It’s hard to know what Dave Warren is best known for in Milton. The guy you go to when your power drill dies in the middle of a DYI project or when you need to rent a lawn dethatcher? Maybe you got to your campsite and realized you forgot the camping chairs? Or was Dave the first one you thought of when fidget apinners hit the market and you really, really needed one?
For those things and more, people run to Dave’s Ace Hardware on John Paul Road in Milton. If it seems you’ve been running to Dave’s for years or even decades, you wouldn’t be wrong. August 1 marked the 30th anniversary for Dave’s Ace Hardware.
Owning a hardware store for 30 years is impressive enough. But Warren’s history with the store stretches back even further. The store was owned by Dick and Martha Johnson when Warren was hired in 1977 while still in high school.
In the late 1980s, Warren moved to Florida to work in housing construction. Dick Johnson told him he would always have a job if he returned to Milton. Two years later, Warren was ready to come back. He called Johnson. But rather than offering him a job, Johnson asked if he was interested in buying the store.
“It was a compliment,” Warren said. The Johnsons had hoped to sell to someone who was community-minded and Warren fit the bill. He was 31 years old with few resources. But six months later, after patching together the financing, Warren had the keys in his hand.
Warren’s passion for the community comes through in his commitment to customer service. He feels fortunate that he’s had employees, such as Todd Hesgard, who have stayed with him through the years. Hesgard was working at the store when Warren took over.
“Todd has been with me ever since,” Warren said. “He’s still here.”
Phyllis Fry, who retired last year, is another.
“I actually worked with them before I went to Florida,” Warren said. “It’s kind of unique that the same faces are in a business that long. You just don’t see that in retail.”
Other cashiers and floor people have stayed with the business for five, 10 or 20 years. Even the high school students stay beyond graduation, often working summers through college. Warren acknowledged that this longevity among his employees has helped the store earn a reputation for having great customer service.
“Amazing,” he said. “It really is.”
Warren said he works to ensure the store is stocked with everything the community needs. When Lake Koshkonong flooded, people came for sump pumps, wet-dry vacs and sand bags. Although it’s not always possible, Warren tries to be prepared for anything that pops up.
When the pandemic began, Dave’s Ace was the first in the area to carry high-quality cloth face masks. Back-to-school needs, such as padlocks are another example. “We’re the go-to store for the high school, middle school kids,” Warren says.
It’s not surprising that Warren’s list of accomplishments is long. In 2020, he was honored with the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1995, he was Kiwanis’ Citizen of the Year. He has served as Milton’s Municipal Judge, an EMT, president of the Janesville Rotary Club as well as District Governor for the Rotary, and founded Kids Against Hunger-Rock County Rotary, Inc. The list goes on and on.
Warren’s compassion for others beyond the Milton community came through when he spoke of Kids Against Hunger. Founded in 2008, the project now includes board members from four different Rotary clubs.
“We’ve had volunteers package around eight million meals,” he says. The food is distributed locally first, then to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. food is also sent to places like Cameroon, Uganda and the Philippines. And the group supports four primary schools in Nicaragua by providing food for the students’ lunches.
“That’s the thing I’ve been pretty passionate about,” he said.
Some of Warren’s promotional tools have also brought people together. Around 2009, after the General Motors plant in Janesville closed and the economy slowed, Warren set up a Facebook page for his business. Admittedly a way to cut advertising costs, popularity of the page grew quickly. Some posts promoted a sale or a new item in the store, but many posts were friendly interactions between Dave and folks with questions or comments. Soon, the Midwest Hardware Association sent him out to give presentations to other hardware retailers on how to use ocial media effectively.
Naturally, Warren has seen changes, too. “One of the things that changed shortly after I took over is that we have a lot more women working in our store, and that was a hard change for our customers.”
It took a while, Warren says, for customers to realize that the women in the store were just as knowledgeable as the men.
Technology is another change. Computers have taken over many tasks, such as placing orders and pricing. The store also has more merchandise. Aisle shelves now stand seven feet high rather than five. A warehouse in the back was added in 2003.
Warren recalls back in the '70s, flatbed trucks would show up at the backdoor, filled with 80-pound bags of concrete mix that needed to be unloaded by hand.
“Of course now days, it just comes on pallets and you use the forklift to unload it.”
Pulling into Dave’s parking lot, you might find a local group selling cookies, raffle tickets or holding a car wash. The Can King receptacle is there. You can also drop off electronics for responsible recycling and tattered American flags for respectful disposal.
The sign near the road will alert you to special promotions. Currently, the sign also lets you know Pokémon cards are available.
When asked what has stayed the same, Warren didn't hesitate. “Customer service,” he said. And with professional staff, that’s one thing that will never change.
“Not as long as I’m here,” he said.