As 17-year-old Bill Ploskina walked the dark floors of the copper factory where his father worked as a crane operator, he watched with fascination as the glowing metal rods sped along a series of rollers. Having grown up in a middleclass household in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, he was anxious to start earning money and building a life for himself. There, amongst the machinery, he imagined his future, finally able to truly earn his own way by working in the mill like his father. With his high school career coming to a close, he was faced with the decision of what to do next, and the reality of entering the workforce was so close, he could almost feel the weight of a hard day’s wages in his pocket already.
When Bill’s father heard his son might opt to head directly into the workforce instead of pursuing a college degree, he had asked Bill to accompany him to the factory. They wouldn’t be making the trip during the day, though—his father wanted to take him at night. Bill had been perplexed at first, but he was excited for the excursion nonetheless. And now, touring the factory with his father by his side, his excitement only grew—until they came to a pit.
As the large copper rods came flying off a set of rollers into the pit, they were caught by a man. He swung them around his body and landed them on another set of rollers, one by one, in continuous mechanical rhythm. As Bill squinted at the figure, he recognized the face of his Uncle Pete. “This is where you’ll be if you don’t go to college,” his father said softly.
It was as if, for a moment, Bill himself was one of those glowing copper rods, and his father was the man in the pit, working diligently to swing him from one trajectory to an entirely new one. The scope of his horizon magnified exponentially as his sights went from short-term to long-term success. Now, after pursuing higher education and spending several key years at General Electric (GE), Bill is the owner and President of Bill’s Hardware and Home Center, voted the best hardware store in Arlington by Arlington Magazine time and again. “I’ve spent a lifetime pursuing a sense of true accomplishment,” he affirms today. “And I’ve come to find that it comes from seeing the world differently. It’s about seeing the opportunities around you, and then taking action.”
Bill bought the hardware store in March of 1979—a 3,800-square-foot building with four studio apartments on the second floor. The owner, Mr. Reed, had been trying to sell for years, but hadn’t been able to find anyone who met his rigid qualifications. The buyer had to be a nonsmoker, and had to have a mechanical background. Much to his relief, Bill—a former GE employee who stayed away from cigarettes—was an ideal candidate. Mr. Reed also had an instant connection with Bill’s father, who was excited about coming down to help his son with the business. Tragically, on the very day Bill signed the contract to rent the property and assume leadership of the store, his father passed away from a heart attack. Though he never got the chance to see his son’s full-fledged entrepreneurial skills in action, he had nurtured them throughout Bill’s life, and his legacy echoes in the footsteps of each satisfied customer that leaves the store.
Mr. Reed generously financed Bill’s transition into ownership of the business and property, and Bill was committed to doing things right. He interviewed several product distribution centers to make sure he was getting the best merchandise, opting to stay with True Value. He visited all the hardware stores in the region to see what he could do differently, deciding that service would be the key to setting his business apart. Thanks to his team’s mastery of customer service, the store did exceptionally well, to the point that he was able to rent out the Five and Dime store across the street to expand the business. Five years later, he bought the property, bringing his total square footage to 10,000.
In the 35 years since he took over the hardware store, its annual revenues went from $350,000 to $1.8 million, and though growth has been limited in the years since the Great Recession, the company exceeds every industry marker of success. An average store purchase is around $25 per customer, and the store’s success rests on the personal experience of each person who walks through the doors. “There have been highs and lows through the years,” Bill says, noting a recent incident where the local residents barred the development of a Home Depot in the area because the increased traffic flow would tear up the streets of the community. “But our enduring focus is helping every single customer find something helpful, whether it’s one of our products, or the address of another store that has what they’re looking for. I believe the phrase ‘How may I help you?’ is more powerful than ‘May I help you?’ For us it’s not a question of if we can provide service, but how best to serve. That’s the heart of our culture.”
This spirit of service is genuinely homespun, sprung from his days as a young boy helping his father sell bacon and eggs door-to-door. He was ten when his father taught him how to candle an egg, holding it up to the light to check for blood spots that devalued the product. “We’d arrive at the farmer’s door at 4:00 AM to pick up the eggs,” Bill recalls. “Then we’d go to the slaughterhouse, where my father would get a side of pork to sell.”
Bill’s grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Yugoslavia. He bought a farm in Liberty Borough, Pennsylvania, had eleven children, and became the night watchman at a candy factory when he could no longer perform the backbreaking work of a farmer. He would rotate between different areas of the factory according to a pocket watch, which was passed down to Bill’s father, and then to Bill. “I remember going up to the farm for celebrations with the family, and there’d be tons of candy,” Bill says. “He spoke only broken English, but we understood each other just fine.”
