Jensen Akins: At Home in the Northwoods

Judi and John Akins of Jensen Akins Hardware and Appliance

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Conover, Wis., May Not be the Edge of the World . . .

…but it is probably just around the corner! That is the thought that kept going through my mind when making the long trek through the beautiful snow-covered endless forest on my way to visit Judi and John Akins of Jensen Akins Hardware and Appliance. Conover is about as far north as you can go and still be in Wisconsin (and possibly North America!). It is a recreational paradise with hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams and a year-round tourism business that changes with the seasons.

I happened to visit during the snowmobile season and passed many snow machines racing across the landscape. In fact, just a few miles south of their store I passed the racetrack where the World Championship Snowmobile Derby was being prepped for the annual competition, to be held the following week.

The Retail Pivot

The Akins were living in Chicago, working in the manufacturing industry, when they decided to make a change. It was 20 years ago that they made a fateful decision to turn their lives upside down and pivot 180 degrees into retail. They began by searching retail businesses all over the Midwest before settling on a hardware and appliance store opportunity that presented itself – via a cold call – in Conover in 2003. Judi had a connection to the Wisconsin Northwoods, as she spent summers there from childhood on, and John grew up in retail, his parents having owned a hardware store in Iowa. The Conover store was a perfect fit.

Welcome to the Northwoods

The original owners, Debbie and Roger Jensen, worked with the Akins for three years before the transition was final. The new owners retained the Jensen badge as part of their brand because the name and business were a fixture in the community.

Today, after more than 15 years years of serving the area, the Akins have become a part of the fabric of the community as well.

The market they serve is unique in that there are many seasonal residents that maintain recreational homes for use primarily in the summer and leave for the winter. Jensen Akins serves this market with both higher-end products and full service. The trust and loyalty that they engender with their customers was evident when John pointed to a cabinet with dozens of keys to customers’ homes, providing year-round access to provide service, delivery and installs as needed. “Just lock up when you leave,” they tell John.

Foundation of Service

The market and service area the Akins serve is large, stretching more than 60 miles in every direction.

While they do compete with the box stores on the fringe of their market, they more than hold their own by maintaining a solid reputation and servicing what they sell. As John explained, “Our foundation is service and that is what brings our customers in and keeps them coming back.” Judi said John often jokes that “We give away product but we sell service,” noting that, “We will come out almost anytime, anyplace to take care of our customers.”

While the couple shares the same labor challenges all dealers face, the business has a great staff – including four other Johns besides John Akins! – that has allowed them to attend BrandSource events without worrying about who’s minding the store.

What’s the key to their success? The Akins reemphasized service, although for them service isn’t limited to performing repairs; it’sa commitment to their customers to be there when they need them. “Service means we will go out on the 4th of July to deliver a new refrigerator when theirs goes down,” John said. “We make sure our customers get the best product to suit their needs.” Added Judi, “This place is a lot like Cheers; we know most of our customers by name. We take pride in the fact that our customers choose us, and they trust that we put them first.”

“Conover is not a destination,” Judi acknowledged. “We work hard to earn that trust.”

A One-Stop Shop

Jensen Akins is a valued service provider for the entire area. The store is certainly a one-stop destination for just about anything your house would ever need. There is a balanced selection of appliances (including premium merchandise), plus bedding, TVs, hardware, paint, tools, lumber, docks, lifts, paddle boats and other goods. While appliances account for the largest chunk of sales volume, the wide mix of products keeps the couple jumping year ’round. Price is usually not the biggest issue when making a sale, as the Akins are competitive with the boxes and their customers know they stand behind what they sell and will be taken care of down the road.

The business had formerly been affiliated with the Nationwide buying group, but the Akins switched to MEGA Group in order to feel more connected to a smaller organization. But when MEGA got swallowed up in the Nationwide merger the couple once again felt a bit lost in the shuffle. No longer feeling much of a bond to their buying group anymore, they welcomed a change.

The Right Fit

The Akins felt that connection again after joining BrandSource last year. The couple likes being part of a co-op, which they had experienced through the hardware side of the business, and both feel that BrandSource is run differently than their previous group, with more benefits going to the members – just like their hardware co-op.

“Everyone is interested in our success,” said Judi. “Our regional manager, Roy Radloff, has been fantastic, as has our inside rep Mike Porter. Both have really gone out of their way to help us integrate into the group and take advantage of the benefits.”

The husband-and-wife team also attended the regional Town Hall event in Wisconsin last fall and liked the meeting’s structure. “There is a different attitude from your fellow members,” John said. “Everyone wants to help you grow, and there are not a lot of barriers. We felt like we were a part of the group immediately.”

The Akins have also switched to an AVB Marketing website that has been working well for them. They have not yet totally integrated all the functionality of the LINQ portal but hope to do so soon. “One bite at a time,” John noted, but “so far so good.”

The great outdoors, the four seasons, Jensen Akins and Conover, Wis., are inexorably linked, making it a given that Judi and John will be busy doing what they love all year round: taking care of customers.

The Akins would not have it any other way.

BrandSource and AVB Marketing are divisions of YSN publisher AVB Inc.