“hands-on” leader who likes to be engaged in the details of a project.
A visit to the old warehouse his family helped establish on Western Avenue was a real treat for a 5-year old, said Don Hasson, president of House-Hasson Hardware Co.
“Those are great memories, because when you are a kid, going over there was play; it wasn’t work,” he said.
Built in 1906, the seven-story brick building was vast and filled with all sorts of interesting things.
“It was like walking back in time,” Hasson said. “It had five great big freight elevators with those wooden doors that hurl you up and down. It had an old round chute that carried boxes from the top floor down to the basement.”
It had wall shelves that had to be reached by 20-foot ladders that moved on a track attached at the ceiling. When the building was closed in 1980 so the company could move to a new facility, workers found parts for horse-drawn wagons, plow repair parts and other archaic inventory that had been tucked away and forgotten.
“When I was a kid, I loved to go over there and hang out and play and ride the elevator,” Hasson said.
His grandfather C.S. Hasson was one of the founders of the company, and Don Hasson’s father, Jim Hasson, was its president at the time.
“After my dad got tired of me getting in everybody’s way, he decided the best thing for me was to put bicycles together,” Don Hasson said.
That was OK. Building bikes was fun, Hasson said. Now age 62, Hasson is president of the company and has spent most of his life building it into an operation with a combined 700,000 square feet of warehouse space in two states, customers in 17 states and a sales staff of 85.
And the fun now comes from each chance to add to this hardware empire, Hasson said. He keeps a list of 12 companies House-Hasson has either bought outright or acquired the business and sales staff from after they closed. The chance to land a major account or to pick up the pieces when a competitor comes apart and use them to build your business is exciting, Hasson said.
“Every couple of years we get bored just doing the same thing, so we go try to stir up something new and different,” he said.
Out of the Stone Age
House-Hasson Hardware Co. got its start when C.S. Hasson, Sam House and 12 other employees of Knoxville-based wholesale hardware company C.M. McClung Co. “stirred things up” by leaving that company to start their own in 1906. House was the president and Hasson vice president of the new company.
According to a company history, House-Hasson Hardware started by sending out two kinds of salespeople to establish territories. The “railroad man” traveled by rail and worked the towns along the way. The “bush man” would arrive somewhere by train, then rent a horse and explore trails in search of remote communities served by a general store.
Back in Knoxville, House-Hasson sent out goods using rail and horse-drawn wagon. It’s catalog of merchandise grew to include such things as electric fans, sewing machines, tools, stoves and ranges, firearms, and other goods.
C.S. Hasson focused on building a sales territory in northern Georgia, but when Sam House retired in 1926, Hasson came back to Knoxville to become president. Hasson served until his son J.W. “Jack” Hasson took over as president in 1950. By 1954, House-Hasson Hardware had 35 salespeople and operated in seven states.
Jack Hasson’s brother James K. “Jim” Hasson became company president in 1970. That year, the company made the first of many acquisitions that would propel its growth.
But not all was unbridled expansion. The world wars and the Great Depression presented challenges, and House-Hasson also found itself facing competition from mail order and catalog companies, foreshadowing the competition it would start to face in the 1980s from the growth of “big box” stores like The Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Joe Johnson, of A&W. Office Supplies Inc. and a longtime friend and business associate, said Don Hasson’s leadership was critical in House-Hasson Hardware’s survival in an increasingly competitive market.
“He brought that company out of the stone age,” Johnson said.
Learning the details
None of that was on Don Hasson’s mind in the early 1970s.
Don Hasson grew up in Westmoreland Hills in West Knoxville, the son of James and Elaine Hasson. He attended Bearden Elementary and Bearden High schools and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. But he didn’t really have plans after that. He decided to spend about three months touring Europe.
“Back then you could go to Europe on $5 a day. It was unbelievable. A buddy and I did that. And it was a grand trip and my plan was to come home and spend several more years as a professional student, you know with master’s degrees and such things as that. That seemed like it had a great ring to it,” Hasson said.
