Founded: 1902 in Blue River, Wis.
Current locations: 1509 U.S. 61 N., Lancaster, Wis.; 1704 Elm St., Boscobel, Wis.; 3920 N. Percival St., Hazel Green, Wis.; 105 23rd St., Brodhead, Wis.; 11359 W. Industrial Park Ave., Galena, Ill.; 111 Westgate Drive, Maquoketa, Iowa; 128 Industrial Park Road, Cascade, Iowa.
LANCASTER, Wis. — Bob Schmidt Jr. attributes the longevity of his family-run retail chain to agility.
“We’re pretty agile,” Bob said of Gasser Hardware. “We can change directions and move really fast. The three of us can have a meeting and make a decision. We don’t have to go to a board. We can just make a move if we see an opportunity.”
Gasser Hardware is a Lancaster-based chain of stores that operates in southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. The retail chain traces its roots to Schmidt’s grandfather, Raymond Gasser, who joined his older brother John Gasser in operating a hardware store that opened in 1902 in Blue River, Wis.
Now, 120 years later, Bob, 76, and his sons, 53-year-old Rob Schmidt and 50-year-old Dan Schmidt, oversee locations in Lancaster, Boscobel, Hazel Green and Brodhead in Wisconsin; Maquoketa and Cascade in Iowa; and Galena, Ill.
“We’re always looking for the next opportunity,” Dan said. “If you don’t grow (as a business), you die.”
Bob said the family’s first opportunity for growth came at the end of World War I.
“My grandfather rode a horse during the First World War,” Bob said. “He was a horse soldier on the Mexican border. When he came back from (military service), he joined his brother in Blue River, and they were partners. Then, my grandfather and his brother decided to open a store in Boscobel, and my grandfather moved to Boscobel.”
The next business development occurred when Bob’s parents, Bob Schmidt Sr. and Virginia Gasser Schmidt, entered the family business in the 1940s.
“When my father came back from the Second World War, my father and mother got into business with my grandfather, and they operated the business in Boscobel,” Bob said. “The Blue River store closed when I was in high school.”
Bob went into the Army, and when he returned from the service the company’s next growth opportunity arrived.
“My father had talked me into buying a store here in Lancaster — Schwartz Ace Hardware,” Bob said. “We bought that store in 1971.”
By the mid-1970s, the Schmidt family relocated the Lancaster store from downtown to its current spot north of town on U.S. 61.
Bob bought out his father’s portion of the business in the late 1970s.
“He had already bought my grandfather out through the years,” Bob said. “I bought (my father) out because he wanted to retire.”
Bob and his wife, Jan Folbrecht Schmidt, then operated the stores in Boscobel and Lancaster. The company expanded its merchandise offerings to include farm supplies in 1975.
The two stores became three in the early 1990s.
“I wanted (the company) to grow,” Bob said. “We were definitely looking for a store (to purchase) when we got Hazel Green.”
The Schmidt family acquired a retail location from the Vosberg family that included groceries in Hazel Green in 1997. The Hazel Green store remains unique in the Gasser chain for combining hardware with groceries, liquor and deli items. Rob joined the family business with the addition of the Hazel Green store.
Rob said the family made a point to continue offering groceries at the Hazel Green store.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “When we came in, (some people) were afraid we weren’t going to do groceries at all anymore.”
Dan entered the family business in October 1999, when Gasser acquired two stores that had been former retail locations of the Walsh Stores in Galena, Ill., and Maquoketa, Iowa.
“I like the work because every day is a different day from one store to the next,” Dan said. “There are different people you meet with every day.”
Gasser since has expanded to include locations in Brodhead, Wis. — opened in 2015 — and Cascade, Iowa. The Cascade store opened in 2019 at the site of a former Chevrolet dealership.
Dan said the company has thrived thanks to relationships it has forged in each of its seven communities.
“Without their support, we could never be there,” he said.
Bob said another key to the chain’s longevity is its ability to adapt to changing customer needs.
“I think we have listened to what people want,” Bob said. “There was a time here (in Lancaster) that we were fully featuring toys and sporting goods. We don’t do that anymore. Why? Well, toys switched to electronics — that’s where the business went — and sporting goods went to Cabela’s. We also sold a lot of housewares, but that all went to Walmart. So we had to change.”
One change through the years has been the introduction of equipment and tool rentals for construction and home improvement needs.
“We try to help the customer find the answer to his problem,” Bob said.
Another development came with Gasser seeking ways to overcome some of the logistical challenges of the company’s geographic spread.
“We operate a small trucking company,” Bob said. “We have two semis and four trailers. We try to have two truck drivers. This helps us. We can go pick up goods on a better schedule than waiting for them to come in.”
Buying co-operatives also helps the Schmidt family operate in different locations.
“It helps with economy of scale,” Rob said. “It allows us international access to goods and services, and it also allows us to bill centrally.”
Rob said the need for adaptation continues to drive the company.
“Dad always said, ‘You don’t sell 75% of what you sold 10 years ago,’ and he’s right,” Rob said.
“We used to have a 6-foot display of hammers, and now we have a 2-foot display of hammers. Why? Because people don’t buy as many hammers anymore,” Bob said. “They buy pneumatic staple guns.”
Bob said businesses have to be able to adjust to changing consumer needs.
“Plumbing is a good example,” Bob said. “It used to be iron pipe. Then it was copper pipe. Now, it’s plastic. It’s all pushed together. It’s all different.”
Rob said having stores with diversified merchandise helps Gasser offset occasional reductions in demand for other products.
“The pet department is a good example of that,” Rob said. “People are feeding their dogs food all the time, so you avoid the peaks and valleys (of demand) in some of your other departments.”