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If I had a hammer

The School of Hospitality Management at Auburn University resides in the new Rane Culinary Science Center.  It is a world-class facility that can teach students about everything from brewing craft beers, distilling spirits and appreciating fine wines to learning how to operate and manage restaurants and hotels.  

The 1856 Restaurant is an upscale teaching restaurant that allows students to fine tune their skills in both the front and back of the house.  A fixed tasting menu in the evening educates both the students and the restaurant clientele about all aspects of fine dining.

The Laurel Hotel occupies the top two floors of the school and allows students to learn the finer points of operating a five-star hotel.  Together with the adjacent Auburn University Hotel, The Laurel provides some of the finest accommodations in Alabama.

Mary Lou and I had the opportunity on Monday afternoon to attend the ceremony honoring Horst Schulze with the official naming of the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management.  Schulze was a co-founder of the Ritz-Carlton Company and founder of the Capella Hotel Group.  He has been affiliated with the Auburn University College of Human Sciences and the School of Hospitality Management for over 30 years.

Known as one of the leading hoteliers in the world, Schulze is recognized around the world for his commitment to excellence.  He serves on numerous boards and has consulted with many companies across a variety of industries.  He is also a dynamic speaker and writer.

In his remarks, Schulze discussed how many companies strive to provide a product or service that leaves the customer satisfied.  Schulze believes that is a fundamental flaw in the business world.   There are any number of hotels and restaurants that provide great food and service but are no better than the competitor down the street.   

He thinks that the secret to long term success at the top of the ladder in any business is loyalty.  How do you provide an experience that builds such loyalty with the customer that they keep coming back over and over again?

Mr. Schulze gave a simple example of buying a hammer.   You walk into a hardware store and pay for a hammer.   Though satisfied with your purchase there is no overwhelming reason to go to the same store the next time.   A competitor’s ad in the newspaper stating that their hammers are on sale for $1 off may cause many to drive miles out of their way.  That hardware store has no loyalty, though it may have provided a satisfactory experience.

I immediately thought of Ace Hardware, located on University Drive, in Auburn.  When I first moved to Auburn, I anticipated how great it would be to live in a city that had both a Lowe’s and a Home Depot.  Then one day, I walked into the local Ace Hardware and was immediately met by a line of young employees eager to know if they could help me.

I went back a day later and received the same treatment.   If someone did not meet you at the front door, they would stop you in an aisle and ask if they could help.   The store seemed to always have whatever I needed, no matter how obscure the product.   Without fail, I got the same customer service whether I was buying a $300 gas blower or a 25-cent screw.  

Along the way, I met Rex Ponder, the manager of the garden shop at Ace.  We are very distant kin, but that doesn’t matter.  Rex is a friend to anyone and everyone that ever enters the doors of that business.   He constantly calls his customers, “my friend”, and you somehow seem to believe that he means it. 

In the three plus years we have lived in Auburn, the number one question we have been asked, bar none, is “Are you related to Rex Ponder?”.  Actually, I am, and my wife, who was a Ponder before we were married, is even more closely related.  However, those familial lines go back many generations before they intersect.

Rex and the entire team at Ace Hardware are amazing to watch.  They understand what Horst Schulze was talking about and fit his illustration of the hammer perfectly.  They have cultivated loyalty instead of satisfaction.  They have given their customers a reason to come back over and over, because they have chosen to be excellent in their field.  They WANT to be excellent.

You might find it odd to compare a world class culinary destination to a local hardware store.  However, Schultze gets it.  So does Rex Ponder.  They both understand what it takes to achieve excellence.  It is a culture and a constant work in progress.  It evolves with the times and requires a complete understanding not only of your product line, but of your customer.

If I have a grandchild that decides to follow me into the hospitality business, I know where I would want them to go to learn to be passionate about excellence.  The Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management is one of the best in the world and will only get better.

By the same token, if I need another hammer, I know where I will go to purchase one regardless of the price.   I have a fierce loyalty to Auburn’s Ace Hardware because of their own culture of excellence.  In fact, as Horst Schulze knows so well, it is not about the hammer at all.


Dan Ponder can be reached at

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