New generation builds on Ulmer’s family traditions

When it comes to marking milestones, it’s a fairly safe bet that Monica and Patrick Mede will have a hard time topping the first six months of 2016: they moved back to Alaska from Texas in January, immediately bought a house in Homer and started the process of buying a business, got a puppy in May, officially became the new owners of Ulmer’s Drug &Hardware on June 1, got married on June 4 and flew out for a week-long honeymoon on June 5.

Oh, and in the midst of working out all the details of buying Ulmer’s, the store Monica’s parents, Scott and Cathie Ulmer, opened 40 years ago, Patrick likes to note the couple also took dance lessons in February as they prepared for their June wedding.

When they returned from their honeymoon, it was to the busyness of summer in Homer and the reality that they were in the driver’s seat at Ulmer’s — making buying decisions, writing checks, wondering if they were doing things right. While Monica had grown up working in Ulmer’s and learning from her dad, for Patrick, everything was brand new.

“These seasonal flips that happen — when does dirt go out, when do wheel barrows get put out on the sidewalk, when does fishing expand? … All these things … the employees know. They know when it needs to happen. It’s like a well-oiled machine. It just happens,” says Patrick.

He and Monica give credit both to Scott Ulmer and the employees for mentoring them through their first year.

“The employees are what make the store so great. They know how to do their job and how to do it right and what the customer wants. It’s because of them that we’re successful,” says Monica.

While a change in ownership of most Homer businesses — particularly one as old and rooted in the community as Ulmer’s — is big news, Monica and Patrick deliberately downplayed it.

“Our primary goal was to come in quietly and not ruffle a lot of feathers, not really let the community know. We weren’t trying to hide it — we were just trying to remain status quo,” says Monica. “We wanted to ease in and make a lot of behind-the-scene changes that would in the future impact the customer experience in a positive way.”

While customers may not have noticed a management change, they did notice new merchandise in the store.

A sample of the feedback goes something like this: “There’s so many fun, new things in the store.”

That’s exactly the reaction the Medes were hoping for — not making a big to-do about new owners, but being able to take the groundwork Scott Ulmer laid over the past 40 years and fine tuning it a bit.

For his part, Scott Ulmer couldn’t be prouder of his daughter and son-in-law.

“I anticipated that they would take the business to a new level. … I’m enjoying the heck out of watching the changes. It’s a better store because of Monica and Patrick,” he says.

One change is a new venture: Ulmer’s on the Spit. The seasonal store, located on the Harborview Boardwalk where Spit Sisters once was, opened last weekend. It’s designed to be a convenient place for those on the Spit to shop for what they may have forgotten — over the counter medicines, snacks, fishing gear, boots, personal hygiene items. Like Ulmer’s in town, the goal of the store is to provide what customers need and want. With early morning and late evening hours, it also will be a pickup point for orders for those who can’t make it to town during regular business hours.

Monica becomes the third generation in the Ulmer family to be involved in the drugstore business. It all started with Scott’s father in the 1950s — when the first Ulmer’s opened in Anchorage. Scott started working in the family business when he was 16.

Ulmer’s in Homer opened in 1977 — the first tenant in the new Lakeside Mall. Back then, the store occupied only 8,500 square feet of space. Today, it’s 30,000 and the inventory has quadrupled, says Scott.

That translates into roughly 98,000 unique SKUs, or stock keeping units — distinct items for sale, although that many items may not currently be on the floor.

The store’s unique blend of merchandise is what gives the store its character — from mineral salts in the homeopathy department to drapes in housewares to that gadget you need to fix the sink.

“The best compliment that we get is: “I didn’t know you guys carried that. I’ll shop here more often,” says Mike Quinn, whose primary job is managing inventory at Ulmer’s. Quinn will mark 30 years at the store in June.

Cindy Brown, the pharmacy manager who has worked at Ulmer’s for 33 years, attributes the store’s success to a couple of things: customer service that includes ordering items that people request but can’t find in the store and its family orientation.

Not only is the store a family-run business, but the owners respect employees’ families, she says. That means an understanding attitude when life happens. It also means that multiple members of the same family are employed by Ulmer’s.

One of Monica’s favorite parts of the job is building relationships with the employees.

“I want to be known as one of the better places to work in Homer,” say says. “I want my employees to be happy and healthy.”

While it may be a family-run business, both Patrick and Monica bring professional experience to the table. Monica’s business degree is from the University of Alaska Southeast; Patrick’s undergraduate degree is from Colorado State, his graduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. The two met while working at Alaska Interstate Construction in Anchorage, which specializes in heavy civil construction projects like roads and bridges.

Returning to Homer and the store was not the future Monica had envisioned, but she’s got no regrets.

“Owning the store was never what I had planned for my life. I didn’t want to do it by myself and I didn’t think it would be possible to find someone who would be my equal, who would be so well fit for the job. I could not pick a better person on this planet than Pat. He is super, super smart and was built for business. He thinks like my dad. And he’s really kind and gracious,” says Monica.

In fact, it was Patrick who first broached the subject of buying the store.

And no one was more surprised — or happier — than Scott.

Today, what Scott wants people to know is “Monica and Patrick really have taken over complete operation of the business. I’m really retired — when I’m in the store, a lot of time I’m shopping. … They’re 100 percent owners and doing amazing.”

And what Patrick and Monica want people to know is: “The celebration needs to be Ulmer’s has been serving the community for 40 years. It’s not about us. We’re just lucky to be here. ”