84 Lumber, Nemacolin founder Joe Hardy stays curious, engaged and always puts people first

Joseph “Joe” Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, isn’t a fan of slowing down.

Even though he turned the reins of the day-to-day operations over to his daughter in the 1990s, the 91-year-old businessman spends hours calling 84 Lumber locations.

“Each day, I call at least 50 84 Lumbers. I call them up; tell them how they’re doing,” Hardy says. “It is very much grass roots. It’s not too much sophistication. People are everything.

“I’ll say ‘How are you doing, Ralph? Boy, that was a hell of a day you had yesterday. You better watch yourself, you’re going to hit the super quota this month.’”

Hardy says he likes to travel, but even if he is on a boat in the Mediterranean, or anywhere else in the world, he still calls 50 stores.

“You need to have total interest in your people,” he says. “Recognize accomplishments and give them a pat on the back with specifics. It’s not phony or anything.”

Hardy’s interest and focus is what made him successful in the first place, creating two multimillion-dollar companies from a $5,000 initial investment.

 

Staying engaged

Curiosity and an ability to look beyond the accepted norm is what set Hardy on the road to business success when he seized an opportunity in the 1950s.

After serving in World War II, Hardy returned to Pittsburgh to finish his college education. He also worked in his grandfather’s jewelry store, Hardy & Hayes, outselling all of the other salesmen.

His aggressive style rubbed some the wrong way, so Hardy left the family business to start selling building materials through Green Hills Lumber.

Hardy noticed something strange during his four years there — customers were asked if they were do-it-yourselfers, remodelers, builders, etc., and then quoted different prices based on the answer.

“And I thought, ‘Hey, this is crazy. Why is that happening — the discrimination here?’” he says.
Hardy set out to change that model with 84 Lumber, located in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania.

He and his two brothers only had enough money in credit to build a store, leaving no funds for inventory.

So Hardy had a friend purchase the building from him and then leased it back. The contract specifically stated that 84 Lumber could buy the real estate back in 20 years for a set price, after everything was fully depreciated.

This successful formula was multiplied over hundreds of stores as 84 Lumber grew into a chain. It also was helpful during the recent recession because the company owned its stores outright without mortgages.

But again it was Hardy’s curiosity that led him down the right path.

“When I worked at Hardy & Hayes, I snuck in and saw their books,” he says. “I found out that the Oliver estate that owned the Hardy & Hayes building made more than my grandfather did in the jewelry business.

“So, I thought, ‘Whatever I end up doing — I don’t know what — I’m going to have control over the real estate.’”
Hardy says that success starts with curiosity about seeing another method or way of doing something.

“The reason I travel is I go to steal something,” he says. “I go there to steal an idea, a method.”

 

‘People are everything’

In his 60s, Hardy turned to his next endeavor — Nemacolin — where he put his lesson of people first to work once again.

Looking for a place to relax, after discarding Nantucket, Massachusetts, Florida and Vail, Colorado, Hardy settled on 400 acres only an hour from 84 Lumber’s headquarters that was up for public auction.

Today, the Fayette County resort has grown to 2,000 acres with 318 guestrooms, suites, townhomes and private luxury homes. Nemacolin is built to offer something for everyone’s interests, whether it’s golf, relaxing at a spa, shooting, skiing, gambling, etc.

“We’re trying to appeal to everybody, and we say ‘We don’t have the ocean, but we’re working on it.’” Hardy says.

But just like with 84 Lumber, Hardy attributes Nemacolin’s success back to its people who are given the freedom to take ownership, while putting service as the first priority.

“People are everything. I can get ideas and stuff, but if you don’t have the right people you’re in (trouble). I don’t care what it is — computers, steel, anything,” he says.

“I’ve traveled all over the world and that’s what it gets down to,” Hardy says. “You can build castles, but it’s really how you’re served and that people want to help you.”

For example, one time a Nemacolin guest from Long Island, New York, had his car break down. So, the doorman got the man a plane ticket, and then got the car fixed and drove it back to Long Island.

