I can’t count the number of stories I’ve written in recent years about longtime Upper Valley family businesses that have shut down because their owners retired and no one was interested in carrying them on.
So it is heartening to see two well-known businesses, both with deep roots in their communities but whose owners are retiring after decades of unremitting labor, have found new owners to step in — and in each case with promises of expansion, including investing in online sales platforms to stay competitive.
Charlie and Kathy Welch have sold Welch’s True Value Hardware in South Royalton to Massachusetts-based Aubuchon Hardware, which describes itself as the oldest family-run hardware store business in the country and, with stores in Windsor and Newport, N.H., and formerly Bradford, Vt., is a familiar name in the Upper Valley.
Meanwhile, Connecticut businessman Dave Manning has acquired Green Mountain Smokehouse in Windsor from Koreen and Jake Henne, rescuing the business at the last minute when the Hennes had decided after two decades to retire and would have closed the smokehouse if a buyer hadn’t stepped forward.
Charlie Welch began working at his family’s hardware store in South Royalton when he was in high school in the early 1960s — joining full-time in 1974 — before eventually taking over the business from his father and uncle and moving it from Chelsea Street to its current Route 14 location in 1988.
He oversaw an expansion of the business that now has about 20 employees and, until it closed in 2018, a second store in West Woodstock on Route 4.
Although he said the past two years business has been “up and down,” his reason for selling the business to Aubuchon is strictly a personal one.
“I’m 72; it’s time,” he said last week, crediting his wife, Kathy, for being “a significant part of this organization.”
The store was rebranded Aubuchon Hardware as of March 14, according to Will Aubuchon, chief executive of Aubuchon Hardware and the fourth generation of the family to run the business since it was founded in 1904.
“We are passionate about carrying the flag forward. What Charlie built is unique,” Aubuchon said, adding, “Rule No. 1 is to do no harm.”
The only changes he foresees is broadening the inventory in the store and integrating the South Royalton location into its online sales platform.
“We are committed to the long term,” Aubuchon said.
Welch’s, like others in the building and tools industry, has suffered from supply chain issues over the past couple years. But Aubuchon said his company, which has 107 stores in the Northeast, commands considerable clout in obtaining products. A few years ago, Aubuchon ended self-distributing and contracted with third-party warehouse distributors that greatly increased the number of products at its disposal to stock stores.
“The most obvious change will be a lot more inventory. People shouldn’t worry that, because it’s an Aubuchon store now, whatever was there before is not going to be there now. That’s not the case at all,” he said.
(Aubuchon said the store will continue to draw on True Value for some products, although it will no longer be the South Royalton store’s principal supplier.)
He also noted that Charlie Welch carried some products that Aubuchon’s does not normally sell, such as “lots of animal feed,” and that will continue.
“We just want to keep it local, and it’s a total privilege to pick up the flag from Charlie and his family,” Aubuchon said.
One day this winter, Manning, the Connecticut businessman and a self-proclaimed foodie, left his ski vacation home in Ludlow in search of what he calls “road food,” those out-of-the-way spots along byways and back roads that offer distinctly American regional cooking and food.
Manning knew exactly where he was headed: Green Mountain Smokehouse in Windsor, a small smokehouse operation run by the Hennes that sells smoked meats and Vermont maple syrup-cured hams from its Route 5 location and at a handful of markets around the Upper Valley.
When Manning arrived he struck up a conversation with the couple, who have run the smokehouse, which also has commercial clients like Robie Farm in Piermont, since 2000.
“I said I’d been meaning to come here for a year,” recalled Manning, who first learned about Green Mountain Smokehouse on the blog Roadfood.
“Oh, you’re in luck then,” Manning said they responded, “because we’re retiring and closing up.”
“That’s when I let my mind wander, and here I am,” Manning said last week from Green Mountain Smokehouse, where he was working to familiarize himself with operations after buying the business last month.
Manning, a manufacturer’s representative and owner of a medical instruments distribution company, said his intention is to capitalize upon Green Mountain Smokehouse’s Vermont roots in marketing. He’s redesigning the logo, developing a website for online sales and adding three positions to the current five, including a production manager moving up from North Carolina to oversee the operation.
“I can run the business side, but Jake specifically said to me, ‘I don’t want you to buy the business unless you can find someone to run the production side,’ ” Manning said.
So he “snooped around” and discovered master smokers are “a niche community, but they will travel.”
“Jake and Koreen left a great foundation and strong business,” Manning said. “I’m interested in taking it to the next level. The majority of the sales are within 50 miles, but I want to try and take it national.”
The Hennes declined to comment other than to say that after 22 years they are looking forward to retirement.
Contact John Lippman at [email protected].