Michelle Saevke, chief marketing officer and owner of Standard 5&10, tells her small-business story of triumph and resilience.
Michelle Saevke, chief marketing officer and owner of Standard 5&10
According to the American Cancer Society, the average risk of a woman in the U.S. developing breast cancer in her lifetime is about 13%, and it’s the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women. Currently, there are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
Among them is Michelle Saevke Leopold, chief marketing officer and owner of Standard 5&10 Ace, located in San Francisco, California. This classic variety store sells a little of everything and is one of six hardware stores that she owns within the Bay Area. As a small-business owner and mother, breast cancer is just one of the hardships Leopold has worked to overcome.
In June 2019, Leopold learned that she had two small, slow-growing tumors. She underwent surgery and, after healing, was supposed to start radiation. At the time, she was not only running her stores but was also an activist with Moms Demand Action, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence. Despite the diagnosis, she attended the national conference in Washington, D.C. and marched at the White House.
After Leopold returned, her oncologist called with more bad news. Testing revealed that she carries the MTHFR gene, which is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Leopold started chemotherapy, a brutal treatment. “It feels like getting hit by a Mack truck while hungover and having the flu,” she says. “After the second round, add stepping on Legos to that feeling.”
As Leopold was battling breast cancer, her 18-year-old son, Trevor, died of fentanyl poisoning. “It was darkness upon darkness,” says Leopold. “I was trying to stay alive, to keep going.”
Then coronavirus hit. “Hardware stores were deemed essential from day one,” says Leopold. “I couldn’t leave. I was immune-compromised, but I needed to keep the employees safe and the stores open. It was nonstop pivoting.”
Chemotherapy, grief for her son and the pandemic were taking a toll. “I was so wiped out, but I survived by not thinking, just reacting,” says Leopold. “I couldn’t personally change any of it, but I could change my attitude.”
She summoned the energy to continue her activism and became involved in fentanyl awareness groups for parents. “I got a tattoo that says One Tough Mother,” says Leopold, “It’s all about being a mom. I’ve survived a lot. “
Through it all, Leopold is appreciative of her friends and family. She has been able to keep her stores open and her employees working. Financial tools, such as credit cards, have also helped.
Can you talk about your history as a business owner?
My husband and his dad owned a variety store when we married in 1995. We opened another in the mid-1990s, and I did the marketing. That location closed in 2002, but we bought more Ace stores, including a 96-year-old hardware store in Oakland in 2017. Ace Hardware is a co-op, not a franchise, so we are full, local owners.
The Standard 5&10 is a classic variety store, like the old Woolworth’s. It originally opened in 1939, when you could get everything you needed in one place with great service. 82 years later, we still deliver that. Kids grew up here, and when they became parents, they brought their own children. Some of our team members have been with us for over 20 years.
Times have changed, though. The hospital across the street closed, and that affected sales. So did online ordering. We’ve had to figure out how to capture that business, but we implore people to shop local. You have to see what we have here. From barbecues to stationery, we have it. We even carry pantyhose for those who still wear them!
Did you ever have to face a huge but unexpected cost?
Yes, when we wanted to add our annex, called Stan’s Kitchen, to our existing space. To comply with the laws, we would have had to install metal fire doors at the new entrances and sprinkler systems, an expense over $100,000. There was no way we could’ve afforded that, so we did the next best thing and opened it just next door. It worked out.
A very large cost for us is health insurance for our full-time employees. We cover 70% of their insurance. As an independent store, we are not required to do this, but it’s important to us. You never know what’s around the corner – I’m a perfect example of that. We want to make sure they get the check-ups they need and deserve. We care about them. Long-term employees benefit everybody. But these insurance costs are rising 20% each year, so it’s hard for us.
And you use credit cards for the business?
We try to put everything on them. In fact, we are using the cards more and more these days. It’s easy to see, dispute, and track charges this way. We pay the bills in full every month, and similarly, we pay invoices in full and on time.
What are you doing with the rewards?
Typically we would use the points for travel. There was a time when Beanie Babies were hot and we charged so many to stock the store. Because we used the credit cards to buy them all, we earned enough rewards for a trip for two to Europe. We called it our Beanie Baby trip. Because of the coronavirus, we’ve let the points accumulate and they’ve just racked up. I should think about other uses for them.
How involved are you in the financial aspects of running the business?
We have a bookkeeper/accountant, but my husband is the main money person. He keeps track of what is over or under budget. I’m good at spending money to make money. I’m in marketing after all.
What about building and keeping good credit? Is it important to you?
Very much so. Without it, we couldn’t have purchased the buildings that we have for our stores. Owning property is better than renting because you don’t have to pay the landlord. There is no worry about raised rent or an expired lease.
We like to think we know what we’re doing with credit. My husband started in business in 1988, so he has it down. Good credit keeps your options open. You never know what will happen or change. We were lucky that we got to stay open during Covid, but a lot of our friends closed their businesses.
Is there anything you learned about using credit cards or borrowing money that you want to share?
Good credit takes time to build, but it’s worth the effort. With it, we were able to get great loans for the property we bought. But it’s also a good idea to develop relationships with lenders. You will want the ability to turn to them when you need cash for the things you need for your business.
Any other advice to entrepreneurs, especially those who are dealing with breast cancer along with other serious struggles?
For a long time, I’ve been practicing gratitude. Daily meditation is part of my morning practice, and it keeps me grounded. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was so grateful they caught it while it was in stage one and that I was in Marin with a fantastic team of doctors. The day my son died was the worst day of my life. I found gratitude that we were surrounded by love.
In business, show that you’re grateful. Fundraise and donate. In 2019 and 2020 for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, my employees wore Ace Hardware pink breast cancer shirts and caps, and with the Round-Up-Your-Change campaign, we raised a total of $12,660 for two local nonprofits: Zero Breast Cancer and the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. And we’re doing it again throughout 2021.
So share, give back, pay it forward – not just to your customers but your employees. That’s how a small business owner should live.