“And that’s not unusual,” Hardy says. “We’re there to do anything the person really wants, and I keep getting letters on examples of that.”

Both organizations like to promote from within, which Hardy says shows its employees the company will give them an opportunity as it grows.

 

Focus with intensity

Along with the curiosity that enables you to be contemporary and the people to execute on it, Hardy says it’s also important to focus.

“When different agendas come in, I look at each item as if it was the only thing,” he says.

When he was running 84 Lumber, Hardy opened 15 to 20 stores a year, taking a total interest in each as they went through the different phases of construction. Today, he has the same intensity for a $100 faucet that has been delayed in Paris as the option to buy a $1.6 million billboard.

This formula doesn’t always mean you’ll have success.

“There are always challenges. I mean honestly, there better be or you’re not doing anything; you’re just coasting,” Hardy says. “I’m sure we’ve made many, many mistakes, but you don’t let your ego stand in the way.

“You move fast on decisions, and if you made a mistake, you say, ‘Boy, did I screw this one up,’ and then you go on.”

 

In fact, Hardy thinks in the long run it was better that 84 Lumber faced turmoil during the economic downturn under his daughter’s leadership.

The company ended up changing product lines to better serve customers connected to the Marcellus Shale gas production and expanding installed sales.

“It was probably good for the company that she went through it because it will happen again,” he says, adding that now she has her doctorate in business.

The ability to make quick decisions without the need for a consensus vote is the reason why Hardy never took 84 Lumber public. He wanted the flexibility to stay ahead of the game, watch the trends and react, and not be afraid to hang up something that’s a loser.

Over the past few years, Hardy even had his first foray into politics as a county commissioner. He says it was enjoyable and he learned a lot, but they just didn’t make decisions fast enough.

“It’s been a lot of fun. Again, you have to enjoy what you’re doing,” Hardy says. “I have my phone right beside my bed. I don’t punch in and punch out, but I’m always thinking of something.

“I’m more active than I’ve ever been. I’ve got to keep moving. Somebody said I had to retire. Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’d do.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Stay contemporary and always be curious to see another method.
  • Invest in your people — provide room to grow and recognize outstanding service.
  • Focus on both the big and little things.

 

 

The Hardy File:

Name: Joseph “Joe” Hardy
Title: Founder
Company: 84 Lumber, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

Born: Pittsburgh
Education: Started at Lehigh University before volunteering for World War II, and later graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with an engineering degree.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? It was probably cutting grass for the neighbors. I also had a great vegetable garden while I was going to school, and I would sell vegetables at the University of Pittsburgh.

I had some very discriminating customers. They were really particular. I’d hear about it if they had a certain vine or I left some grass. You learn that it’s detail, detail, detail.

Everything I’ve ever done I’ve gotten something out that I’ve used.

What is the best business advice you ever received? My mother gave me the best advice. She would tell me every day: “You’re something special and you’re going to amount to something.” There was no “I love you.” It was always “You’re something special and you’re going to amount to something.”

That was a dirty trick. I didn’t know what I was going to amount to, but she had me believing. It was like a curse or something.

Over the years, I’ve tried to be around people who are accomplishing things and have the same sort of attitude that I have, which is “Let’s get on with it; come on, come on, let’s go.”

If you meet with the best of the best, you can gain something all the time.

Today, at age 91, what do you enjoy doing? I get the biggest kick out of being sort of a mentor or influence over some younger person and then seeing them succeed to higher things, whatever it is. That gives me great fulfillment.

Do you have a favorite part of Nemacolin that you like to visit? Well, that is where I live. I have a lovely home there, and I can go to any one of those places to do the different things. If I want to get a massage, I can. Or I can go there and play golf.

People come to me — and they pay for it. It’s a nice arrangement. I can go over to the cigar bar and sit down and meet people. Just the other day, I had a nice talk with the guy from Under Armour Inc. (CEO Kevin Plank) and what he’s done with this athletic suit thing.