Rick Bibens

Aces Up

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Rick Bibens has dealt himself a pretty fine hand

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s how Rick Bibens might describe 1986, the year he more than doubled the size and sales of Bibens Ace, his first hardware store. 

Since buying his father’s lumber yard and hardware store in Springfield in 1983, Rick Bibens has grown his small, family-owned business, Bibens Ace, to four stores and counting. Three of his stores are in Chittenden County and doing very well, thanks, against Home Depot. He’s pictured at Bibens Ace/Lakeshore Hardware & Marine in Malletts Bay.

Not quite three years before, Bibens had bought the Springfield hardware and lumber supplier from his father, Eric. In ’86, he took the plunge and built a 15,000-square-foot home center a quarter-mile down the road from the original 6,500-square-foot place.

“One of my happiest moments was when I cut the ribbon on my brand new store in October of ’86, knowing that I had built it on my own in a community where I was born and brought up,” says Bibens.

It was interest rates — climbing to 18 percent — that made ’86 also his most challenging year. “It hurt the payments a little,” he says dryly.

Bibens was no stranger to the business when he bought out his father in 1983. “I virtually grew up in this business,” he says. “I worked summers and after school in his store.”

His father was a builder in the Springfield area, and had begun the hardware store and lumber yard so he could supply his building business. 

When the time came for Bibens to go to college, he left for Boston to study management at Northeastern, but the lumber business proved too big a draw to him and cut his education short. 

As part of the university’s co-op program, he obtained a position doing inside sales for Seaboard Plywood in Watertown, Mass., a wholesale company selling millwork, doors, and windows to retail lumber yards. He was about 19.

“I started on the inside sales team, stayed there about six months, was headed back to school, and they put me on the road calling on retailers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts,” he says.

He stayed with Seaboard for four years, becoming sales manager before leaving them in 1978 to return to Springfield and marry Gail Rogers, whom he had known since high school. 

Group photograph Bibens’ locations are not cookie-cutter stores. Each one has its own focus, depending on the clientele. Lakeshore is unique among them for selling live bait, fishing and hunting products and licenses and marine merchandise. From left, Gail Mulconnery, Wayne Trayah, Doug Mayo and Floyd Miner are salespeople at Bibens Ace/Lakeshore.

“She went off to college and was smart enough to finish her degree,” Bibens quips. They married the year he returned, and Bibens went to work for his father, with whom he worked out a plan to eventually take over the business.

In 1982, just a few months before he closed on the purchase, Bibens switched the company from its affiliation with American Hardware, better known as ServiceStar, to Ace Hardware, and by the time he was cutting the ribbon on the new store, he had sold the original building to Idlenot Dairy.

Over the next 10 years, Bibens built the store into a full-service home center, “kitchens, baths, everything,” he says. His efforts did not go unnoticed.

In 1997, he was approached about interviewing for a position on Ace Hardware’s national board of directors.

“Ace is a dealer-owned company — a co-op,” says Bibens. “There are 11 directors on the board, all retailers.” He was nominated and elected to the board, where he served from 1997 to 2006, and became responsible for what is called Region 1, “basically from Ohio to Maine,” he says.

The board chairman in ’97 was a Chicago retailer. “He and I became pretty good friends,” says Bibens, “and he kept pushing me to think about store number two.”

Although opening a second store would be a big plunge, Bibens had already survived some of the difficulties connected with growing a business. “When we moved our location from the first store, our sales doubled and we had staffing problems,” he says. “I was thrown into the fire with hiring people, trying to manage people, manage advertising, working seven days a week those days.”

The challenge of growing, he says, was “trying to take a small, family-owned business to the next level without some next-level hardware retail training.” 

The opening of the second store — Lakeshore Hardware & Marine in Malletts Bay, which he opened as a Bibens/Ace Hardware store in July 2000 — created what Bibens calls “the next big hurdle: When we opened the second store, we had to manage two stores in two locations 120 miles apart.”

Having the second location forced him to put the systems in place,” he says, and what helped a lot was being on the Ace board, “surrounded by some pretty good business people you could learn from.”

Systems in place, two years later, Bibens opened his third store on Williston Road in South Burlington at the site of the former CT Farm & Country, and in January 2006, he took over Hill’s Hardware in Burlington’s New North End. He has 72 employees.

Bibens has remained conscious of the neighborhood character of each acquisition. “Our goal has been, when buying another store, to try to keep everything that was there as much as you can, but change the efficiencies.”

