Ask Brent Burger his secret to success in the hardware and energy business, and he talks about putting customers first, treating employees with respect and giving to the community.

You might say such vision has taken Burger to the top.

The owner of five True Value stores, as well as an energy business in central Maine, Burger, 47, recently was named chairman of the board for True Value Company, one of the world’s largest retailer-owned hardware cooperatives.

“Brent brings a wealth of hardware knowledge and leadership experience to our board,” Lyle Heidemann, president and chief executive officer of True Value, said in a prepared statement. “As a local store owner and dedicated board member, I know he will provide great insights into the future growth of True Value Company.”

Burger was elected chairman last month in Atlanta after having served as a board member since 2007.

“The role of our board is oversight of the company, and our focus is on the strategy that the company has deployed,” Burger said.

As chairman, he leads the board and works closely with the chief executive officer of True Value. He holds board meetings five times a year at the company’s Chicago headquarters, kicks off semi-annual trade shows and serves as a liaison between the board and CEO.

Burger owns the multi-million dollar business Campbell’s Companies Inc., which includes Campbell’s Agway True Value stores in Winslow and Farmingdale; Campbell’s True Value Hardware, Campbell’s Building Supply and Val-U-Energy, of Madison; and Campbell’s True Value store in Skowhegan.

He has 72 employees, works about 15 hours a day six or seven days a week, and still has time for his two boys, 11 and 14.

“I have unbelievable employees,” Burger said. “I totally get that they are the face of the company. They make sure that customers come back. We don’t sell much stuff that somebody else isn’t selling. A customer has to choose.”

What his business really offers, he said, is the attention customers deserve.

“I say to my staff all the time, ‘The only place we get revenue is from the customer. Your responsibility is to make sure that customers get the attention they deserve because they chose us over somebody else.’”

Burger regards his managers as peers.

“We don’t have hierarchy in the company,” he said. “We’re all as equal as we can be. Somebody has to steer the ship, but steering the ship is not what paddles it along.”

Burger’s generosity extends much further than the parameters of his company. He has given to many causes, including the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. His $50,000 contribution helped build a new, 40-bed shelter on Colby Street that more than doubled the number of beds at the former Ticonic Street shelter.

In 2007, he rescued a woman and her nine children from losing their home. As part of the “Nine Days for Nine Children” project, Burger saved the home from foreclosure, helped do a home makeover and guided the family in financial matters.

He remains involved and active with the family today.

“We call it giving back,” Burger said of helping others. “We believe that we are in business because the community keeps us in business. I believe that it is our responsibility to give back. We have a special focus on disadvantaged families and children.”

From farm to business world

Burger’s climb to success was anything but predictable.

He grew up on a family farm in Indiana with his mother and three siblings. They grew fields of hybrid corn and sold it to farmers who planted corn crops for the highest yield. The family’s farm also had hogs, chickens and cattle.

He graduated from Jasper High School and entered Virginia Tech to study management and finance.

Because he had to put himself through college, he got a part-time job at a TCBY frozen yogurt franchise in Blacksburg, Virginia. The manager quit and he was offered the job. He took it and found himself constantly going back and forth between classes and work.

“I just had this constant conflict between what I was learning in class and what I was learning at work,” he recalled.

A few months later, two partners who owned 14 TCBY stores split up, opening up the possibility for Burger to buy a store.

“I put a company together and sold stock to a bunch of people to get the 49 percent of financing that I needed so the bank would give me 51 percent. I was 19 years old. I didn’t tell my family. I had a typewriter and a bicycle to my name as a college kid and was able to swing this one,” he said.

He was a college sophomore and owned a store in Blacksburg.

“It took me six or seven years to get out of college because I was going so part-time and working,” he said.

He was so busy that he finally went to his guidance counselor to say he needed to finish school as soon as possible. The counselor told him he was three hours away from getting a degree in English, so Burger changed his major and got a bachelor’s degree in English.

From there, he bought three frozen yogurt stores in Florida and then TCBY Enterprises Inc. offered him a consulting job and agreed to buy his stores.

He moved to Boston in 1995 for the consulting work in the Northeast, then later in the decade he moved to San Francisco to take a job with TCBY as vice president for West Coast operations.

Starbucks Coffee recruited him as a district manager and he worked for that company a couple of years before moving to Maine in 1999 and going to work for Campbell’s Companies owner Val Roy as director of operations. In 2000, he and Roy became partners.

Also in 2000, the Agway Inc. stores went bankrupt and had to divest of their stores and real estate, so Campbell’s bought three stores, in Farmingdale, Winslow and Skowhegan.

Since then, the stores have seen renovations and expansions and the business continues to grow. Burger is enjoying the ride.

“I love what I do,” he said.

People talk about the life-work balance; Burger sees it as a continuum.

“It’s not one or the other,” he said. “It’s 100 miles an hour.”

His day starts at 5:20 a.m. when he gets up, reads email, goes to the gym and then returns to his home office to review all the business data from the previous day. He works until 10 p.m. with a break for dinner.

Being elected True Value’s chairman of the board is the icing on the cake for Burger. He said he did not have aspirations to become chairman. It just evolved and is an enormous honor, he said.

“I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it has been through hard work, it has been through effort, and a tremendous amount of help and coaching from a lot of people in my life who have helped me get to the place I am.”

True Value’s cooperative includes about 4,500 independent members worldwide who operate as True Value, Grand Rental Station, Taylor Rental, Party Central, Home & Garden Showplace and Induserve Supply.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
acalder@centralmaine.com