Francesca and Bruce Carlow say Trio Hardware would not have been alive for 50 years without their community’s support.
America’s favorite small business is …
For 50 years, Trio Hardware has stayed rooted in its community, refusing to be driven out by big-box competitors.
And on Thursday, the Plainview, N.Y., store was rewarded for its commitment with the title of America’s favorite small business.
For the third year in a row, advocacy group Independent We Stand has organized the Indie Awards, asking customers to nominate and vote for their favorite small businesses across the country. The contest, co-sponsored by Chrysler Group and STIHL Inc., drew over 32,000 votes for more than 250 businesses.
Trio Hardware, a family-owned business on Long Island, received 2,024 votes, nearly 10% of the city’s population, which put it in the top 10. A panel of judges then selected the winner. In addition to bragging rights, the company will receive prizes worth $15,000.
“Our goal is to recognize a small business that has gone above and beyond with its customers and its community,” said Bill Brunelle, executive director of Independent We Stand. “What stood out for us is how the community has rallied to keep Trio Hardware alive for so long.”
He’s not exaggerating. In the ’90s, residents staged a protest when the landlord tried to void the lease after a fire. More recently, there have been active campaigns to keep Home Depot (Fortune 500) and , Lowe’s (Fortune 500) at bay. ,
“It’s still affecting us that those stores are nearby, but it could have killed us if they were right in our community,” said Trio co-owner Bruce Carlow.
The hardware store was started by Bruce’s father in 1963. Its seven full-time employees — two of whom recently became partners in the store — have all worked there for at least 10 years. Bruce and his wife Francesca said their customers’ loyalty also extends over decades.
Elan Wurtzel has lived in Plainview for 26 years and has been shopping at Trio the entire time.
“I loved going into the store back in the day when it was just a typical hardware store with dirty wooden floors,” said Wurtzel.
It’s changed a bit since then, and the Carlows have worked hard to diversify their offerings “to keep up with the times and the competition,” said Wurtzel.
In addition to power tools and nails, the 3,500-square-foot store also sells art and sewing supplies, kitchen and garden products, cell phone accessories — even “bra extenders,” said Carlow.
But for Wurtzel, the store’s biggest appeal is how the Carlows and their employees treat customers.
“Every employee knows what they’re talking about,” he said. “They never say no to you. If they don’t have something, they’ll order it for you.”
A number of respondents said the top-notch customer service was why Trio should receive the Indie Award.
Carlow said Trio Hardware’s employees know most of their customers by first name. “We like to give the kind of service that we want to receive ourselves,” he said.
Bruce said he and Francesca have thought about growing the business but haven’t acted on it.
“Could we possibly make more profits if we expand? Yes. But I think we’d lose our personality,” said Bruce.
Trying to ‘do good’ and still make a profit
Will (left) and Chris Haughey in the Honduran countryside, not far from Tegu’s factory.
You have to search the fine print on Tegu’s toy block set to find any hint of the company’s plan to make one of Central America’s poorest cities a better place.
Tegu’s magnetic wood products start at $12 and are sold on Amazon (Fortune 500) and hundreds of shops across the U.S. But while the company is based in Darien, Conn., its toys are crafted in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Tegu employs 83 workers. In the process, it teaches them work skills they’ll have for life — managing employees, how to use state-of-the-art machinery and how to work more efficiently. ,
Cause-related marketing is not part of Tegu’s business plan. “We wanted to succeed on the basis of product first, not rely on the social story to be the impetus for the product,” said Will Haughey, a former management consultant who launched Tegu with his brother Chris in 2009.
Both grew up doing overseas missionary work. Chris spent time in Honduras volunteering and on business trips and had been thinking about how to use the country’s hardwoods in a way that would benefit the Hondurans.
Tegu is just one of countless socially minded companies hoping to rake in enough sales to maintain a mission of doing good. And there’s a financial incentive to do so: A recent Nielsen report found that 50% of shoppers worldwide are willing to spend more on products that give back to society.
But sales are only part of the battle. For many entrepreneurs trying to facilitate large-scale change, there are big hurdles to turning a profit beyond what traditional companies face. Some are setting up operations overseas to create jobs in impoverished areas. And many value social missions over profits, so finding investors willing to wait indefinitely for returns can be difficult.
“Returns [with social ventures] take longer,” said Bonny Moellenbrock, executive director of Investors’ Circle, a 20-year-old network that funds for-profit social ventures. Even though the availability of capital is growing — social entrepreneurs raised $10 million last year through Investors’ Circle’s pitch forums, up from $2 million to $3 million in 2008 — moving beyond grant funding isn’t easy.
“Bringing [your company] to a self-sustaining level goes beyond having a really good product,” said Moellenbrock.
