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An institution for decades, Hardware Sales emphasizes people — and e-commerce

Longtime family-owned business has a national, even global, reach

Employee Matt Hodel, left, helps Taya Battistella find the right light bulb at Hardware Sales on Saturday, Feb. 24. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Frank Catalano Business & Work Columnist

A well-worn sign is taped above the stairway leading down from the office to the retail floor in the original building on James Street in Bellingham: “It is our goal to be the friendliest store in the County.” 

Quotes encouraging good customer service hang in the employee stairwell, including one from Jerry McClellan. “It is our goal to be the friendliest store in the County,” he said. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Underneath the quotation is the name “Jerry McClellan.” In the sign’s upper left corner is a retro logo with the words, “Hardware Sales.”

Hardware Sales has been a local institution for more than 60 years, carrying everything from power tools to toilet plungers, and selling, servicing and renting a wide variety of products for do-it-yourselfers and professionals alike. Its staff has a reputation for strong customer service, as signs and plaques in the main office and on the sales floor attest. 

Customers primarily see fully stocked, maze-like aisles in one of several modest, mismatched buildings that now take up parts of five city blocks in the Sunnyland neighborhood. But what many may not realize is the family-owned business’ national, even global, reach.

E-commerce, the company says, makes up slightly more than half of its revenue.

“Most people are surprised,” said Ty McClellan, Hardware Sales’ president, owner and third generation of the McClellan family that started the business. “When we say we’ve got a 56,000-square-foot facility in Indianapolis, they go ‘what for?’”

That “what for” accounts for an estimated 52% of the company’s overall sales, with the remaining 48% coming from the Bellingham brick-and-mortar location’s main store, followed by industrial sales and rentals. 

While the privately held company doesn’t disclose exact revenue numbers, Brookelyn McClellan — Hardware Sales’ operations and marketing coordinator and fourth-generation family member — said it falls in the $50 to $89 million range, with the company ranked in 2022 as the 13th largest privately owned business in Whatcom County by Business Pulse

Decades of family ownership

That’s a lot of growth since Max and Alta McClellan bought Powder Sales and Equipment Co. in 1962. It was a firm, described Whatcom Museum’s Jeff Jewell, that “sold dynamite, blasting caps and Boeing surplus.” The purchase was followed in 1967 by the opening of what’s now the main retail store at 2034 James St. and the eventual renaming of the business to “Hardware Sales.” 


Along the way, growth was shepherded by the original founders — Alta ran it until her death in 2010 at the age of 94, according to Jewell — and subsequent generations. That included the quoted Jerry McClellan, who died in March 2023 and was the father of Ty, and grandfather of Brookelyn.

Father Ty McClellan, left, and daughter Brookelyn McClellan stand in Hardware Sales on Wednesday, Feb. 7. Brookelyn marks the fourth generation to be involved in the local business. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Brookelyn McClellan, left, and Ty McClellan head downstairs past the old “Powder Sales & Equipment Co.” sign — the former name for Hardware Sales back when it still sold dynamite. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Changing of the guard over time appeared more fluid than formal. Asked when he took over as president, Ty said there really wasn’t a date.

“I’ve never looked at that. My dad didn’t really retire,” he said. “He just kind of was here when he wanted to be here. We just took care of things.”

“He created such a great foundation for us to grow on. We’ve never really looked at it title-wise within the family,” he said.

An issue of Business Pulse from 2003 features Alta McClellan, the matriarch of the family and the leader of the business for many years. Many of McClellan’s awards and accolades hang on the wall of the employee break room. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Family history and advice also pervade the walls of the main office above the cash register fronting James Street. A photo of Alta at her desk, crowded with piles of paper, hangs next to a colorful painting interpreting the same image. A woodgrain plaque nearby highlights “the eternal wisdom of Alta McClellan” including the phrases, “We can give it a try,” and, “Don’t forget please and thank you.”

It’s an environment and philosophy that Brookelyn, who graduated from Western Washington University in December after studying business management, has found appealing.

