NILES, Ohio – A lot was going against Handyman Supply of Niles when the late Carl Leveto opened the McKinley Heights store in 1980.
The Mahoning Valley was reeling from the steel mill closings that devastated the economy. On top of that, Leveto opened Handyman Supply in what today is known as the Pine Tree Plaza, adjacent to a Stambaugh-Thompson store, then the go-to name in local hardware stores.
“My father’s intuition was that everybody is always going to need things to fix their homes,” Toma Leveto recalls, and believed there was space in the market for another hardware store.
Handyman Supply ended up outlasting Stambaugh-Thompson, which went out of business in the late 1990s. It now occupies the McKinley Heights space of its onetime competitor. Today it faces competition from big-box home improvement stores only 10 or so minutes down the road.
Still, Leveto says, “It’s your neighborhood store.”
Leveto owns the McKinley Heights store and the site in Struthers that opened last year. His sister and brother-in-law separately own a third store, in Austintown. But the three stores occasionally collaborate on buying.
Handyman Supply, which four years ago resumed branding by Ace Hardware, has stayed in business by adapting to the times and the changing market. As the big-box chains began emerging locally, the store liquidated departments that “weren’t a good fit,” as Leveto puts it, although it still offers a “limited selection” of lawn equipment and power tools. Instead, the store “went after a lot of parts and pieces,” he says, which customers won’t find at the larger competitors.
“We’re very big in faucet repair. We’re into appliance parts. Our nut and bolt section and our hardware section are second to none,” Leveto says. “We have people that come from all around for that because we have such a large selection.”
The store specializes in more specific plumbing parts, as well as parts for water heaters and furnaces that are “not sitting on the shelves at Home Depot and Lowe’s,” he says.
“We sell a professional line water heater that is reasonably priced,” Leveto says – “less than the boxes,” as he refers to the chains.
In 2015, he added swimming pool products, an area that has “grown rather well for us,” he says. “Almost yearly we try to develop some new thing to put out for our business.”
“One of the main draws that made me come here is Toma’s not afraid to take a chance. And he knows that you have to change to stay competitive,” says Kevin Stredney, general manager.
Stredney joined Handyman Supply a little over a year ago, after 22 years at Lowe’s. One thing he says he likes about working here is being able to spend time helping people.
“Our good service is something that many customers comment on,” Leveto says. About half of the store’s customers request some kind of help, whether it’s advice or expertise on a project or simply finding an item.
Millennials who are becoming homeowners are split about evenly between those interested in learning how to do projects themselves and those who want to find someone who can do the work for them, Stredney says.
Several times a day, customers tell him they watched a video online but need help figuring out part of the project.
“One of the best things for the times is YouTube because you can darn near figure out how to do anything on YouTube,” Leveto says.
Roughly half of the stores’ customers are women, Stredney says. He attributes that in part to the time clerks spend answering questions and giving advice.
Where other sectors of the economy suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic, overall the home improvement industry thrived. According to a study released this summer by Porch Research, 76% of U.S. homeowners carried out at least one home improvement project during the first few months of the pandemic.
Factors contributing to that surge included stay-at-home orders and layoffs that kept people in their houses for weeks, even months, plus money from stimulus checks. Homeowners were able to take on improvement projects and patronized hardware and home-improvement stores.
There were days that sales exceeded the McKinley Heights store’s best-ever days “by quite a bit,” he says. Also, sales at the Struthers store some days surpassed the parent location.
“That’s not been every day but we’ve had lots of those days, which has been super-surprising and exciting at the same time,” Leveto says.
Handyman Supply also is benefiting from the Ace branding, which ties the store into its advertising and customer rewards program. “The order online and ship-to-store has been a very good thing for us,” Leveto says.
Another strong sales performer is propane, which the store added about 18 months ago. “You wouldn’t believe the propane we sell,” Leveto says.
One downside of the pandemic was supply issues. For example, the store lost all of its canning jar business because it could not obtain the product. Business “could have been better if we’d have gotten all our merchandise,” he says. “We did what we could with what we had.”
The latest phase in Handyman Supply’s evolution is spinning off the marine and recreational vehicle section into a separate building where it also will sell outdoor power equipment brands it took on last year. The store bought the structure formerly occupied by Mr. T’s Heart of Gold on Youngstown-Warren Road, across from Pine Tree Plaza.
Separating those segments into the second building will allow Handyman Supply to staff it with personnel with the expertise in the products.
“We’ve ripped it apart and now we’re putting her back together,” Leveto says. “Hopefully we’ll be getting it shelved and ready to do business by spring.”
Another factor Stredney credits for the store’s longevity is “a ton of community support.” Business-to-business activity probably represents 35% of sales, he notes.
The location is convenient for Andy Catanzarite, Niles water and wastewater superintendent. Catanzarite or one of his employees comes to Handyman Supply about once a week.
“They usually have everything I’m looking for,” Catanzarite says. “It’s a local store and their prices are always very competitive.”
A to Z Dependable Services, just west of Handyman Supply on Youngstown-Warren Road, is among the store’s best customers, Leveto says.
A to Z personnel come to the store 10 times each week, Christian Lowery, mentor/trainer, estimates. He also likes supporting a local retailer.
Lowery says Leveto goes out of his way to carry or order the items A to Z needs, including “specialty fittings that you would never find” at a chain store. Last week, the needed item was a B-vent gas valve. “No one carries it but them,” he says with emphasis.
Leveto is quick to say his store doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. “There’s always going to be something that [the big box stores] have that we don’t. You’re not going to build a house out of our store and that’s not what we’re going for,” he says.
Pictured: Kevin Stredney is general manager of the Niles store, which Toma Leveto owns.