For example, he says, “Employees at Lakeshore were extremely nervous I was going to come in and turn that place upside down — do away with the fishing and marine — but I could see that within six months they were pretty comfortable.” Lakeshore is unique among Bibens’ stores for selling live bait and fishing and hunting products and licenses. 

“Each store has its own personality, but each has core departments,” he says. “The Springfield location, obviously, has the lumber yard. The North End store has its strengths, more into the urban-type business, so it sells a lot of lawn and garden-type products. South Burlington has a full line of Carhartt clothing — the other stores don’t have that.”

Springfield remains the center of operations for Bibens Ace, where functions such as accounting and marketing are centralized, and the northern stores are satellites. Bibens travels to Chittenden County at least a couple of days a week. 

He has stayed active in Springfield community endeavors. He was chairman of the Springfield Hospital board from 1996 to 2006; is president of the Springfield Regional Development Corp.; and is on the board of the Southern Vermont Recreation Center. He was named the 2004 Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.

“Rick is from a family that is attuned to public service. His aunt, Margaret Hammond, was one of the first women to serve in the Senate in Vermont,” says Edgar May, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, former state senator and representative, former chief operating officer of Special Olympics International, and the brother of former Gov. Madeleine May Kunin.

As head of the group that built the regional recreation center, May says Bibens was his first choice to be chairman of the building committ. “Rick is one of those talented individuals who can keep half a dozen balls up in the air and never let one of them touch the ground. He blends his business efforts and his public service efforts better than anyone I have known.” 

That ability helps Bibens with his everyday activities, too. “I wear a lot of hats,” he says. “I still purchase most of the commodities for my lumber business and do the pricing for that; I still do most of the retail management for all of my stores. We’re always doing research on different markets.”

One of those market studies influenced the recent purchase of a Rent-A-Husband franchise, a home maintenance, repair and improvement service for Chittenden County. “We’ll be 1-877-99-HUBBY or rentahusband.com,” Bibens says with a chuckle. “We’re getting a van on the road, and we’ve hired a hubby.” The “hubby” is Russell Bibens, his brother, who lives in Essex. Teaser advertising will be out about the same time as this issue of the magazine.

There’s little doubt that being part of the Ace family has been a boon, says Bibens. “I don’t think you could survive if you weren’t a member of a large chain or co-op; and right now, with 5,200 locations in the United States and 62 countries, Ace is the second-largest retail hardware chain outside of Home Depot.”

He confesses that a lot of people thought he’d gone off the deep end when he bought CT Farm & Country just two miles from Home Depot. “Everybody looks at Home Depot as the cheapest, but that’s not always true,” he says. “We can always out-service them. 

“They fuel a lot of home improvement in the area, and there’s still a lot of room for the smaller hardware store owner who doesn’t have a mom-and-pop operation — those are pretty tough,” he says. “There will always be a need for a full-service store that can cover most of the consumer’s needs — fast in and out and great service.” Ace, as a company, opened 245 stores in 2006.

Brian BairdCorporate functions are performed at the main location in Springfield, and the other three locations are satellites, each with its own resident manager. Brian Baird manages Bibens Ace/ Lakeshore in Malletts Bay.

Things seem a  bit easier nowadays, he says. “A friend of mine said it best. ‘Adding stores is like having children. The second one is the adjustment, and beyond that, it’s easier.’”

Bibens could relate to that, he says. “My third child is easy-going, because we were used to all the things they could pull on us at that point.”

The Bibenses’ three children are adults now; the youngest is a freshman at the University of Vermont. Asked whether his children might join the business, he gives a noncommittal, “Ohhh, who knows? If it was a gut check, I would say probably not, but you never know.

“I’m from a family of six; none of them are in the business. My sister [Leslie] has a business in Burlington — she and her husband [John] own Von Bargen’s Jewelry, so we follow each other around the state. The challenge is seeing who’s going to open a new store next.”

Bibens says he has always enjoyed the retail side and working with the customers to solve their needs, “but more, building a company that can support a lot of families. I’m very proud of my management team. I have great managers in every location. My father always said, ‘You haven’t always got to be the smartest guy in the room; just surround yourself with good people.’”

His father, who died three years ago, was Bibens’ best friend and mentor, always curious about what he would do next.

Asked what’s coming next, Bibens doesn’t hesitate. “More stores!” he crows, and mentions that he’s “in the design stage right now of a brand new building, but I’m not really positioned to say where it’s going to go. We’re hoping it works out.” 

Sounds like an Ace in the hole. •