A fixture in Portland since the late 19th century, Chown looks to a bright future.
On September 15, 2019, Chown Hardware (333 NW 16th Ave, 503-243-6500), a company that predates any other family business in the neighborhood—and possibly the entire Pacific Northwest—celebrates the 140th anniversary of its founding.
This is a remarkable achievement, considering that the majority of businesses in the United States cease to exist in four years or less, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study. Beating those harsh odds, the Chown family has been running the business since 1879, and milestones in the company are measured as much by generation as by fiscal quarter. Of the company’s 95 employees, 9 are members of the Chown family, with the fourth generation nearing retirement and the fifth generation now at the helm.
Part of the fourth generation, Fred Chown, the company’s chairman, started working in the business when he was about 10 years old, in 1960. “At that time, we were a traditional hardware store—hand tools and power tools, and nuts and bolts. I’d do inventory in the screw and bolt aisle, and once I got to the end, I’d start all over again.” He and his brother David, vice president and CFO, also helped their mother, Eleanor, with purchase orders and forms, which were copied on a large mimeograph machine kept in the family home’s basement. “We’d help her collate and staple them for a penny a piece,” recalls David.
“It was a lot of old brick warehouses and rail cars and semi-trucks. It was very different. No one called it The Pearl, and no one lived in it.”
So much has changed in the roughly half-century since then, as Chown Hardware has evolved and changed with its clientele, and its neighborhood, which until relatively recently, didn’t exist at all as it does today.
“It was a lot of old brick warehouses and rail cars and semi-trucks,” recalls David. “It was very different. No one called it The Pearl, and no one lived in it.” In such an industrial neighborhood, a store with traditional hardware offerings could thrive. During the recession of the early 1980s, the Chowns decided to sell the warehouse where they’d housed their Pella window distributorship to a developer named Al Solheim. That project became Chown Pella Lofts, the vanguard of industrial-to-residential conversions that ultimately transformed the neighborhood into what it is today.
The Chowns also made two critical changes to their business strategy. In the 1970s, Eleanor Chown opened her beautiful showrooms, stocked with gleaming decorative hardware, antiques, and gifts. At one point there were five showrooms in the Portland area, and this development began to nudge the company in a different direction. In the 1990s, her other son, Steve, made a dramatic change: he sold the tool portion of their business, which got the Chowns out of what could have been ruinous competition with larger, national competitors. “We were able to sell all of our tool inventory for $300,000, which we then reinvested in our decorative hardware and plumbing business,” recalls Fred.
“The only constant in our business from the time we opened is door hardware.”
The business shifted its focus from commercial clients to residential customers, a move that perfectly mirrored the trends still true of the Pearl. “They’re throwing up condos faster than I can count,” notes Fred, “and that’s good for our business, since they all have kitchens and bathrooms in there.”
“The only constant in our business from the time we opened is door hardware,” remarks David. That includes doorknobs and keys, as well as security systems and access control.
Today Chown offers affordable to high-end luxury residential hardware products that you won’t find online. “One thing we tried to do with a more conscious mind in the past few years is encourage people not to fly to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York to get luxury products for their homes—we wanted to create that environment here in the Pearl,” says Kyle Chown, president, and a part of the fifth generation. They’re the exclusive location for Waterworks kitchen and bath products, for which Chown earned the nationwide boutique partner of the year award in 2018.
But they’re also able to pivot successfully into new territory. Last year, the company opened an event space—The Eleanor, named for the family matriarch—with a dramatic vaulted ceiling. The space hosts lunches, wedding receptions, and many corporate events, says Nathanael Chown, marketing manager. “It’s turned into a great cross-promotional asset,” he says, noting they’ve been able to attract architecture and design industry events, including some during Design Week Portland.
“I would challenge others to find another business that truly invests more time and more money into the attention and care of our customers and our employees as we do.”
Looking ahead, the Chown’s plan to celebrate the company’s 140th in style, with a block party on Friday afternoon and evening, September 13, to thank the neighborhood and its many loyal customers for their unwavering support. Thinking about the bigger picture, Fred sums it up like this: “here we are, going from the fourth to the fifth generation, with the sixth generation already born—there’s a responsibility to pass the business down and not screw it up.” Kyle, the current president, adds, “if there’s one differentiating factor between Chown and other businesses, I would challenge others to find another business that truly invests more time and more money into the attention and care of our customers and our employees as we do.” Speaking for the fifth generation of Chowns, he says, “We recognize that if we deviate from that script, we’re in trouble.”
And while Chown is in the process of adding a third retail location in Seattle, having opened its Bellevue store in 2001, there’s no plan to ever relocate their headquarters from the Pearl. The location couldn’t be more ideal, says David, noting that it’s in the luxury-minded Pearl District but also offers easy access to Interstate 405, making the choreography of delivery trucks much easier than it would be anywhere else in the neighborhood. “I don’t know how you duplicate being between Everett and Glisan right on the 405,” he concludes. “We’re going to be in the Pearl District.” Maybe, he jokes, they’ll eventually rename it the Chown District.
– Alison Stein | Photos by Ashley Anderson