“I’ve always loved being at Hardware Sales,” she said. “When I was a kid, I was never the kid that wanted to be a princess or an astronaut. I wanted to do what my dad did.”

Mike Carr, left, and Jose Jurado look through hundreds of different bolts and screws organized in neat boxes on Saturday, Feb. 24. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Bigger than big box

As the company has grown, so has the product mix and sales channels.

Dynamite sales stopped in the 1970s, Ty recalled. “The reason we quit selling dynamite was all the regulations and red tape with the government,” he said. “It just got too labor intensive.”

Other avenues provided growth opportunities, including industrial sales (the company cites general contractors, shipbuilders and refineries as accounts) and a rental department, as well as service. The e-commerce division, represented by a storefront on Amazon since 2006 under the Onkata name, is supported by the warehouse in Indiana plus another 33,000-square-foot facility in Ferndale. 

Hardware Sales’ custom Party Speaker Light Tower Trailer is available for rent. The middle tower is complete with speakers and lights and extends into the air. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

While the range of items for rent is large, from hand tools to forklifts — Ty showed off a parking-lot striper on a walk through the rental yard — perhaps the most unique item is a 30-foot-tall “Party Tower” with speakers and rotating color lights to illuminate a dance floor. 

“It’s pretty loud,” Brookelyn said. “And it has karaoke on it. It’s pretty cool.”

All told, Ty said Hardware Sales carries about 80,000 different items for sale compared with the 30,000-50,000 typically found in a big box home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s, and has approximately 150 staff across its three locations. 

An arrest and delayed retirement

Growth hasn’t come without bumps. 

Perhaps the highest-profile recent challenge came to light in January 2023 when Bellingham Police arrested a former Hardware Sales assistant manager for allegedly embezzling more than $1.4 million from the business between 2017 and 2022. 

Hardware Sales covers about five city blocks of the Sunnyland neighborhood. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

A civil lawsuit in the matter was settled and dismissed last October, with Ty saying they “got a bit of money back.” The criminal case is still pending, according to Whatcom County court records.

For much of the public, the incident (and dollar figure) may have been the first indication of how large a company Hardware Sales is. For the staff at Hardware Sales, it was something else.

“They were very disappointed. We’re very family oriented here and they felt betrayed,” Ty said. “We all felt betrayed.”

Ty said it even led to a delayed retirement for the Hardware Sales general manager who handled human resources and finance and was marking 40 years with the company. 

“She wasn’t just going to leave us hanging there,” Ty said. “That was very difficult for us and the company, and really upset the apple cart.”

Cashier Brooklyn Mahle, left, charges Jim Hestad for a portable heater. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Plans for product and people

As Hardware Sales looks ahead, its emphasis on product selection and service appears to remain at the forefront. 

The company said it often hears feedback from customers who already had tried Lowe’s and Home Depot, couldn’t find what they needed, and said they “should have come here first.” That, the family said, requires a lot of continued coordination behind the scenes. 

“Just getting all those items with descriptions and SKU numbers and everything aligned and to maintain accurate inventory has been probably the biggest challenge for us,” Ty said. “And we’ve made it and led with it, and now we’re just working on our inventory accuracy.” 

Equipment for rent hangs on the walls of the rental department. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The near future also includes more space for, and growing, the rental business. But Ty said plans also factor in the company’s efforts to remove stress in the work environment for its staff. 

“When you can retain people, you also retain their knowledge of products and their customer service levels,” he said. “That is very important to us here.”

When it was pointed out that many companies asked about their future plans would tend to only highlight new products or physical expansion, Ty reiterated the priority.

“We want to do what we do, and we want to do it better,” he said without hesitation. “And with better customer service.”

Mechanic John Olsen works on a generator in the service department. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

A previous version of this story included the wrong date the historical photo was taken. The story was updated to reflect this change on Feb. 26, 2024 at 7:30 a.m. Cascadia Daily News regrets this error.

Frank Catalano is CDN’s business & work columnist; reach him at frankcatalano@cascadiadaily.com.

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