John Patricia is just about the most easygoing, pleasant, always smiling, all-around comfortable fellow you could imagine hanging out with.
In fact, during a recent conversation, there was only one moment when Patricia seemed thrown a bit off balance: When he was told that a goodly number of locals consider him to be the smartest and most successful businessman in Payson.
Being as modest as he is friendly, Patricia who for 13 years has been the co-owner and co-operator of Ace Hardware with his wife, Claudette quickly zig-zagged around a response to that observation. But without even meaning to, Patricia made it abundantly clear how his Rim country image was formed.
"The key to success in any business is people," he later said. "The people you employ, the people you source your goods from, the people you cater to. It comes down to respect, to treating people the way they expect to be treated.
"My motto is and I've really embedded this in our company's culture is that you want to have your customers leave with a smile. Nobody comes in here without a problem they need solved whether their toilet leaks or whatever they need help or advice. Our job is to solve their problem as quickly and as easily and as inexpensively as possible, and send them on their merry way."
To that end, Patricia embraces the philosophy that you hire employees for attitude and train them for skill.
"I hire optimists; people who are always smiling, always have their hand out," he said. "I don't care about their technical acumen; I'll teach them what they need to know. But they have to be 'people people.' You can't teach somebody how to be that way. You either are or you aren't. And if you are, I want you to work for me."
Obviously, you don't get common-sense, down-to-the-basics acumen like that from a greenhorn. John Patricia has been around the business block a number of times.
Hardware, easy decisions
Born and raised in the farmtown of Oneida in upstate New York, Patricia, 51, pretty much stayed put through high school and graduation from State University, where he was a chemistry major.
"Oneida was a small town not unlike Payson. The streets were rolled up at night. It was a great place to grow up, a great place to be a kid. Life was carefree. You didn't have to lock your doors. You could leave your bike on the front porch."
In 1977, Patricia met Claudette, his wife of 22 years and it was, he reported with a grin, an old-fashioned case of "love at first sight. It was pretty wild. It was a whirlwind. And it's stuck." They were married in 1979.
The couple's move from the East Coast to Payson was "entirely an accident," Patricia remembered.
"Claudette and I were living in the Philadelphia area, and I had been working for a number of East Coast corporations as a sales manager and field rep. Well, I was getting tired of the corporate rat race, and I'd always had a hankering to own my own hardware store."
"I started in hardware retail as a kid, I stayed in the business for many years, and I'd always liked it. It's a grassroots kind of a business, where you're dealing with everyday people, you're fixing their problems."
Having made the decision of what he was going to do, he and Claudette next worked on where he was going to do it. They finally narrowed their list of possibilities down to the San Francisco Bay area, Arizona and North Georgia in the lakes country, all of which they had become acquainted with through vacation and business travels.
"Over a period of several years, Arizona kept drawing us back. All we knew, though, was the Valley, and that's where we thought we were going to settle. So we sold everything lock, stock and barrel and drove to Mesa to look for business opportunities.
"We looked in Tucson, we looked in the greater Phoenix area, and really couldn't find anything that was to our liking ... until, by word of mouth, we heard about the gentleman who had owned this store, who wanted to get out of the business. We negotiated, and in September of '88 we took ownership of the store."
The choice, Patricia said, was "really a no-brainer. One of our criteria was to buy an existing, established Ace hardware store that needed a fresh infusion of new blood and new ideas. This store was ideal."
At that time, Ace Hardware wasn't really a hardware store at all, he said.
"It was a traditional general store. It had pots and pans, traffic appliances, audio-visual equipment, hunting and fishing gear. Wal-Mart was going to open in 1989, so we knew we had to give it hell.
"We came in and totally remodeled the store within a period of one year. We also liquidated some of the smaller categories where we didn't feel we could remain competitive, and which were inhibiting the expansion of core categories. For example, we could have never become dominant in the sale of housewares ... and if we were going to have a paint department, we needed a true, full-service paint department."
The buzz on the street is Patricia made the right move.