15:14 PM

Veteran’s Day 2016: Honoring Andy Clark, owner of Clark’s Ace Hardware

The interview outlined below is part of Ace Hardware's Veteran's Day series, celebrating members of the Ace family who have generously, and nobly served our nation.

Andy Clark is owner of Clark's Ace Hardware in Ellicott City, Maryland. Andy, 72, is a veteran of the U.S. Army.

Which branch of the military did you serve?

The Clark family has proudly served the U.S. military for several generations. My father attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and served in World War II, so naturally my brother and I followed in his footsteps. At the VMI, I studied engineering and was commissioned in the Army Corp of Engineers; my brother, a year ahead of me was commissioned into the Marine Corps.

What was your role in the military?

My first duty station was in Karlsruhe, Germany with the 249th Engineer Construction Battalion. There I served as a platoon leader and later on the battalion staff. We worked on airfield and base construction projects.

In 1967, I deployed to Vietnam. I commanded the 523rd Port Construction Company in Qui Nhon in the Central Highlands until after the Tet Offensive. For those who don't remember, or are too young to know, the Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong (rebel forces sponsored by North Vietnam) and North Vietnamese forces, on scores of cities. It was considered a major turning point in the Vietnam War even though the enemy failed to accomplish any of their major objectives.

From there, my military unit moved south of Saigon to construct piers in the Mekong Delta. We were a unique company comprised of 269 soldiers with 13 officers, 12 army divers, 69 mechanics and multiple boats, barges and cranes. One of the cranes was a Raymond Pile Driver built in 1890. We built bridges, submarine pipelines, transported extra heavy equipment to airbases and built a 193,000-barrel tank farm.

I left Vietnam in 1969 and returned to the Mainland where I was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. There, I attended the Engineer Officer Advanced Course for career officers.

My next and final tour was at the Waterway Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Station had more than 200 professional engineers and did research in soils, concrete, hydraulics, and environmental quality research. I worked on pavement design for the C-5A airplane and studied the impact that containerization had on military port development.

How did you make the transition from active military to Ace store owner?

The hardware business had been part of our family for five generations. I worked in the store growing up, but honestly, I thought I would be career military and didn't envision myself returning to the family business. My craft was engineering, not running hardware stores. But when tragedy strikes, sometimes your world changes. In 1972, my parents were killed in an automobile accident. Following the tragic and untimely death of my parents, my brother and I felt a familial duty to return to the hardware business. Just when we thought things couldn't get much worse, the day I resigned my military commission and returned to Ellicott City, Hurricane Agnes devastated our store.

What lessons or attributes of the military do you find apply most to your business?

We try to run the stores like a Rhine Riverboat Captain after he has been through a few locks; everyone has specific duties to make the passage a success. With the right training, we give our employees responsibility for certain departments. This includes everything from ordering and inventory control, to merchandising, selling and customer service. We separate our income statement by these departments so each manager can see how their work affects the bottom line. Each department manager receives a bonus on the profits of his or her section as well as the profits of the entire store. It's my job to make sure they are competent at what they are doing so they don't "wing it" with the customer. That philosophy has held us in pretty good stead over the years.

How has being a veteran helped you succeed as a small business owner?

For me, I came of age in the military. It taught me about comradery, organization, and the importance of education. And that's how the hardware business operates too. We practice that in our stores by always hiring a good number of high school and college-age associates. By working in the store, these young associates are able to learn how to relate to people and how to manage challenging situations. Many of the young individuals who work in our store during their time in high school or college return years later as "alumni" to tell us how valuable working at Clarks Hardware was for their first job. This it makes us extremely proud.