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Terry Davis says he never set career goals for himself, starting at Home Hardware as a warehouse stock picker at age 19. Over the ensuing years, through a divorce, second marriage and the birth of a second daughter, he kept moving up the corporate ladder and on May 1, at age 63, became CEO. (Rachel Idzerda For The Globe and Mail)
Terry Davis says he never set career goals for himself, starting at Home Hardware as a warehouse stock picker at age 19. Over the ensuing years, through a divorce, second marriage and the birth of a second daughter, he kept moving up the corporate ladder and on May 1, at age 63, became CEO. (Rachel Idzerda For The Globe and Mail)

the lunch

Home Hardware CEO is a lifelong do-it-yourselfer Add to ...

He’s something of an accidental CEO.

Terry Davis got his start at Home Hardware Stores Ltd. 44 years ago as a warehouse stock picker – a 19-year-old, long-haired hippie fresh out of high school with a wife and newborn daughter to support. A few months later, he applied for and landed a job as a computer programmer, without knowing anything about computers. Over the ensuing years, through a divorce, second marriage and the birth of a second daughter, he kept moving up the corporate ladder and on May 1, at age 63, became CEO.

But he says he never set career goals for himself.

“I had a lot of things thrown at me, to be responsible for,” Mr. Davis says over a chicken Caesar salad at his favourite restaurant in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ont., just a 10-minute drive from his head office in tiny St. Jacobs (population: 2,011).

“I said yes every time. I would never hem and haw … You should say yes to every opportunity that comes along. Don’t think for a second that you can’t do something. Just do it and learn about it.”

His do-it-yourself approach has served him well in the brutal home-improvement retail wars, helping his team build Home Hardware into an unlikely contender against U.S. powerhouses Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos., as well as Quebec-based Rona Inc.

Privately-held Home Hardware, a co-operative of owners of 1,060 stores with more than $5.4-billion in annual sales, has managed to gain market share in the $40.7-billion Canadian sector over past years and remain a significant player, according to data from trade publication and consultancy Hardlines. The retailer ranks a close third in sales to Rona and Home Depot.

But as Mr. Davis asserts: “It gets tougher every day.”

He and his team fight the big-box stores partly by borrowing from the DIY model of the Mennonite community in St. Jacobs, picking up on its “culture of self-sufficiency,” he says. The Mennonites produce their own food and clothing and run their own technology operations, including the injection moulding and pressing machines that they use to make snow shovels, garden rakes, buckets and other products for Home Hardware. “That strong culture in our area has seeped into the psyche of Home Hardware over the years,” he says.

Home Hardware’s co-founder, Walter Hachborn, a long-time St. Jacobs resident who, at 93, still comes into the office every day, introduced automation to the retailer early on, Mr. Davis says. As early as 1967, the company installed its first computers, leading to Mr. Davis’ early years as a programmer, taking computer courses, reading up on the subject and even writing proprietary computer programs for the company. “I did everything myself, pretty much.”

He feels a bigger influence from St. Jacobs than its Waterloo neighbour, which BlackBerry Ltd. and other tech companies call home.

“We tackle things a little bit differently,” he says. “We’ve got limited resources to work with. How can we keep up with our competition without having their deep pockets? It makes us a little more creative.”

For our lunch, he chooses Waterloo’s Wildcraft Grill, where BlackBerry in its heyday rented its three private rooms for meetings so often that the mobile-device firm’s executives affectionately called it “the RIM cafeteria.” Mr. Davis thought about booking lunch instead at a restaurant in St. Jacobs, but figured it might be too noisy and crowded with summer tourists flocking to see the Mennonites in their horse-driven buggies, women in traditional caps and aprons and the local farmers’ market.

He takes his wife, Anne, to Wildcraft for dinner on weekends for steak frites and thriftily collects rewards points from its Bite Club – he’s got about 14,000, enough to get a free multi-course group dinner. He usually skips lunch, a habit he got into as a busy computer operator. “I’m a stout person,” he says. “If I had three meals a day I’d be even stouter.”

Today, he enjoys the crostini appetizer with bacon, granny smith apple and Gruyere cheese and, later, one of the cheesecake lollipops (with a Skor candy coating) that our server brings for free, without our asking.

The intensity of the home-improvement battle isn’t apparent from his easygoing demeanour and tendency to crack jokes. He’s quick to acknowledge he’s a “terrible” handyman and leaves the heavy-lifting to his wife or a Home Hardware contractor. “I can build shelves and I can do very basic things,” he says. “I haven’t plumbed anything lately.”

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