Gina Schaefer, center, signed copies of her book, “Recovery Hardware,” at the Hilton Head ACE Hardware Store Nov. 16. With her are Ron Burke, Julie Burke, Brad Huffman and Marc Friedman. CATHY HAVENS

Customers who happened to stop into the ACE Hardware Store on Northridge Drive the afternoon of Nov. 16 might have been surprised to find a woman near the front register signing books as they were purchased.

They might have been more surprised to learn that the woman, Gina Schaefer, is the owner of 12 ACE Hardware stores in the Washington, D.C., area.

Her book, “Recovery Hardware,” is about her experiences over the past two decades of opening her first store in an area that was in decline, working with employees with various issues, and growing her business.

Schaefer was in town at the request of Ron Burke, co-owner of the local ACE store. Burke had met her when he was running a sales and marketing company in Chicago years ago.

“We had a focus on getting more females into management in the 2000s, and were having a national meeting, and had heard of her,” Burke said. 

At the time, Schafer had joined the board of directors for ACE Corporate and was doing speaking engagements. Burke invited her to speak at the meeting. 

“Her story was pretty unqiue,” Burke said. I was impressed with the business she grew – it was mindboggling.”

After her book was published and he heard about it, he invited her to do a signing in his store.

“I was impressed with her before, and after reading the book that increased tenfold,” Burke said.

The title of the book is a nod to several elements that went along with opening her first store in 2003, Schaefer said.

“I opened that first location when the neighborhood was going through recovery in general,” she said. “There were not many options for people to work in general, so the store was an option for them.”

In addition, just across the street was the Whitman-Walker recovery center started by Elizabeth Taylor primarily to help with AIDS recovery. As some of the center’s clients walked past her store, several stopped by looking for a job. Schaefer welcomed them.

“I was told years ago that people called our store ‘Recovery Hardware,’” Schaefer said.

At the time, there were very few women in hardware, let alone as owners of stores. 

Schaefer came to hardware after years in software. 

“I was working in tech industry and got laid off three or four times before I decided to open a hardware store,” she said. “We were very involved in the community association when we moved back to this neighborhood. There were no big box stores in D.C. at the time – the first big box came in 2002. It was a renovating neighborhood and the residents needed nuts and bolts.”

It was as simple as that.

She chose ACE, she said, because there weren’t many options for franchises of hardware stores, and “ACE was the first one to respond,” she said.

About a year later, people from other neighborhoods started asking Schaefer about opening stores in other parts of town. 

“Exactly two years later, we opened the second store, and then one a year for the next 10 years,” she said. “We” means Schaefer and her husband, Marc Friedman, who had joined her as a business partner and CFO after her first year solo.

Schaefer’s book shares her experience as a female in the male-dominated hardware industry. 

“It was unusual for a woman to open a hardware store,” she said.

“Eventually I was asked to join the board of ACE – only the third woman to join the board, and the youngest.”

But the book is not ACE specific – her experiences apply to just about any business, she said.

“The book includes a lot of lessons I’ve learned from people in recovery,” she said.

The book also includes some humor. In the book’s promotional materials is a note that it includes tips on “How to choose a shop dog.”

Schaefer chuckled as she began the story.

“When I opened the first store, I wanted a store dog, because I thought a hardware store should have a dog,” she said. “Plus, I was often there alone, and thought having a dog there was a good idea. So, we rescued a 175-pound Great Dane. We brought him to the store for the first week or so – and he scared people. So that didn’t last too long.”

While the big dog was there, he had to be walked, and that job went to a particular employee.

“One of our first employees had been in prison for years and he loved dogs and he loved to walk. He’d walk that dog for miles,” Schaefer said. “We eventually gave the dog to him.”

The book includes many stories of teammates in recovery, as well as some who were homeless, Schaefer said. “Their resilience, their character made an impact on me.”

Schaefer recalled a particularly hard-working team member. “You would never have known she was homeless,” Schaefer said. “She always had a smile, she gave great customer service – just very pleasant. It was impactful to me to see those interactions.”

While she is still hard at work with her stores, Schaefer has a transition plan in place for the next few years.

“Ultimately we decided, in 2021, to sell the store to our employees,” she said. “That story is in the book as well.”

Schaefer said she recently heard there are hundreds of thousands of businesses that are expected to change hands in the next five to 10 years, because of aging owners. 

An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is one way to make that transition, she said. And that’s the plan she and Friedman chose.

“I’m still the CEO,” she said. “Our ultimate plan is to transition 100% of the business to employees – that will take several years.”