Building an ‘Ace place’ that’s distinctly Bainbridge

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Steve and Becky Mikami are proud owners of what they consider a “big neighborhood store.”

Life for Steve and Becky Mikami revolves around two things: family (two boys and two girls, ages 15 to 7) and the Ace Hardware store they own on High School Road.

Well, make that three, since the island community they have embraced for the last 18 years is instrumental in making the other two go around and around.

The Mikamis proudly operate one of the island’s core retail businesses, which is why the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce has named them the 2009 Business Couple of the Year.

It’s no surprise to most islanders, perhaps, since their involvement in the community – through the store, schools, church or nonprofit causes – has made them two of the busiest and connected people on the island.

“Our whole life revolves around our kids and the store,” said Steve, who grew up in Seattle and earned a business degree from Seattle University, where he and Becky met. “We love it here. We couldn’t be happier.”

Paradoxically, however, they are not people who seek limelight. Being honored by a Chamber luncheon and a ride in a convertible in the Fourth of July Parade is not their idea of a fun time. But they will adjust.

“We’re very private people,” Becky said. “We are honored by this, but we’re just doing what we like to do. We love being on a first-name basis with people and we meet them in a lot of different ways. We do enjoy people, but not all this attention.”

In their own way, they are classic small-town retailers, who, through hard work and a little bit of luck, have thrived over a long period of time.

They are efficient managers who have become knowledgeable about their line of work, cater to the store’s customers by listening to needs and ideas, and empower their employees in a way that encourages them to become vital parts of the business.

They consider themselves and each of their 21 employees as part of a team.

“We listen to what our customers want and what our employees know in that we need to constantly tweak our inventory,” Becky said. “We can get things quickly fromdistributors (Ace, primarily) and that’s something our customers really like. It’s flattering when they ask here first. We also train our staff to offer solutions because they know a lot about our products.”

Becky grew up in the business; her parents owned and operated a Coast To Coast hardware store in Gig Harbor for many years. She was happy to leave it behind when she went to college, but happenstance occurred when the engaged couple started looking around Puget Sound for a business and a community that beckoned them.

A Bainbridge visit was a natural since Steve’s parents had many friends among the island’s Japanese-American community. They also discovered that her parents knew the owners of the local Coast To Coast store, which was on the brink of closing. Eventually they bought some of the store’s inventory and leased the space previously occupied by IGA in the building owned by the Nakata family. Six years later, they added a household section by replacing the former Lindsley’s store next door.

Ace is a dealer-owned buying cooperative that asks owners to buy stock in the corporation, and the Mikamis have flourished in an environment that encourages operators to create a store that fits their personalities and the community’s interests.

The business didn’t “really take off,” she said, until they wisely increased their lawn/garden presence. And the household addition also took the store to a different level.

The decisions attracted more women, which was critical since females often decide where the family does most of its shopping. The old hardware model catered to men, of course, but that stereotype faded long ago. It didn’t take Becky the hardware kid long to figure that one out.

To customers, it’s a big store with a huge inventory (some 30,000 to 40,000 stocking units) and friendly, knowledgeable employees around every corner. And a large, convenient parking lot.

Generally out of sight, the Mikamis are often busy scanning their computers or going to trade shows to find the customer’s next important buy. All, happily, for the customer’s convenience.

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