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Top Entrepreneurs: Hardware store chain president adopts a Wynn-ing formula

How life affirming is the positive work culture fostered by president Michael Wynn at Sunshine Ace Hardware? One employee took it all the way to her grave.

Sunshine Ace Hardware President Michael Wynn bases his company's business model on a positive corporate culture that permeates throughout the company and manifests itself in customer service. Stefania Pifferi photo
Sunshine Ace Hardware President Michael Wynn bases his company's business model on a positive corporate culture that permeates throughout the company and manifests itself in customer service. Stefania Pifferi photo
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When he describes the importance of the culture of Sunshine Ace Hardware, Michael Wynn, president of the family owned Southwest Florida chain of hardware, paint and home decorating stores, has a toolbox full of stories to use for examples.

None hit the nail on the head better than that of the recent death of employee Betty Thomas.

A 19-year associate in the company’s downtown Naples store, Thomas recently died, due to health complications. To allow her fellow employees to attend the funeral, associates from other stores volunteered to cover their shifts.

“She was like family," says Wynn, "and this allowed those closest to her, during the middle of a busy sales day, to attend."

But that wasn’t even the most impactful moment of the day. 

“When we approached the casket we were surprised to discover that Betty had asked to be buried in her Sunshine Ace Hardware vest and name tag,” Wynn says. “We knew Sunshine was an important part of her life, but this request had a profound impact on me on how dedicated our team members are and the importance of the family culture we work hard to promote here.”

For Wynn, who at age six began working in the 60-year-old family business wearing elf, Wonder Bread and clown costumes outside his grandfather’s hardware and food store in Naples, the company’s success is rooted in culture.

When he took over the company as president in 2005, Sunshine Ace Hardware was comprised of four hardware stores. Since then, it has added five hardware and two paint and decorating stores, a diversified business model built to withstand economic downturns and to provide ample opportunity for advancement. Wynn declines to disclose revenue figures. 

“What has always made us unique, and what we are doubling down on for our future success, is the adage that my grandfather would always repeat, and that was if you take care of your people they will take of your customers and the business will take care of itself,” says Wynn, 46. “A lot of businesses put the customers first, and that’s important. We put our team members first. If they are happy, our customers are happy. It’s one thing to say that. It’s another thing to execute that consistently on a day-to-day basis.”

To facilitate in that execution, one of the first initiatives Wynn implemented after becoming president was to formalize the company’s cultural philosophy. This required a rewrite of all employee manuals and handbooks, with an emphasis on identifying and documenting core values, enlisting the associates to provide input through surveys and group discussions.

“What we learned in the process is once you find it, the culture infuses itself into the very fabric of the organization,” says Wynn. “This is what a purposeful culture looks like, and that helped the light bulb go on as to what we were going to try to accomplish here. Together we narrowed it down to 10 core values, got great feedback and then set up a cadence of accountability and communication so that we could ensure that this was put into practice and not just posters on a wall.”

Happy associates, happy customers

Another illustration of the impact of culture on the company comes from Scott Puch. He arrived in Naples six years ago, moving his family from Minnesota to be closer to his parents. With a retail background of some 20 years, he walked into the east Naples Sunshine Ace Hardware store, applied for a job and was hired to mix paint. Four years later he was named manager of the company’s Marco Island store, where he remains today.

'We have had a number of instances where customers have told us, ‘I didn’t need to buy anything today, I simply came in because I was feeling down and I knew that I always leave your store feeling better than when I came in.’ Michael Wynn, Sunshine Ace Hardware

“I was attracted to the culture and to the history behind it and what was embraced by the Wynn family back in the 1950s, before anybody even knew what corporate culture was,” says Puch. “They cared so much about employees. I hire for culture, I coach for culture, and if you have happy employees who are engaged and love to come to work, they will pass it on to their customers and the company will reap the rewards as well.”

Underpinning the culture is humility. Remaining humble, Wynn says, has been key to avoiding the temptation to overreach. Stores in the Sunshine Ace Hardware family extend from Largo to Marco Island and are customized for the markets they serve. Ranging in size from 8,500-square-foot neighborhood stores to 42,000-square-foot superstores, Wynn has implemented specialty store-within-a-store concepts and has diversified into commercial paint, crucial to sustaining revenues through the off-season. The store-within-a-store is also a move other brick and mortar retailers have taken to combat the rise of ecommerce. 

Wynn says the company could have more stores. But he won't grow just to grow. 

“We have lots of opportunities not only to open stores, but also for acquisitions, and we have banks that are more than willing to offer opportunities,” says Wynn. “But that goes back to those the lessons we learned during the recession. We take advantage of the opportunities that make the most sense, in markets we feel we really understand, and where we feel we can best serve without growing faster than our ability to attract the talent that is aligned with our values.”

Building that culture begins with the job application. The list of core values is prominently displayed on the employment page of the Sunshine Ace Hardware website, along with a description of each. Candidates undergo a personality assessment and new hires go through an extensive orientation that includes role play to demonstrate reactions to real daily in-store experiences. Feedback is solicited through a robust annual employee engagement survey, along with monthly surveys that reveal trends and encourage engagement across the organization.

“All of that comes to light in surveys we do with our customers,” says Wynn. “We have had a number of instances where customers have told us, ‘I didn’t need to buy anything today, I simply came in because I was feeling down and I knew that I always leave your store feeling better than when I came in.’ Those are the ones that speak to the essence of what we are trying to create, and that is an experience that above everything else is focused on connecting with people on a truly human level that a lot of people are desperate for today.”

The human touch

It’s that human-level experience that distinguishes Sunshine Ace Hardware from its biggest competitors: the big box hardware stores that have considerably larger inventories and marketing budgets, but tend to lack in personal service. Associates wearing signature red vests can be seen throughout Wynn’s stores, each possessing expertise do-it-yourselfers often need.

“While customers may not have as many independent retail choices as they used to have, they do have an infinite number of choices when you include online shopping,” says Wynn. “We have to stand out, and our people differentiate us not only in that relationship and friendliness with our customers, but also in their knowledge. We have people who have worked with us for 20 or 30 years. They know their business and they know our customers.”

One such associate is Warren Miller, who has worked with the company for nearly 30 years. Nicknamed “The Sultan of Steel,” Miller manages the company’s fastener department. “He knows where every single screw is,” says Wynn. “There is no application or problem you can come in with that he doesn’t have an answer for. Customers will come in weeks after doing a project and he will remember them and ask them about it.”

That, says Puch, is what keeps customers coming back.

“People are able to shop in different ways, so maintaining that customer service atmosphere is what will keep us viable,” says Puch. “I get up in the morning and love to come to work. I shop at other places and I see their employees and I wish they had the opportunity to enjoy their jobs as much as we do.”

Read the stories behind the Business Observer's 2019 Top Entrepreneurs: 

Top Entrepreneurs: A life's passion doesn't come without sacrifices 

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