Family provides the fuel for Chown Hardware success
As Chown Hardware rolls toward its 140th anniversary on Sept. 15, it might be easy to assume there's a tendency to maintain a business-as-usual mindset.
That, however, has never been the case for the business, which is now moving into its fifth generation of family leadership. Instead, Chown Hardware has been able to maintain its status as of a mainstay of Portland — and a leader in the world of decorative hardware — through a willingness to carefully track market conditions and trends, and then make a move when the time is right.
It's a tradition that David Chown, who has run the company with his brother for the past 20 years, says isn't likely to change as his son, Nathanael, and his nephew, Kyle, pick up increasingly more significant leadership roles in the company's operations.
Although residential high-end decorative hardware — from crystal faucets to chic lighting fixtures — now fill the Chown's main showroom on Northwest 16th Avenue, earlier versions of the business carried vastly different inventory.
F.R. Chown opened the family's first hardware store in Portland in 1879. According to family legend, he purchased his first inventory with $5,000 in gold that he kept in a money belt and chose a location near the river to be close to the ships that delivered the tools, cutlery and tinware the store sold.
As the business passed through family hands over ensuing years, it also moved its location away from the riverfront to spaces at Second Avenue and Morrison Street, and then Fourth Avenue and Alder Street. Over time, the inventory also shifted to include sporting goods, appliances, radios and clothing (the sporting goods division was sold in the 1950s to the Kaplan family, which also took over the Fourth and Alder location).
Chown Hardware eventually moved to its current location along Northwest 16th Avenue between Flanders and Everett streets. The move coincided with the business stepping away from retail to focus more on the commercial sector in the area of tools and builders hardware. At the time, the postwar economy was on an upswing and construction was thriving in Portland.
By the late 1990s, however, the company embarked on another business strategy that would change Chown Hardware and shape the business into the family venture that Portlanders know today.
The 'Eleanor' factor
In the 1970s and 1980s, Eleanor Chown — David's mother and the grandmother of Nathanael and Kyle — noticed that women were rejecting the cookie-cutter look of homes from the 1960s and were becoming more interested in customizing their living spaces. So, Eleanor started a string of outlets called Chown Showcase stores. In addition to antiques and collectibles, she filled the stores with decorative door hardware, cabinet hardware and plumbing.
The store locations throughout Portland — including a site in Jantzen Beach and another in the downtown Galleria Building — proved popular. Eventually, Eleanor closed the stores, and the inventory moved into the Chown main outlet.
"In 1999, Fred and Steve — my two brothers — and I, as we were watching the tools decline and the decorative hardware side of the business continue to grow, we made the decision to make that big change," David Chown said. "We sold all of our tool inventory to another business that took it over, and we renovated the entire showroom and turned it into a decorative hardware and plumbing showroom.
"My mom (Eleanor) shepherded us through that process and now we are known, more than anything, as the place where you can come and get really unusual, really unique design choices for your home. That's been the most amazing thing to me, to see the public perception of our company change over the years, and it was my mom who pulled that off."
Behind the scenes
While residential decorative hardware fills Chown's Portland showroom these days, half of the company's business lies in the world of commercial projects. Chown has earned a reputation for providing door frames, hardware and access control systems for commercial buildings throughout the region. At the top of that list are schools, where districts are looking to implement safety initiatives to keep students safe.
"All the bond measures that (have passed), we're doing lots and lots of work with classroom security," David Chown said.
While the forward march of technology with regards to security systems is mainly focused on commercial buildings, the Chowns anticipate it will start to play a more significant role in the work they do for residential clients. Serving the security needs for that sector also will likely step up the challenge for Chown, requiring the business to find a balance between keeping up with market trends but also waiting for the right time to implement them.
"There is a challenge to stay on top of those trends and make sure our customers are able to access all of that information as it comes to market," David Chown said. "We don't want to be the first ones at market with all that stuff, but we definitely want to keep up with it."
Kyle Chown, who currently serves as president of Chown Hardware, agrees with his uncle and adds that one of the best ways the business has of tracking trends and evaluating their quality is by talking with the designers and architects who visit the Chown showrooms.
"We partner with some really incredible designers and architects that may hear about it before we do," he said. "So, then they educate us on what they're doing and what they're seeing and hearing."
Even with a heads-up from clients, however, the business still needs to maintain an awareness for the market and then move when the Chowns feel the time is appropriate. The willingness to change the Chown business model has long been a strategy that has kept the family business afloat, according to David Chown.
"You can't chase trends, but you also can't be afraid to change," he said. "That's kind of a delicate dance, but it's something we've done successfully for a long, long time. And, I think (the new generation of leadership of Kyle and Nathanael) will be able to maintain that. They're not afraid to change, that's for sure."
Sights on Seattle
One of the changes David Chown refers to is expected to take root before the end of the year.
