in the United States and 50 countries and is the only U.S.-based full-line, full-service, member-owned distributor of lumber, hardware, and building materials products in the home improvement industry.
Do it Best Corp. is truly a great American success story. What began with little more than an idea in 1945 has grown into a multi-billion dollar company. Its success is due to a unique tradition of hard work, innovation, and determination.
Arnold Gerberding's vision
Do it Best Corp., formerly known as Hardware Wholesalers, Inc. (HWI), began as the vision of Arnold Gerberding. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1900, Gerberding worked in the hardware business from the time he graduated from high school in 1919. Working as a buyer, he faced many challenges and frustrations getting products at good prices to compete with the popular and rapidly growing catalog and retail chains like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward, Inc.
He was always looking for a way to improve his store’s pricing and was impressed by the local farm co-ops. He started investigating this type of idea within the hardware and home improvement industry. He discovered that several regional co-ops had already been established and were experiencing success. In the late 1930s, he immersed himself in developing the concept for a new co-op that would serve independent retailers in the Midwest. Co-ops were based on a simple idea: many stores buying together could get better deals from vendors than if they bought separately. Not only would independent hardware stores become members of the cooperative, they would be the company’s shareholders as well. The profits made by the co-op would be returned to the members as a yearly rebate.
Once he had developed his idea for the company, he began approaching retailers to generate interest in getting it off the ground. After getting some positive responses, Gerberding quit his job and started contacting perspective members for the new company. For the company to move forward, Gerberding had to find retailers who were willing to pay $1,000 to join the co-op. So he went out on the road and met with independent retailers throughout Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
One of the first retailers he met with was C.A.E. Rinker, owner of Rinker’s Hardware in Anderson, Indiana. Gerberding stopped by Rinker’s store at 4 p.m. and was asked to wait because Rinker was too busy to meet with him. An hour later, Rinker closed the store and was planning to go home without talking with Gerberding. Gerberding asked Rinker if there was a place to eat in town and Rinker ended up inviting Gerberding to eat dinner with his family - where they spent hours talking about the idea for the new company. Later that evening, Gerberding was able to get an invitation to spend the night at Rinker’s house. The next morning, Rinker signed his store as one of the charter members of the company. “I met a man I never knew late in the afternoon,” Rinker remembered. “I invited him to my house for dinner, had him stay all night, provided breakfast in the morning, and invested $1,000 in a company I didn’t even know existed.” Such was the power of Gerberding’s persuasion that became the cornerstone for the company’s success.
Seven retailers met on June 28, 1945, in Fort Wayne to formally incorporate as Hardware Wholesalers, Inc. The first board of directors was elected and was formed entirely of co-op members - a tradition that remains to this day. The first annual meeting of the HWI shareholders was held in November 1945. There were 96 members and the decision was made to start operations as soon as possible.
The early days
In February 1946, HWI purchased 10 acres of property on Nelson Road in near-by New Haven. Due to federal restrictions on building after World War II and shortage of building materials, construction did not begin until August 1947 and was not completed until May 1948. In the meantime, HWI located its offices in small building in downtown Fort Wayne. A storage space next door was used as a warehouse. When that space became too small, additional warehouse spaces were found around the city.
Right from the start, staff were taught to focus on increasing efficiency, keep a watchful eye on expenses, and continuously improve operations. Fixtures in the newly-opened Nelson Road facility were built from scrap lumber and an old barn on the property was taken apart and the lumber used to build storage racks. This spirit of keeping costs low and efficiency high still drives the company to this day.
The first buying market was held in 1946 at the Catholic Community Center using a 66- by 90-foot auditorium for displays. In attendance were 60 members who viewed displays from 25 vendors. Early markets were held in the warehouse; later they were moved to a tent in the parking lot. As the markets grew, they moved to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Finally, in 1975, they moved the markets to the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, where they have been held ever since.
Gerberding was a big believer in using incentives to increase volume. In 1948, he started the one-order-a-week club. At that time, members would purchase in large quantities four or five times a year. Gerberding believed that retailers could be more profitable if they would order once a week. They could sell more items and would have less resources tied up in inventory. While this type of thinking is standard operating procedure today, at that time it was truly innovative.
The first advertising circular appeared in 1949. It was a single piece of paper with one color on both sides. Beginning with one circular per year, the program expanded to four per year and direct inserts were added. These flyers were originally designed to combat Sears’ catalog in rural areas, but they soon became a tool for announcing seasonal sales.