When he returned from Europe, his father took him aside and said he could really use some help with the company.
“I did not have a firm plan. But my father telling me he needed help and me growing up in the Knoxville area and being around that place since I was 5 years old, I mean it wasn’t a real hard decision to make,” he said.
Hasson said he had always considered the family business as an option, “but I thought that if I went off to business school and got a master’s degree, I might end up in — who knows — New York or Timbuktu.”
So Hasson joined the family business in 1973 and found that his father indeed needed help.
“The company at that time had really gotten old. Most of his employees were retirement age. The building was getting ancient; it was crumbling apart. And he was getting older,” Hasson said.
Hasson took on a number of roles with the company, working in different departments.
“I spent the first couple of years just going around the countryside meeting our customers. It seemed like the most important thing to do was to know them, meet them, and figure out who are these people we are selling to.”
These were independent hardware stores and lumber yards scattered around the Southeast. David Martin, who has been a House-Hasson board member for about 10 years, said Hasson showed a knack for connecting with these store owners.
“I have had opportunities to watch him interact with customers,” Martin said. “He is very aware of the status of different customers and what is going on with them.”
But Hasson couldn’t spend all his time with customers. Problems cropped up that would draw him into some detail of the company’s operations.
By the mid-1970s, hardware distributors were using computers to manage their catalog sales.
But it was a cumbersome system in which most of the distributors used punch cards and card readers to handle orders and sent them via phone lines to Columbus, Ohio, where one company, Management Horizons Data Systems, processed them all, Hasson said.
In 1975, a married couple who had been at House-Hasson for years left the company. No big deal, except that he ran the computer department and she ran the catalog department, Hasson said.
“So guess who all of a sudden had to learn the computer department?” he said.
Hasson made many trips to Columbus, getting much more involved in computers than he had planned, but as a result, by 1978 House-Hasson had a top-notch computer system and expertise that would be very valuable later in putting together a computerized catalog that would help House-Hasson’s customers stay competitive against big-box stores.
In the late 1970s, some good decisions by the company, plus a bit of good fortune, helped open a new era of growth, Hasson said.
Hasson’s father and other company leaders realized the need for a new facility to replace the aging Western Avenue warehouse. In 1978, they bought 40 acres in Forks of the River Industrial Park for $212,000 and in 1980 opened a $2.25 million warehouse and office there. Hasson believes the 1982 World’s Fair had a lot to do with bringing this about.
“Luckily for us, the World’s Fair people decided to buy our old warehouse building,” he said. “We were really fortunate to have bought the land (in Forks of the River) and to have sold our facility, because it was going to be a hard sell to get the elders in the company to want to make that drastic of a move.”
The C.M. McClung Co., which in a way gave birth to House-Hasson Hardware, was also its first big prize in a game of growth through acquisition. C.M. McClung went out of business and was largely acquired by House-Hasson in 1970. Each competitor that fails is an opportunity for House-Hasson to grow through acquiring sales force, territories or maybe buying the company outright, Hasson said.
When a competitor fails, the sharks start circling, he said.
“We try to hire the sales force, and when we are doing that, it’s like there is some nice fresh meat out in the ocean and there are a bunch of sharks swimming around,” he said.
“We weren’t ever the only ones wanting to do that; our competitors were doing that, too. So whoever played the best hand and worked the hardest and made the best presentation for their company was the one who ended up getting the salespeople,” Hasson said.
In 1986, Hasson succeeded his father as president of House-Hasson Hardware. Hasson put a focus on growth through more acquisitions.
This has been the trend in the industry for some time, Hasson said. For years, the number of wholesale distributors has shrunk as companies have merged or gone out of business.
“When I was born, there were 500 wholesale hardware companies. Today, there’s 25 in the country,” he said.
Since he has been in the business, Hasson said he can count 12 companies that have failed and from which House-Hasson has picked up salespeople, territories or both. It bought these four companies — Paris Dunlap, Sheffield Hardware, Persinger Supply and Moore-Handley Inc.