In addition to its Portland location, Chown has had a Washington store in Bellevue since 2001. However, as family members watched the Seattle building market begin to boom, they began to wonder if it was time to also establish a showroom in that city as well. About two years ago, Nathanael Chown, who serves as marketing manager, moved to Seattle to assess the situation.
"We decided it was now or never," he said. "We'd been talking about a Seattle showroom for 10 years."
Within a few months of being in Seattle and talking to designers and architects there, it became apparent that opening a Seattle showroom was needed if the business wanted to stake a claim as a competitor in the city's high-end design market. Potential high-target customers in the Seattle area liked what Chown had to offer in the Bellevue store and wanted to work with the company, but they weren't interested in driving 20 minutes to do business when they had other options close by in Seattle.
"Pretty quickly, we made the decision to open the Seattle location; then all the cards just fell in a row," Nathanael Chown said. "Within three months, we had a building, we were signing a lease, we were hiring a contractor."
The new 7,000-square-foot location is in SoDo, a roughly four-square-mile former industrial area south of Seattle's downtown that serves as home to Safeco Field as well as craft breweries and distilleries, eateries and pubs, and artist studios and galleries. In addition to being within easy access of a newly built Highway 99 tunnel that runs right down to SoDo, the showroom is one block from Starbucks' headquarters. More importantly, the location is close to the offices of the architects and designers that Chown plans on connecting with.
The new Seattle location also will offer the Chowns a rare opportunity to create their dream showroom.
"We've laid out the Seattle showroom in a really cool way," David Chown said. "It's a fresh start where we can design a showroom from scratch. Here, the (Portland) showroom has evolved over the years, and we've gotten to where we'd really like it to be. But (Seattle) is just a blank slate, so ... it's going to a lot of features that we've always wanted to have but have never been able to do."
Among the features planned are a full working kitchen, and wall graphics and other presentation approaches. A mezzanine will provide space for more products to be displayed as well as a section for a conference room.
The Seattle location is slated to open by the end of the year. Nathanael Chown said visitors will find out that Chown is different from its competitors almost as soon as they walk through the door. As in the Portland location, for example, every visitor to the Seattle showroom will be greeted and offered a beverage.
"I think we've proven for almost two decades that our way of doing business is a lot more catered to the designer," he said. "Our next best competitors are still: walk in, take a number, and when your number comes up, you get your help. I think we have a lot more human approach to our customers."
The new showroom also is allowing Chown a chance to bring in a new level of decorative hardware. Portland and Seattle design markets are different in nature, so the Seattle showroom is being curated to carry products that will fit that market.
"We've been able to curate the core products we want to show, the products that market is really interested in seeing," Kyle Chown said. "We're taking a little bit more of a high-end buy-in for the products we have because the market up there is a little more design-forward than Portland."
The new SoDo showroom also offers a flash to the past. The building is located next door to Rejuvenation Hardware. These days, Rejuvenation focuses mainly on a role as a furniture retailer, but "back in the day, (in Portland), they were our competition," Kyle Chown said.
Even after 140 years of operation, running a family business comes with its own set of unique challenges.
David and his brother Fred, who are passing the leadership reins on to the next generation of Chowns, are opposites in how they approach business, according to Nathanael Chown. His dad, David, is very left-brained and prefers to make decisions based on facts. His uncle, meanwhile, likes to make decisions based on the input of everyone.
"They've been such a dynamic duo at the head of the table for so long, it's been cool to watch and learn," Nathanael Chown said.
The next generation of family leaders also come to the table with a variety of strengths and personalities. In addition to Kyle and Nathanael in management roles, four other members of Chown's fifth-generation are involved in the business as employees, stockholders and board members. As a result, part of learning to lead has meant looking at how the company can make the best use of what each family member can offer.
"It's been interesting. You've got different personalities, different ideas," Nathanael Chown said. "At the end of the day, we're family and we want to make the right decision as it benefits the company, but we also want to leave the discussion without any bruised egos. We've each found our own little corner. Now we've got a perfect hodge-podge of strengths that kind of cover up (each of our) weaknesses."
Chown Hardware plans on throwing itself a party to celebrate its 140th year in business — and everyone's invited.
From 2 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, Chown Hardware plans on closing off Northwest Flanders Street, between Northwest 16th and Northwest 17th avenues for a block party. The free event will feature live entertainment, DJs, karaoke, food trucks, and raffle giveaways.
The party will also feature a live-time mural painting event, led by Color Outside the Lines. The nonprofit administers community mural opportunities for at-risk youth. For the Chown party, the nonprofit will provide a "color by numbers" mural explicitly designed for Chown Hardware. Party-goers will be invited to pick up a brush and help complete the work of art.
"We think (the mural design) might have something to do with our grandmother, Eleanor," Nathanael Chown said.
Beginning at 7 p.m., Chown will open its event space, The Eleanor, at 1605 N.W. Everett St., for a 21-and-older party featuring karaoke and cocktails
For more information about the block party, visit: Bit.ly/2lyvEt3
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