Up Close: Armando Giannetti on how Ottawa’s family-owned Preston Hardware has got it nailed

Armando Giannetti Preston Hardware
Armando Giannetti, director of operations at Preston Hardware, an Ottawa-based hardware store operating in Little Italy since 1945. Photo by Caroline Phillips

For nearly 80 years, Preston Hardware has been the tool shed that has built Ottawa. Located in the heart of Little Italy, the 95,000-square-foot retail store is the go-to place for tradespeople and serious do-it-your-selfers looking for top-notch customer service and professional-grade tools and equipment.

The business not only stands out, it stands the test of time. In an era when hardware stores are increasingly of the big-box variety, Preston Hardware remains Canada’s largest independent hardware store, employing between 150 and 160 people. 

The Ottawa landmark first opened its doors in 1945 on the busy main street after which it’s named. This Dec. 1, half a century will have passed since two brothers, Mario and the late Sandro “Sam” Giannetti, together with their brother-in-law, Mario Frangione, bought the store from its previous owners. The men, born in towns outside of the Italian capital of Rome, came to Canada as children and were raised on the residential street of Primrose Avenue less than a kilometre from Preston Hardware.

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The young entrepreneurs invested themselves wholeheartedly in their new business, working 16-hour days. Meanwhile, their respective wives, all school teachers, played a foundational role by keeping the households running smoothly and by raising the children, of which there are 11 in total.

Today, the vast majority of those kids — now grown up with families of their own — run Preston Hardware. There are nine owners from the second generation, including Armando Giannetti, 47, director of operations.

Instead of working strictly in the store, like his dad and uncles, the focus of the current ownership group, said Giannetti, is more on the business and on developing innovative approaches to keep Preston Hardware moving forward. 

That has meant expanding the store’s products and services into new markets, said Giannetti of the collection of Window Coverings by Preston Hardware, Irpinia Kitchens and XO Stone Surfaces, and plumbing showroom.

About 70 per cent of Preston Hardware’s customers are tradespeople and contractors. Because the enterprise is family-owned and operated and not part of a larger corporation, it’s able to adapt and be nimble in the face of rapid market changes, including subdued housing demand, he said.

Preston Hardware has also distinguished itself as a hardware store that does its best to get its customers the items they need. “Our philosophy in the past was ‘stack it high and watch it fly,’” said Giannetti, recognizing that disruptions in supply chains during recent years have created challenges for Canadian retailers. “Today, it’s tougher to have that much stock all the time, but we continue to work with our vendors. We are thankful to have such amazing vendors to work with.”

Preston Hardware also places importance on its reputation for selling unique and higher-quality products, whether they’re power tools, finishing hardware or plumbing fixtures. “We’re not a ‘me-too’ hardware store,” he said of companies that try to replicate the merchandise of their competitors. 

At the heart of Preston Hardware is a passion for family that translates into exceptional customer service, said Giannetti. “We’re relationship-driven, and that was taught to us by our parents.”

Even the store’s layout was redesigned during its most recent expansion to create a more friendly environment, with clear sightlines and increased visibility to reduce that feeling of being lost in the aisles, he said.

Being part of a tight-knit family business creates strong loyalty, Giannetti said of working closely with his siblings and cousins. “I think it’s amazing because they have my back and I have their back, unconditionally. Within the family dynamic, there’s a high trust level.

“But, it can also be difficult and hard; I’m not going to lie,” he said of the need to establish core values and a shared vision for operations to run smoothly. “You have to listen to each other, you have to be fair with each other. 

“It doesn’t take one person to run this business. It takes all of us.”

Neither Giannetti nor his three siblings were ever told to join the family business. “There was no expectation, no pressure,” said Giannetti, who worked at the hardware store on a part-time basis while playing sports and attending Sir Robert Borden High School in Nepean. “My parents would tell us, ‘You’re going to have your whole life to work.’

“I think they knew I wanted to eventually join the store, but they also knew what was coming down the pipes,” said Giannetti of the long hours and hard work required. His father, Mario, started working at Preston Hardware in high school and was manager by the time he and the others bought the store. “They told us to get an education. We all had to get an education.”

And so he did. Giannetti went to Carleton University, earned a degree, and then immediately became a full-time employee at Preston Hardware. “All of us started, as we like to say, ‘in the basement’ sweeping floors and that sort of thing, and worked our way up. We were not put in managerial positions.” 

Giannetti still remembers an important business lesson taught to him by his bosses in his early years. One day, he got up the nerve to ask his dad and uncles to replace his hourly wage with a salary, making arguments as to why he deserved it. 

“I told them, ‘I want to be paid a salary just like everyone else; I deserve to be paid a salary,’” said Giannetti. “They looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re ready for it?’ They gave me the whole song and dance of, ‘Are you ready for a long-time commitment?” and all that stuff. I said ‘Yup.’

“I remember walking out of the office and thinking, ‘That was easy.’ I couldn’t believe it.  Little did I know they were laughing behind the scenes.

“Fast forward a month, two months, three months after that, and I noticed my pay was less than what I had earned before. They were trying to make me understand: just because you’re making a salary and just because you want to be a manager or owner of this place in the future, doesn’t mean you’re going to be making more money. I learned quickly that, as a manager, there is a lot of time and hours that are needed to get the job done. You are always on the clock.

“I wish I would have stayed hourly.”

While Giannetti’s dad and remaining uncle are no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the store, they continue to visit and offer their guidance and wisdom.

Meanwhile, the business they spent decades growing and nurturing continues to thrive as one of Ottawa’s great retail success stories.

Giannetti remains proud of the deep roots Preston Hardware has in the community. His father was one of the founders of the Villa Marconi Long-Term Care Centre, while his Uncle Mario’s long-time volunteer fundraising work to support kidney research and kidney patient services was recognized with a medal from the governor general in 2020. 

Preston Hardware believes strongly in giving back to a community that has been integral to its success, said Giannetti. “We can’t prosper if our city doesn’t prosper.”

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