BUILDING ON A TRADITION Ex-Albert Gunther employees start their own store

The idea started as coffee-room grousing inside a dying company. As the old Albert Gunther & Co. ground toward dissolution last year, the seeds were sown for the company that would try to pick up where the 85-year-old hardware supplier left off.

Recession or no -- and in the construction business, the recession is still on, in earnest -- the crop came to harvest this week, as a group of one-time Gunther employees and partners opened Atlantic Builder's Supply at 2210 N. Howard St.


"It was talked about every day for six months before [Gunther] closed," Atlantic Vice President Jim Forner said. "We always knew it was going to be done. We just didn't know it was going to be us."

"The investors who were partners in Gunther are carrying it on," Atlantic President Fernando Canepa said.


For now, Atlantic is a far cry from what Gunther's was at the top of the 1980s building boom. Gunther's had 85 employees when it filed for bankruptcy court protection in May 1991. Atlantic is beginning life with five full-timers, two part-timers (all of them former Gunther workers) and its breath firmly held.

"We're prepared for three years" of tough times, Mr. Canepa said. "We have a plan for three years. We hope in that time things will stabilize."

The broadest way to describe Atlantic is as a hardware store, but if that brings to mind either the neighborhood home-repair shop or the Hechinger out by the supermarket, that image is wrong.

It's aimed at the construction trade, offering mostly professional-quality tools and high-end doorknobs, locks, and other industry nuts and bolts (literally and figuratively) designed either to meet the standards of expensive custom homes or to hold up to the wear and tear of heavily trafficked commercial buildings.

"If we're looking for an identity, it's not going to be Home Depot or Hechinger's. That's not the crowd we're going to cater to," Mr. Forner said.

Instead, they want to deal with builders, as their store's name implies. "They have a hard time waiting in line with John Q. Public, and they were used to personal service," Mr. Forner said.

That's what Gunther was designed to do, too. But Atlantic hopes to avoid Gunther's unhappy fate in part by avoiding what the leaders of the new company see as Gunther's mistakes and by looking for new niches to compensate for the slow pace of commercial construction.

Initially, the company is going to stay out of the business of supplying large quantities of hardware for major projects. Even though that generated most of Gunther's revenue, price competition caused by the recession is killing profit margins.


It's going to focus on institutional customers like hospitals, government agencies and universities and more on getting business from renovations and maintenance than new construction.

Most of all, they are going to avoid what they see as Gunther's critical mistake: moving from Maryland Avenue downtown to suburban Timonium.

"It was a fish out of water. Most of the business came from the city," said Mr. Forner. "It was illogical of them to think customers would take the time" to go to Timonium for hardware, he said.

The determination to stay in the city is a major reason why Atlantic took 10 months to get off the ground. It took much of that time to find a downtown location that had on-site parking, the executives said.

But after they rejected 47 other locations, the store finally is open. And while the leaders of the new business know they're taking a big chance opening a construction-dependent business when commercial building is in the doldrums, they firmly reject any suggestion that they must be crazy.

"I don't think we're crazy at all," Mr. Forner said. "It's going to take time for people to believe we can survive the first year, let alone perform like Gunther's. . . . We have a lot to prove, but we wouldn't be here if we didn't believe in it."