She stressed that entrepreneurs need to be prepared to talk to different types of investors, from traditional venture capitalists to foundations and philanthropists.
“That may mean adjusting your language and being able to understand the commitment of people interested in your cause or challenge,” she said.
For Prosperity Candle, a three-year-old firm with five employees in Easthampton, Mass., mainstream success means finding a way to cut through the noise in a very crowded market. The company teaches refugees in the U.S. and women in Iraq and Haiti how to earn a living by making and selling candles. Like Tegu, Prosperity isn’t profitable yet.
Ted Barber founded Prosperity after consulting for eight years on government-funded poverty-alleviation projects. Prosperity has been successful with its social bent — nearly 70% of the Iraqi women it’s trained earn above $4.50 a day, the minimum wage for unskilled work in Baghdad according to the State Department’s most recent data. But making money stateside has been tough.
Prosperity makes “under $1 million” in sales: roughly 60% of it from the corporate/event gift market, 30% from online and the rest from fair-trade retailers. To offset Prosperity’s enormous shipping and labor costs — the firm pays U.S. workers $13 to $15 an hour plus benefits — Barber has a lofty goal: selling his candles wholesale to national retailers.
“We can’t scale up without capital,” said Barber, who is having trouble finding investors willing to wait indefinitely for a financial return. “Our mission, model and potential financial return discourage investors because our priority is on impact first, profits second.”
Back at Tegu, the Haughey brothers envision building a toy empire whose quality and reputation will someday mirror that of Lego, the family-owned corporation that took decades to reach household name status. To get to that point, Tegu, which won’t disclose revenues, is closing in on a multimillion-dollar round of funding and recently started selling internationally, including to Scandinavian and Korean schools.
“I would say that we were naïve to some degree to think that this could work, but fortunately we’ve seen it through,” said Haughey, “Building a business simultaneously across a first and third world is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
This startup turns illegal guns into jewelry
When Peter Thum started Liberty United, he put an unusual product at the heart of the business: illegal guns.
The New York-based startup, which Thum launched with his wife in June, has a specific mission: take guns and bullets off the street and turn them into beautiful pieces of jewelry.
So far, the company has collected over 1,000 guns from law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia, Newburgh, N.Y., and Syracuse, N.Y. Thum said he picked those three cities because of their high rate of gun violence. Eventually, he hopes to partner with cities nationwide.
In each of those cities, Liberty United also works closely with the mayor’s office.
“We’ve had a terrific relationship with the cities and their police departments right from the beginning,” said Thum.
Typically, after law enforcement agencies confiscate illegal weapons, they catalog and destroy them. Liberty United takes the guns after they’ve been cataloged and sends them to a blacksmith who disassembles and smelts them. Liberty United collects the scrap metal and artists use it to make the jewelry.
Thum said a portion of the jewelry’s sales help fund programs to reduce gun violence and to support its victims.
It’s an area Thum is very familiar with. In 2009, he started Fonderie 47, which collects AK 47 assault rifles from conflict zones in Africa and uses the metal to make jewelry and other accessories.
Each sale helps fund the destruction of assault rifles in Africa, said Thum. He estimated that 34,000 weapons have been destroyed in Congo and Burundi as a result of Fonderie 47.
For its first collection, Liberty United partnered with jewelry designer Philip Crangi, who created railroad spike-inspired rings, bracelets and necklaces priced between $85 and $1,400. Liberty United profits from these sales, but donates 25% to programs like the Mural Arts program in Philadelphia, which offers art education in local prisons and rehabilitation centers. The company will also donate a portion of the profits to similar programs in Syracuse and Newburgh.
The recycled metal from the guns went to producing thousands of handmade pieces for the collection, which is still available online. Each piece has a serial number inscribed in it of a gun that Liberty United reclaimed.
Liberty United is now collaborating with designer Pamela Love on a similarly priced collection that launched in November and includes necklaces and cuffs with semi-precious stones.
Thum is well-versed in social entrepreneurship. In addition to Fonderie 47, he founded Ethos Water in 2002, which funds water and sanitation projects in developing countries. Three years later, he sold the company to Starbucks (Fortune 500) for $7.7 million. ,
It was during business trips to Africa with Ethos that he first got the idea for Fonderie 47.
“I would be stopped at roadblocks by 12-year-old boys armed with rifles,” he said. “I realized then that we couldn’t make meaningful progress with our other projects in Africa until we also did something about this.”
Gun violence, both in Africa’s war zones and on the streets of America, is a problem that can’t be ignored, he said.
“We wanted to use what we had learned and achieved through Fonderie 47 to build an effort to reduce gun violence here at home,” said Thum.
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