Those last two companies were particularly significant, Hasson said. When House-Hasson acquired Persinger in 2007, the deal included a warehouse in West Virginia.
“That really has turned out to be so fortunate, because in 2010 we bought out a competitor that was larger than us called Moore-Handley. The fact we had opened and stocked and staffed and developed that second location in West Virginia was really the only reason we were able to buy Moore-Handley.
In 2010, the growth that resulted fueled a $1 million expansion of the company’s Forks of the River facility and a $2 million expansion of its West Virginia warehouse.The company added 25 people to its sales force and 35 more workers at Forks of the River.
Even though House-Hasson has been aggressive about acquiring other companies, it is really a very conservative operation. Hasson said he believes in avoiding debt and keeping healthy cash reserves. A company must take some risks to grow, but they should be carefully considered, he said.
“We take a lot of risks and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But we’ve never taken a risk that if it didn’t work, it would have put us out of business.
Hasson said he knows his company’s success is tied to that of its customers. House-Hasson’s strategy has been to be a distributor and a partner with customers, helping those stores with advertising, marketing, pricing, and even store layout and design.
To be able to provide its customers with merchandise at competitive prices, House-Hasson Hardware is one of 10 companies that belong to the Distribution America buying group. Dave Christmas, president of the group, said Hasson has been a guiding force in that group, serving as its chairman and helping to develop initiatives.
“He and his folks have been a leader in digital marketing, use of Facebook, Twitter and social media,” Christmas said.
Christmas described Hasson as a “hands-on” leader who likes to be engaged in the details of a project.
“He has a great grasp of what the retailer wants and needs and takes those wants and needs and tries to deliver on them,” he said.
Hasson said it is important to stay connected, not just with customers but with your own company. One reason he believes a lot of his competitors have failed is that the owners no longer worked there.
“The owners were sons and daughters and nephews and nieces scattered over the countryside. And all they wanted was cash. Once a longtime family business becomes owned by disinterested parties, the disinterested parties would rather see cash than see an old institution preserved,” he said.
Hasson said that, for a time, he was the only family member working at House-Hasson Hardware, but that is not the case now. Hasson has two children from a previous marriage. His son Taylor Hasson is in charge of marketing and business development at House-Hasson, and his daughter Carrie Finney works in the payroll department.
Don Hasson and his wife, Cathy, have been married for 10 years. Hasson said that, when he is not involved with the company, his favorite thing to do is anything that involves his wife and family.
“Generally what I like to do is something that Cathy and I can do together. She is my best friend in this life. We really like playing golf, and we’ve built a house in Louisville, Tenn., out on the lake,” Hasson said.
They also like to hike and travel.
A retired floral designer, Cathy Hasson said she met her husband through her mother. Cathy Hasson also has two grown children, Mia Lagares, a teacher, and Maria Michalak, a banker, both of whom live in Greenville, S.C.
Cathy Hasson described her husband as someone with a lot of drive, a “Type A” personality, but not overbearing.
“He is a very genuine person,” she said.
A&W Office Supplies’ Johnson, who said he has known Hasson about 40 years, said he is a very outgoing person compared with his father, Jim Hasson, who was a quiet man.
In a 2010 News Sentinel interview, Don Hasson, noted that the situation seems reversed with him and his son. Hasson described himself as a Type A person and Taylor Hasson as more like his grandfather, quiet and methodical.
Don Hasson is on the board of the YMCA and plays racquetball at the Downtown YMCA. He is also active with the Downtown Rotary Club, University of Tennessee Chancellor’s Associates and a number of trade associations.
Sundays for Don and Cathy Hasson usually include getting together with family after church at Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church.
Lately, that includes a new attraction, as Taylor and his wife, Melanie, have a 16-month-old son, Andrew.
Now, Don Hasson, who enjoys golf, travel and chasing new opportunities in business, has a new source of fun.
“I have a new grandbaby, and that’s more fun than any of those other things,” he said.