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Busy Beaver Owner Is Eager For Success

Joe Keller
Joe Keller

For Joe Keller, an SRU alumnus, Busy Beaver is both a name and a working style.

This past week Keller has been bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with his employees at Pine Grove Square. As CEO of the Busy Beaver home supply chain, he called for the Pine Township store to open this Thursday.

Keller pitched in himself this week by hoisting boxes and arranging items with the store’s staff.

“We’ll be ready,’’ Keller said as he wiped the sweat off his face.

When opened, the store will have 50,000 square feet – larger than the company’s 18 other locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Based in Harmar, PA, about 12 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, PA, the company has been undergoing a rapid expansion since Keller bought the business in 2014.

That expansion includes the Pine Township location and a store in Greenville Plaza, Hempfield Township scheduled to open May 1 at the former Big Lots location. Exactly one month later, on June 1, Busy Beaver will open a store in Lawrence Village Plaza, Shenango Township, Lawrence County at the former Trader Horn and Warehouse Sales store.

Busy Beaver’s Pine Township store is housed at the former USIS site. The background check company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015 and eventually closed the office. Before that, the space was occupied by Ames, a national discount store which filed for Chapter 11 and closed that site.

Prior to the new openings, the nearest Busy Beaver store to Mercer County has been in Franklin Township, Beaver County, just outside Ellwood City.

Keller is more than just familiar with the area. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2000 with majors in finance and marketing.

”It really feels great to be back here,’’ he said.

This is is his second venture in the area. Keller got his start in the business world when he was a college senior by buying an Italian ice franchise. He whipped the enterprise into shape and sold it for a tidy profit.

And that is the business model where he excels.

Keller said his true specialty is as a turnaround artist – a term to describe someone who takes on an ailing existing business and whips it into shape. Over the years he has bought beat up businesses, turned them into profit centers and then sold them for a profit.

Anna Ramsey, inventory control manager at Busy Beaver’s Pine Township store.
Anna Ramsey, inventory control manager at Busy Beaver’s Pine Township store.

Such was his match with Busy Beaver. The regional home improvement company was created in 1968, in Washington, PA. It had some success with more than a dozen stores in the region.

But when Goliaths like Lowe’s and Home Depot entered Busy Beaver’s market, the company found it difficult to compete. Sensing the time was ripe, Keller bought the company for an undisclosed sum.

Yet, this is going to be a different model than his past efforts.

”My average turnaround time for a business is five years,’’ the 40-year-old said. “But for Busy Beaver this is something we’re going to hold for awhile. We’re going to have hundreds of stores.’’

Keller said his philosophy is boiled down to the three “Es’’: engagement, enhancement and expansion.

That was part of his strategy to get the existing stores into shape. That did not always go well for a number of employees, he said. Among the changes he made was for employees to form relationships with customers.

”When you walk in the store one of our associates will walk with you to the aisle to make sure you get what you need,’’ he said.

Without question, Keller said customer service is important. But he also realizes families are like businesses when it comes to the bottom line.

”If we can’t get something that we can aggressively price we typically won’t do the deal,’’ he said.

Among his strategies are buying items in massive bulk to get cut-rate deals. Busy Beaver also buys leftovers from manufacturers and warehouses.

When it comes to items like lumber, he uses a different strategy than national chains.

”They want to sell you an entire bundle of lumber,’’ Keller said of other retailers. “We snap the bundle straps off and sell the lumber pieces two or three at a time.’’

And that speaks directly to the company’s core shoppers.

”Most of our customers aren’t going to be going out hiring a contractor for a project,’’ he said. “They’re going to do it themselves.’’

If needed, the store will offer outside contractors. But before being sent out installers first must undergo company examination which includes experience, credit-worthiness, having the required insurance and background checks.

Store contractor services will be available and for the regular shopper a rewards program is offered.

In addition to getting sharp prices on merchandise, the company looks at immediate needs for its customers. When flooding hit in West Virginia, Busy Beaver quickly brought in pumps and generators.

 “We want to be big enough to offer great deals but nimble enough to be flexible with our assortments,’’ Keller said.

Another Keller feature is mandatory training for store employees.

A room in the back is designed as a classroom for employees. Lessons will range from how to operate the store’s cash registers to checking inventory on its computer system.

Workers also are taught to stock shelves during regular store hours rather than at night so they are available to handle customer questions.

“We spend a lot of time with our associates,’’ he said. “I’m very passionate about that.’’

Each month every store is visited by three mystery shoppers. Employees are scored on how well these targeted customers are treated.

Shoppers can deliver a formal complaint about a store – and every complaint lands on Keller’s desk.

As the company has grown and improved, Keller said he has been able to boost employee benefits such as time off for paternity and 401(k) retirement plans.

He puts his own mark on how the stores are designed.

Busy Beaver stores are purposely designed to have almost no room for warehousing. That means when merchandise arrives it gets hustled onto the retail floor.

”In the door, on the floor,’’ Keller said.

There are strategies Busy Beaver has adopted from the big box players. In the past year the company doled out $1.3 million to replace every computer. The upgrade allowed for sophisticated software which in real time can track items being sold at each store.

But Keller does not like getting too cozy in the big business world.

”We’ve banned using the word ‘corporate’ anywhere in our business,’’ he said. “It has a negative connotation.’’

A large section of the store is devoted to seasonal items, such as brick pavers to create patios this spring along with other outdoor needs.

Shoppers with big construction projects are taken care of as well, he said.

”I can’t think of anything that we can’t get where we would have to turn people away,’’ Keller said.

Busy Beaver offers online shopping which will get a major enhancement by the end of the year.

Around 35 newly-hired workers will be on hand when the Pine Township store opens.

”And we’ll probably add another 10 or so when the peak season begins,’’ said Keller.

In all Busy Beaver has 450 employees with 31 housed at its headquarters, which Keller calls a support office. Senior managers for the company are not shoved behind a desk.

”We want to collaborate and interact with our associates in the store,’’ he said.

There is a monthly employee award at stores given to top performers.

And Keller could not resist using an old phrase associated with the industrious critter bearing the company name.

“We call it the Eager Beaver Award,’’ he said.