As a young child, Bill struggled in math—a tide that would turn dramatically when his parents moved to a new home in a new school district just before his fifth grade year. When he started school and was given his math textbook for the year, he noticed that he had somehow gotten a book with all the answers printed in the back. While many boys that age might have used the answers for cheating, Bill instead used them to check his work, allowing him to reason through problems and find his way to the correct solution. Once he had the tools to gauge his logic, he was able to guide his own path toward success, excelling in math from that day forward.
Bill was twelve when his father tried to pursue entrepreneurship in earnest, building a dance hall where people could enjoy a band and the open air. The venture went well, until neighbors began to complain about the new traffic on the dirt road leading up to the venue. Influential figures who had pledged their consent later retracted their support, so the venture had to shut down. Still, the two performed handyman services around town—a pastime Bill had helped with since he was a small boy. “My dad was simply not willing to give up,” he remembers. “If he ran into a roadblock, he figured out a way around it. I learned perseverance, resourcefulness, and dedication from him.” Thanks to his father’s strong influence, Bill was comfortable in hardware stores from an early age, picking up valuable skills whose worth would magnify later in life when he took over his own store.
As Bill got older, his father purchased a home, which he converted into multi-dwelling units. Along with a partial scholarship, the money from the venture helped to fund Bill’s college education at Penn State University. The institution had a branch campus across the street from his high school, so he lived at home the first two years to save money, using an old Hudson Hornet gifted to him by his father to get to campus. After earning strong grades in aerospace engineering, he received job offers from GE, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas upon graduating. “They offered comparable salaries around $9,000, which was a lot of money back in 1968, but I felt like I couldn’t sit behind a desk all day looking at drafting paper,” he recalls. “I wanted to be working in a factory, using my hands to make things. GE offered that opportunity in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as part of its Manufacturing Management Program, so I chose that.”
The program was divided into six experiences over three years, each lasting six months, so participants could evaluate their interests. Bill had the opportunity to work in quality control, manufacturing, and purchasing, as well as maintenance. He got to try out an engineering department, and he spent time working on the floor. His big break, however, came when the company needed to send someone to Singapore to recreate an Allentown manufacturing facility overseas. “I was single and extremely low-maintenance compared to the more senior candidates, who would have expected chauffeurs and larger homes for their families,” Bill laughs. “I was there for two separate six-month assignments, and I loved that contact with another part of the world. I remember it now when I look at the cedar storage chest I brought home for my mother, which was passed back to me when she died. The deep carvings of battle scenes and gardens are reminiscent of the culture and life I discovered there.”
Bill spent five years with GE, deciding to try something else after being passed over for a promotion because the company decided to hire externally instead. With that, he began looking for jobs in New York City, where he was dating the woman that would become his wife. An opportunity came up with Rockwell International, where he joined a team of four internal consultants within the company’s Meter and Valve Division. If a problem arose at a particular factory that couldn’t be handled by the individuals on-site, his team was brought in to solve the issue. After three years in that capacity, he was offered a position as the assistant manufacturing manager in one of the factories he had assisted. He enjoyed the work until he set his sights on new horizons, eventually moving to Chicago Heights, Illinois, to serve as the manager of quality control for GE once again. “At that point, I was making more money than if I had stayed with GE from the beginning,” he remarks.
The money was good, but the stress of the position began to get to Bill after a year on the job. As the first child in the family to go to college, he put significant pressure on himself to live up to his own expectations, but the job didn’t feel like a fit. “After ten years of climbing the corporate ladder in the engineering business, I realized I had to get out,” he says. “I was working six days a week but never feeling truly accomplished and appreciated. I wanted to be my own boss, and I was drawn to the idea of helping homeowners solve the problems that arise. Because of the work I had done with my father as a kid, it felt natural.”
Many entrepreneurs find running a business to be a 24/7, 100-percent commitment of time and self, but Bill found himself relaxed and into the rhythm and responsibilities of being self-employed and leading a team. This was particularly crucial when, at age 40, divorce dealt a devastating blow that almost knocked him out for the count. Thankfully, with community support, thoughts of his three sons, and the fulfillment of his commitment to the store’s customers and employees, Bill pulled through the hardest time in his life to achieve new independence and focus in life.
Now, as a business owner, Bill leads by the power of listening. As a low-key, even-keel manager, he minimizes worry and focuses on turning problems into opportunities. “I really hear my employees,” he explains. “I let them talk. Everyone wants to be listened to. Even the customer coming through the door has a story to tell, and a need. It’s our job to listen and solve.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Bill lays out a path to success that starts with the identification of a person’s passion. “Don’t go looking for the big buck off the bat, or you’ll get eaten alive,” he says. “Find something you love, and then see if you can become an intern to get a foot in the door. Get experience under your belt, and get your mistakes out of the way while you’re young. It’s really tough for kids right now, but don’t get negative. The opportunities are there—you just have to learn to see them. I’m where I am today because I’m one of the lucky ones. I saw opportunities and made the decision to move forward, basing my measure of true accomplishment not on the amount of money I could make, but on the service I could provide to my community, face-to-face, everyday.”