BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fifty years and five communities later, Kempker’s True Value and Rental Inc., is still helping fix Fort Madison.
The company started in the early part of February in 1970 by Bob and Barb Kempker at 725 Avenue G, has sustained as a not-so-prototypical neighborhood hardware store even as the country’s big boxes have changed the landscape of Main Street America.
A strong belief in customer and community service has made the Kempker family brand a storied retail operation in Fort Madison.
“Being a family business, being customer oriented is the top priority. If you take that away your just another number.” said Chuck Kempker, who owns and operates the Fort Madison location along with his wife Dawn.
From the early beginnings downtown, the family and business outgrew the 3,000 square foot location they purchase from Stibbens Hardware in 1969 in about a decade. In 1979 they moved operations to 1904 Avenue H, next to Greenwald’s grocery store and into a much larger 7,500 square foot space.
In about another 10 years they would purchase the grocery store and add that space to the create the current location in 1990 adding another 9,000 square feet.
While all that was going on, Bob added the franchise tag True Value in 1982, to the Kempker name. In 1994, rentals became part of the business model, with the unique name “Just Ask Rental.” The Radio Shack franchise was then added in 1998 and a floral and gift department was was added in 2000.
That department is now called, “The Girls Side at Kempker’s True Value & Rental, when Dawn renamed it in 2019, and it was moved into it’s own building on the property.
But the business started out very much as the family affair with all of the Kempker children, Sherry, Debbie, Sandy, Chuck, and Peggy, growing up working in the store doing odd jobs.
Now Chuck and Dawn, now own and operate the 16,500 square foot “store within a store”, and have since 2003 when it was passed to them.
Kempker said back when the big boxes boomed it was a challenge. He said staying focused on customer service won the war, but he took hits during the battle.
“Sooner or later I knew that would come back,” he said. “It was probably about a year pushing forward but the repercussions were felt. I told my boys the other day that that was one of the biggest challenges I had when I first got in.”
But with the family building a strong team of employees focused on top-shelf customer service and expanding into rentals, plumbing, paint and electronics and core hardware has uniquely positioned the brand to move into the next 25 years.
“When you start growing and having different locations, you can’t find yourself out on the floor all of the time. Our staff in all locations helps me to concentrate on another section of the business,” he said.
“We have employees that have been here for decades and these employees are like our family. They enjoy coming to work and they are part of the success. They are the core of the store.”
Kempker said smaller footprints with more store-to-door services such as online ordering, deliveries, and pick-ups, could be the path of the future. But he having frontage where people can come in and get what they need, when they need it is not going away.
“There are things that you just can’t do online. Say you wake up and find a water line broken,” he said. “Online isn’t going away, but there is still that piece where you have to have the frontage to walk in and grab and go.”
As the decades rolled on, the couple and their sons, Dustin and Jason launched expansions into Mt. Pleasant, Burlington, Grimes, and Huxley starting in 2011, with the final acquisition of Huxley in 2017.
Jason and his wife, Kimberly, oversee the Grimes operation, while Dustin and his wife Sarah, oversee the Burlington location. Both of those families own and operate the Huxley store.
Kempker said the main celebrations of the 50th anniversary will take place in the fall.
“We were gonna have something in May, but COVID hit and I wanted to hae the whole family here. So Oct. 2 and 3 we’re gonna have a celebration. It should have been way earlier but it’s still 2020.”
“We’re gonna have a big sale with a percentage off so people should be watching for those flyers very soon. That Friday morning will do some media event with some dignitaries and then roll into the two-day event.”
The next 25 years is full of pride for Chuck and Dawn.
“It’s interesting because, again, its pretty nice that the boys are enjoying it. They want to grow and have other locations. As we talk, do I have an exit plan?… it’s a family business,” he said with a laugh.