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Leadership Matters

Third-generation Ace Hardware leader on why humility is his No. 1 core value

More than four decades in a family-run hardware business has taught Michael Wynn a lot about team building, servant leadership, growing leaders internally and more.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. September 14, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Michael Wynn was one of the Businesses Observer's Top Entrepreneurs in 2019.
Michael Wynn was one of the Businesses Observer's Top Entrepreneurs in 2019.
Photo by Stefania Pifferi
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A conversation on leadership with Michael Wynn, president of Sunshine Ace Hardware and the third generation of his family to oversee the company, is sort of like shopping at one the company’s stores: It’s a comfortable, friendly place where product diversity, from adhesives and axes to wheelbarrows and wrenches, drive a repeat customer experience. 

Wynn, who has been president of Naples-based Sunshine Ace Hardware since 2005, also offers a snug smorgasbord of leadership wisdom. This stems mostly from a lifetime of working at the family-owned business. Wynn’s history with the business dates back to the early 1980s when, as a young boy, he would wear elf, Wonder Bread and clown costumes outside his grandfather’s hardware and food store in Naples. Sunshine Ace is now a 500-employee company with 12 stores from the Tampa Bay market through Naples. Store No. 13, says Wynn, now 50, is scheduled to open in 2024 in Ave Maria in Collier County. 

Wynn was a recent guest on the Business Observer’s From the Corner Office podcast. From the Corner Officewhich debuted June 15 with an interview with OfficeMax Founder Michael Feuer, is a weekly dive into leaders and leadership with some of the region’s top executives. Past guests include First Watch Restaurant Group CEO Chris Tomasso; PGT Innovations CEO Jeff Jackson; Sarasota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Heather Kasten; and global leadership speaker Julie Henry. The latest guest is University of South Florida President Rhea Law, with an episode that dropped Sept. 14. 


Long term

The podcast conversation with Wynn, recorded in August, includes multiple points of wisdom likely to resonate with any leader. A sampling of the chat includes: 

Plan (way) ahead: Wynn says even though the company has long held a growth mindset, the 2008-09 recession jeopardized expansion plans, when there was "different competition for capital.” But that’s when Wynn began to think more long-term, to how the business would come out of the recession. “We put together an advisory board that was determined to lay the foundation and structure for growth,” he says. “I knew I wasn't going to get any of the owners to pony up for capital when our sales were down 30% and property values were down 50%. But we wanted to be ready when that time came back.”

With purpose: While many companies and leaders will say a strong culture is key to success, Wynn wanted Sunshine Ace’s culture plan, and its core values, to be akin to the company’s front door, something everyone can understand right away— with a backdoor to move on from people, when necessary.“As we looked to grow the company, we actually put together a written culture plan and wanted to make sure we were going to be purposeful as to how our culture would be perpetuated as we took over other businesses and opened new businesses,” he says. “Every organization has a culture, it really depends on the behaviors that you accept, tolerate or praise.”

Best in show: Wynn says winning best place to work awards, which Sunshine Ace has done multiple times for years, isn’t only for the trophies to place in the corporate office lobby. “Studies have actually shown that the return on investment for Best Place to Work organizations can outperform the general market by sometimes as much as a factor of two to three times over a five-year period and is even a greater return over a longer period of time,” he says. “So we didn't want to leave that to chance.”


Great responsibility 

Higher power: The core values aren’t only the front door at Sunshine Ace; they are the walls and foundation, too. Wynn, on the podcast, says the leadership team makes it clear that “the core values are the highest authority in our company, so that we're not pitting owners versus the team, or managers versus the team, or the corporate office versus our associates. Everybody's in the same boat, everybody's held accountable to the same behaviors and standards. And when you do that it has an incredible effect on the overall feeling in the company, and that family atmosphere that we want to promote. But you have to be willing to hold people accountable to that, ultimately by firing them if they don't live up to those (values).” 

Hard work: Each Sunshine Ace core value, Wynn stresses, has several fundamental behaviors. Like one of his favorite core values: be humble. That value, to Wynn, includes practicing “blameless problem solving,” checking egos at the door, being coachable and “being willing to sweep the floor.”

Wynn adds that growing up he saw his grandparents, aunts and uncles and parents doing “the jobs that sometimes were the hardest and the dirtiest. And leading by example like that created incredible loyalty amongst the team and then the associate base.” 

Two ears: Wynn talks often about how the company seeks leaders who “listen generously.” That means “someone who is by default humble is going to get more feedback from their team. They're going to be on top of issues before they turn into major fires. And they're going to build trusting relationships with their team, because being a generous listener also means you've truly heard that associate and therefore you're going to act or respond to the information that they've shared.” 

Mind the future: Wynn says “one of the greatest benefits of the position I have, and that anybody in a leadership position in our company has, is being able to find somebody who doesn't see their own potential (and) to be able to invest and train them and build them up, and to be able to see them take on greater and greater responsibility, and be able to, at some point, also become a manager or leader in the organization. Those are the types of things that matter to us. We're selecting leaders.”

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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