How we define what's good in business is often determined by the businesses down the street

We all have them: local businesses you simply love--a barber you'd never think of leaving, a contractor you'd never renovate without, or the only dealer from whom you'd buy that next car. You don't know why, but you've become more than just a dedicated customer of this business. You've become a zealot, expounding on its virtues to anyone who'll listen. Hell, you'll expound even if people aren't listening.

We've seen that kind of fanaticism among some of the toughest business minds we know. In fact, for the past 18 years, we've come to expect that moment in an interview when a CEO, a consultant, or a management guru spontaneously bursts into panegyric for that favorite hometown business he or she just couldn't live without.

Joline Godfrey, founder of An Income of Her Own, simply loves Bart's Books, a bookstore in Ojai, Calif., because it lets her buy books after hours and trusts her to drop her money into a slot in the store's door.

Quality guru Philip Crosby loves Massey Services Inc., a lawn-care and pest-prevention company in Orlando, because Massey shows up exactly when it says it will, follows up, and uses all the new technology. Plus, says Crosby, "they always look nice, and their cars are nice!"

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy and a Harvard Business School professor, raves about the Spence Center for Women's Health, in Cambridge Mass., because it has phones in the examination rooms, so she can make calls while she's waiting for the physician. Little details like that, says Kanter, have "transformed the old-fashioned doctor's office into a place where women feel treated with dignity and respect."

Sometimes it's a whole style of doing business that wins an admirer. Former New Boston Chicken CEO George Naddaff loves a bunch of shops near where he lives in Newton, Mass.: the convenience of the ready-to-eat meals in Boston Common Foods; the way the staff at Austin's Coffee Shop knows virtually all its breakfast customers by first name; the detail in the window displays of the Nick and Nora gift store; the tenacity of the local dry cleaner and tailor, Golden Scissors, in repairing damaged clothing when all others have failed. "People from large companies should spend some time in this neighborhood and see the outstanding stuff people are doing," says Naddaff.

The truth is that while all of us carry around these personal local benchmarks in our head, they're never written about. Until now. "What You Want Before You Know You Want It" is the first in our series of profiles of the best hometown businesses in America. We first heard about its subject, Harvey's Hardware, from management consultant and best-selling author Michael Treacy, who praised its "superb in-store service, help, and advice." For the past 44 years Harvey's has seen countless competitors come and go, and it has flourished, gaining a reputation as much for its idiosyncratic attention to detail and depth as for its die-hard devotion to filling customers' needs.

Maybe it's luck that Harvey's has figured out a way to turn a hometown hardware store into a business that has outlasted every competitor who's moved into town. Maybe it's luck that it's turned a hometown enterprise into an exemplary business. If so, we should all be so lucky.


Resources

The National Retail Hardware Association (5822 W. 74th St., Indianapolis, IN 46278; 317-290-0338; www.nrha.org) publishes useful studies about the retail hardware industry. Among them are "Benchmarks for Success" ($44.95 for nonmembers); "1995 Cost-of-Doing Business Study" ($44.95 for nonmembers); and "The 1994 Merchandising Report" ($54.95 for nonmembers). For more information, or to order a copy of a study, call 800-772-4424, or fax the NRHA at 317-328-4354.

PHILIP CROSBY, P.O. Box 2687, Winter Park, FL 32790; 407-679-7796 56

INCOME OF HER OWN, Joline Godfrey, P.O. Box 987, Santa Barbara, CA 93102; 805-646-1215 56

ROSABETH MOSS KANTER, Harvard Business School, Soldiers Field Rd., Boston, MA 02163; 617-495-6053; fax, 617-496-7379 56

GEORGE NADDAFF, Business Expansion Capital, 305 Walnut St., Newton, MA 02160; 617-630-4400 56