First in a series on businesses named a 2019 Cedar Valley Business of the Year.
WATERLOO — Allen and Wendell Speller knew opening a store in an underdeveloped business district would be a challenge. They also believed it would be worth the effort.
In late 2016, Allen and his father, Wendell, opened Speller’s True Value at 1027 E. Fourth St.
The store is the 2019 recipient of the Courier’s Diversity in Business Award.
When the Spellers launched their venture, they sought to establish a business that would bring variety to retail services on the north side of the Cedar River.
“My dad saw a need in this neighborhood,” Allen explained. “There’s a lot that can be done. We’re trying something; we hope that might show others they can try something, too. There’s more that can be done in this part of Waterloo.”
Wendell Speller had owned TriCity Clothing for more than 30 years. Meanwhile, Allen Speller had planned to open a convenience store when he and his father bought 1027 E. Fourth St.
However, they ultimately decided to reach farther outside their respective comfort zones. Both men believed an opportunity presented itself when the Wisconsin-based Menards chain shelved plans to install a store on the city’s north end.
After researching different possibilities, the Spellers contacted True Value Co. to learn more.
In short order, True Value representatives traveled to the Cedar Valley to meet the Spellers.
“They looked at the location, ran the numbers and gave the green light; it all happened pretty fast,” Allen recalled.
The Spellers are among the local, independent owner-operators who make up the national True Value cooperative group. According to True Value, its business model differs from that of a franchise. Within its network, individual store operators own their wholesale distributor, True Value Co.
As a result, the Spellers are independent owners of their location, which remains under their sole control. This means stores aren’t required to adhere to brand guidelines and promotions, though the Spellers have found it beneficial to do so.
Advice from Mayor Quentin Hart also was essential, said Allen. He helped the Spellers by making introductions, pointing them toward building code resources and guiding them toward potential business grants for which they could apply.
“Mayor Hart helped a lot, especially just in terms of having someone in our corner,” said Allen. “It made a big difference.”
This strong support system helped the store survive some trying times during its first full year, added Allen.
In early 2017, the city began construction along East Fourth Street. The project eventually resulted closure of the street from Franklin to Sumner streets, effectively limiting traffic to the store.
In addition to East Fourth Street upgrades, portions of U.S. Highway 63 were under construction, too. This also affected the hardware store’s business.
“We had planned for our first summer to really help us get established, but it was just rough, especially with the Highway 63 construction,” Allen recalled. “We did OK, but it wasn’t what we had expected for our first year.”
Business did pick up in fall 2017 and through the end of the holiday season. Throughout 2018, better street access helped improve sales.
One sad note, however, was the shuttering of Ridgeway True Value in June.
John and Sharon Schotter had owned the south Waterloo store. The couple had quickly signed on to mentor the Spellers when they became new store owners.
“They’d been in business more than 40 years,” Allen said of the Schotters. “With competition at that location and everything, it just got to be too much for them.”
Despite the Ridgeway closure, the Schotters have remained a support system and source of encouragement for Speller’s True Value, Allen added. This will help with expansion of the garden center in the spring and other plans for the store’s future.
“We’ve been able to learn the ins and outs of this business and distribution; that continues to propel us forward,” he explained.
The Spellers hope to pay that forward by advising and encouraging other entrepreneurs, especially those interested in planting roots downtown and north of the Cedar River.
This would be a natural outgrowth of the part the broader community has played in the success of Speller’s True Value, said Allen.
“I’ve been surprised and happy to see all the people that support us,” he said. “It’s not just one demographic; it’s a wide range of customers coming in and out from all over the community. We’re grateful.”
“My dad saw a need in this neighborhood. There’s a lot that can be done. We’re trying something; we hope that might show others they can try something, too. There’s more that can be done in this part of Waterloo.”