Third generation steers Ziegler's Ace

HUNTLEY – Cousins Brian and David Ziegler are the third generation to lead and grow the family's hardware business, Ziegler's Ace. 

The business has grown in the last eight decades to include nine locations in the suburbs, with stores in Elgin, South Elgin, Carol Stream, Huntley, Cary, Lake in the Hills, and Crystal Lake. 

Grandfather Lyle A. Ziegler started the enterprise when he purchased Meehan's Hardware in Elgin in 1930. Four years later, he joined the Ace Hardware Corporation, which was formed by five Chicago hardware retailers in 1924.

Lyle Ziegler's sons, Gregg and James, expanded the business in the 1950s and '60s. At one point in the 1960s, Ziegler's Ace was the top purchaser of products from Ace Hardware Corporation. The brothers continued to lead the business through the late 1970s, when their sons, Brian and David Ziegler, joined the company. The two cousins bought the business in 1992.

Together, they expanded Ziegler's Ace to 10 stores, though they were forced to close one because of the recession. 

Working with family members can be difficult, but David and Brian Ziegler view their relationship as an asset.

"Family businesses have unique opportunities and challenges, however, our partnership is very, very good," David Ziegler said. 

In addition to his role at Ziegler's Ace, David Ziegler, 57, serves as chairman of Oakbrook-based Ace Hardware Corporation’s board of directors, a position he's held since 2008. Prior to that, he was an Ace board member for seven years. The board's main job is to select the company's CEO. 

Ace Hardware Corporation is the largest retailer-owned cooperative and a leader in the convenience segment of the hardware industry. It has 4,600 locally-owned and operated stores worldwide and annual retail sales of about $12 billion. Ace Hardware Corporation operates 15 distribution centers and has about 4,500 corporate employees, according to its website. 

As co-owners of Ziegler's Ace, the cousins approach business decisions with solidarity. 

"My cousin and I get along extremely well," Brian Ziegler, 61, said. "Our model is one of consensus – we move forward when we both agree." 

That tack has helped Ziegler's Ace survive increased competition from big box retailers and the Great Recession. 

The recession proved exceptionally difficult. 

"People just stopped spending," David Ziegler said. 

Initially, the Zieglers hoped to ride it out.

"We transitioned from hopeful optimism to realism," said Brian Ziegler, who is the president of Ziegler's Ace. "We delayed taking action until it become very clear we would have to make some changes." 

In 2009, the Zieglers shuttered the West Dundee location.

"Our company is solid and strong because we were able to be proactive rather than reactive," Brian Ziegler said. 

Brian and David Ziegler have benefited from some of the community-minded policies established by their predecessors. 

"The principles of the previous generations continue on in the way we do business today," Brian Ziegler said. 

One of the benefits of running a private, family-owned company is having the freedom "to make decisions that aren't based on the next quarter's bottom line," he added. 

Even more rewarding for the Zieglers is being part of the communities they serve. 

"We get to make a difference in the community and see the development, over many years, of our employee team members," Brian Ziegler said. 

As the Zieglers approach retirement age, they are planning for the next phase of the family business. 

"We've taken some steps and are looking at plans for a more formal transition," Brian Ziegler said. "We're looking at the future and what role my cousin and I want to have and who might carry on the business." 

They have brought in advisers to help with what could be a seven to 10-year transition process, he added. David Ziegler said a fourth generation of the family has expressed interest in the business, though no decisions have yet been made about the future. 

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Ziegler's Ace:

What: A family-owned group of nine Ace Hardware stores

Locations: Downtown Elgin, westside Elgin, South Elgin, Carol Stream, Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Carpentersville, Crystal Lake, and Cary


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Business Journal preview:

This story appears in the McHenry County Business Journal, published this week.

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