This is the story of how two leaders from two different companies met at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit in 2016. The two formed a long-lasting business relationship that ultimately led to one company acquiring a majority stake in the other.

(Yes, this may sound self-serving as a means to promote our Summit. And it is. But it’s also a great story of how networking with the right people — and being in the right place at the right time — can make magic happen.)

The companies I’m talking about are Ace Hardware and The Grommet, a product discovery e-commerce website with more than 3.5 million community members that market and sell innovative products created by independent entrepreneurs, also known as “makers.”

A Match Made in Retail Heaven

Ace Hardware and The Grommet first began working together in 2016 after Karin Schlueter, channel manager at Ace Hardware, heard Jules Pieri, co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, speak on a panel at that year’s Summit called “Startups: The Sequel.” During the panel, entrepreneurs discussed their companies and how they were handling scaling their businesses.

“That was the first time I had ever heard of The Grommet, and while this may sound crazy, I suddenly felt like everything else in the room became silent and it was as if Jules was talking directly to me,” Schlueter recalls. “I got so excited because the more she talked the more I realized  that the strengths of The Grommet were the precise areas of opportunity that Ace was having a tough time cracking.”

Indeed, that included e-commerce know-how and a focus on new product launches from independent entrepreneurs that could give Ace’s brick-and-mortar stores something unique to differentiate itself against giants such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and

After the panel, Schlueter and Pieri connected, and Schlueter learned that Pieri also had aspirations to meet with representatives from Ace Hardware at the event.

“I knew there were a lot of products in Ace Hardware stores that would have worked well on the Grommet site, so I had my eyes on them for a while,” notes Pieri.

Pieri also recognized that The Grommet’s sweet spot of sourcing unique, locally relevant products aligned nicely with what Ace Hardware is known for.

“We’re nimble in a way a larger company can’t be around sourcing innovative, unique products that are locally relevant,” Pieri says. “Also, our digital platform enables us to test, validate and create awareness about unique products [efficiently].”

Pieri also believed that Ace could be helpful to The Grommet, most notably because “Ace is an industry-leading expert at in-store operations, and a master at supply chain and distribution.”

These were areas where The Grommet, a relatively small company with no physical stores, was challenged.

The Story Continues … and a Partnership Begins

After Schlueter and Pieri met at the Summit in April 2016, a partnership quickly formed. Then, between August and October 2016, the companies launched a pilot program where they placed free-standing Grommet “Innovation Destination” displays in 250 Ace Hardware stores across the country. Products ranged from men’s grooming products to a pet drying cloth to the TubShroom, a tool that prevents hair from going down the shower drain. The products were refreshed every quarter.

“We didn’t want to be limited to just traditional hardware products, or the kind of products you usually find in a hardware store,” notes Schlueter. “We wanted to see, from a risk-taking standpoint, what would happen if we added some unique products to the mix.”

The test worked. Analytics showed Ace Hardware that The Grommet customers were visiting its stores 50 percent more than the average Ace Rewards customer, and they were spending 2.8 times as much money in the stores.

As such, the program continued through 2016 and 2017, and plans are in place to add The Grommet displays to 400 additional Ace stores by the end of the year.

And here’s where the story ends (or begins, depending on how you look at it): The partnership was so successful that on Sept. 29, Ace Hardware became the majority owner of The Grommet, which means the partnership will continue to grow and evolve.

Isn’t that a great story? And to think it all started at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit!

Do you have any stories around connections you’ve made at the Summit that have helped you or changed your career? If so, please send them my way. We’d love to write about other success stories here.