January 23, 2017
Faces of Business

E-commerce keeps one N. Britain hardware store still thriving

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
The Rutkowski family (from left, Arek, Linda, Ron and Axel) have run Rutkowski Paint & Hardware in New Britain for 70 years, and have survived industry downsizing by leveraging the web to sell its goods.
Stan Simpson

Quiet as it's kept, a few years back Linda Rutkowski was wondering why her brother Arek was spending so much time in front of the computer at the family's New Britain business.

For more than 70 years, the Rutkowski's have run a paint and hardware store that bears its name, Rutkowski Paint & Hardware. It was primarily a face-to-face, word-of-mouth enterprise that relied on referrals and return customers. Seeing her brother so preoccupied with the computer simply wasn't computing to Linda, the company's CEO.

Unbeknownst to the family, Arek was learning about the economic power of the internet — and eBay.

He was able to unload store merchandise (that wasn't selling) to online buyers around the world. Sometimes those items, like a package of dinner plates, sold for more online than the price in the store.

Today, 75 percent of Rutkowski's business comes from online traffic. The other 25 percent is from retail and plumbing. Linda Rutkowski knows now that Arek was on to something.

"If Arek didn't have that vision about going online, I don't think we'd still be here," she said. "Now, the business is more computer-based. We sell a lot online. It's not just local customers coming in."

Online sale items include such things as batteries, lawn tractors, power tools, mouse traps and lawn and garden equipment. "These days you can buy and sell anything online,'' said Arek. "And I mean anything. "E-commerce is the future. It has increased our customer base. I even ship worldwide."

The Rutkowski's are able to leverage 12 warehouses and some 67,000 hardware-related items through its strategic partnership with the Do it Best cooperative.

Kenya, Europe, Ireland and Poland are some of Rutkowski's international clients. The family is proud of its Polish heritage and that their business spans four generations.

Joseph and Valeria Rutkowski came from Poland to the United States in the 1940s and opened the first store on Broad Street. Alexander and Pauline took over the business from them. Alexander, Joseph's son, also ran a chicken farm during World War II, operated a laundromat and sold furniture, appliances and kerosene.

Andrew Rutkowski's son, Ron, became boss in 1972. Ron expanded the company's plumbing and heating business. Ron's daughter, Linda, 38, started as CEO in 2014.

"I have a lot of stress and more gray hairs,'' Linda says, smiling. "As a business owner, you want to be successful, and you work really hard. It's always scary, especially with a lot of people shopping elsewhere; big stores and the internet. But we're keeping up with it. We'll be OK."

Siblings Linda, Ron Jr., 53, and Arek, 43, comprise the company's leadership team. Linda oversees operations. Arek handles e-commerce. Ron Jr. directs the plumbing and heating operations. Annual revenues are about $2 million. Of the approximate 12 employees, about half are family members.

Ron Sr., 72, is still a daily presence at the shop, helping where he can — and keeping things light-hearted. "Even I get stuff online now," Ron Sr. cracked. "And I was the last guy to buy a fax machine."

He has a dozen grandkids, and a few great grand kids, so there likely will be future generations of Rutkowski's in the family business.

Linda has a degree in education from Central Connecticut State University and aspired to become a school teacher. But she was drawn by the Broad Street shop that has been a part of her life, since birth.

"I like being in the store," said Linda, a mother of two children. "I've been here my whole life. I guess I just grew into it. I like the social aspect, the people. Getting to talk to the customers every day and getting to help them."

When asked what the most challenging part of her job is, Linda laughed. "The customers," she replied. "There can be some challenging customers. I think that's with any business."

In the early 20th century, New Britain was known as the Hardware City and even Hardware Capital of the World for its manufacturing stalwarts such as The Stanley Works and Fafnir Bearings; but also for the plethora of family hardware stores that dotted its landscape.

These days, the city's manufacturing base is dying; Home Depot and Lowe's accelerated the closing of most of the mom and pop hardware stores. Rutkowski Paint & Hardware, however, has remained.

The family saw the potential of technology — and, eventually, embraced it.

Arek Rutkowski — fiddling with that computer — was indeed on to something.

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of "The Stan Simpson Show," which airs Saturday, 5:30 a.m., on Fox 61.

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