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More Dealers Have Started Hiring People with Drug, Criminal Pasts. Gina Schaefer's Done it for Years

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

You may soon hear about Recovery Hardware, a new book by the owner of a nearly $50 million chain of hardware stores who regularly hires recovering drug addicts and doesn't ask about criminal records. Radical as that may seem, it turns out that author Gina Schaefer is the public face of a growing trend among construction supply leaders to hire workers they might in the past never have considered employing.

For instance, I have heard lately of several dealers whose manufacturing operations are populated with inmates on work-release programs. And LBM Journal just reported the results of a survey in which 34% of respondents said they would consider hiring candidates with felony convictions. Another 35% would look at people with misdemeanors on their record.

These numbers suggest a sea change is under way at construction supply companies. Just 18 months ago, 23% of the respondents to Webb Analytics' Construction Supply 150 survey asserted their right to terminate employment if they found the worker had used marijuana AWAY from work. And 84% of respondents required job applicants to take a drug test. Schaefer's company, A Few Cool Hardware Stores, regularly takes on people whose drug use goes way beyond weed.

Her story begins in 2002 with Logan Hardware, located in a neighborhood of Washington, DC, that was finally recovering after having been devastated in the riots following Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Today, the company Schaefer leads occupies 12 locations in the Washington and Baltimore metro areas. Schaefer also was on the Ace Corporate Board of Directors from 2007 to 2016.

In a recent interview with Webb Analytics, Schaefer couldn't say for certain--remember, she doesn't ask about drug or criminal histories--but she estimates that a quarter of A Few Cool Hardware Stores' roughly 250 fulltime employees might not pass the typical background check at other companies.

Celebrating Sobriety

After a while, though, she often learns about employees' pasts. One of her first workers had been in prison for 17 years. Another, known as "Skippy," came to work wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet and went on to manage a store. At one point, 17 of Logan Hardware's 32 employees were recovering from drug addictions: They came to Logan for jobs because a rehab clinic was down the street. She's come to learn that the person's "soberversary"--the day a person stopped using drugs--often is the most important anniversary in the worker's life.

"It’s so annoying when I think about the boxes we put people in," Schaefer said. "... My business partner in Baltimore—he’s the reason we expanded to Baltimore—was in recovery. And everybody said, ‘Oh my God, how can you trust him?’ I’m like, ‘He’s run five businesses in his life. Just because he’s had this random glitch doesn’t mean that he’s automatically a terrible person.’" Addiction is a disease, she says. If you wouldn't refuse a job candidate with diabetes, you shouldn't if the person is recovering from drug use.

Schaefer has had setbacks: "Skippy" ultimately lost his job after taking up drugs again (but went back to rehab and has recovered, now working for a sister business of Schaefer's). On the other hand, the biggest financial loss she suffered from an employee was the $3,000 embezzled by a college graduate whose family owned a business and who looked perfect on paper.

"If we hadn’t caught the three grand, who knows how much else he would have taken?" Schaefer said. "Nobody would have said ‘Oh, you can’t give him a job’ because he wouldn’t have bounced a check, he wouldn’t have a drug history. ... I think we have to realize as business owners that anybody, regardless of their past, can give you a reason to trust them."

Taking a Chance

She puts a lot of stock into two factors that have risen in importance in construction supply: Trust and team culture. She believes both are vital to a company's growth.

"When I opened my first location, more than 50% of Ace owners were single-store operators," she recalled. "And so many said they couldn’t expand because they couldn’t be in two places at once. What that really meant was that they didn’t trust anybody. If they couldn’t be in two places at once, how in the hell could the business operate? Well, you trust the people who you hire to run the next place.

"That was a big lesson for me: You have to trust who you hire. Sometimes you screw up, sometimes you hire the white kid from Michigan who steals your ass off. You just move on."

When Schaefer started, she knew next to nothing about hardware; she didn't learn to cut keys or mix paint until the day Logan Hardware opened. So it's probably no surprise that she prizes attitude more than skill when reviewing a job candidate, and she probes for clues to that in ways that go beyond a resume.

"One of our core values is ‘Be a good neighbor,’ because a lot of our teammates live in the communities where we are," she said. "What does it mean to be a good neighbor? I might hire a kid who’s never had a job or I might hire a person who’s been in prison, and I can say, 'Tell me a time you were a good neighbor.' So you might not have a job to fall back on, but everyone can talk about the little old lady’s groceries they carried or something nice they did for their grandma. And this is universal—anybody we ask can tell you something nice they did for somebody, or that they perceived they did for somebody.

"One of my other favorite values is ‘Always grow and share,'" Schaefer continued. "[So I ask:] ‘What have you learned that you taught somebody else? What have you taught a sibling, a friend, a spouse?’ That’s a good one with our managers, because if they are micro-managing, and are holding on to all of the knowledge, they’re not growing their team by sharing their knowledge. And so, in the rare cases where we have managers and have to have counseling sessions, that one tends to be the one. Stop trying to do it all."

Opportunities for Others

This year's Construction Supply 150 survey found that about 30% of the people working at big LBM dealers were female, and 30% were Black, Asian, or Hispanic. The employee mix at A Few Cool Hardware Stores is far more diverse--a closer reflection of their home cities' populations than can be found at a lot of stores nationwide. In her book, Schaefer writes of her dogged efforts on the Ace board and elsewhere to promote diversity, and during the interview she said it bugs her that barely a handful of Ace stores today have Black or Asian owners.

In July 2021, that promotion of diversity entered a new phase. A Few Cool Hardware Stores has become an ESOP, with the employees getting 30% of the company at the start. Roughly 165 of the 250 full-timers now are owners.

Schaefer estimates the overall employee turnover rate at A Few Cool Hardware Stores is around 40% (for all retail industries, the average is 60%, federal statistics indicate) and average tenure is 3-1/2 years. For management jobs alone, the turnover rate is around 16%.

She likes to quote something her husband said years ago: "You don't have to go out of your way to hire someone--you just have to remove the obstacles to their employment."

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