SELMA – Fourteen years ago, Mike Nelson had a decision to make. He’d graduated from Selma High in 1994, attended the firefighters’ academy at Fresno City College and worked as a reserve fireman. He’d even driven the ambulance for a while.

As a teen, he worked at fast-food chains but also helped at the family’s hardware store. He then earned a business administration degree at California State University, Fresno in 2001. When his dad decided to retire, Nelson had to decide whether to keep the then second-generation business in the family or not.

Mike Nelson’s grandfather, Ted Nelson, first opened Nelson’s Hardware at 1951 High St. with his brother Scott Nelson in 1948. Ted and his wife, Marilyn, become the sole owners in 1954. They became associated with Ace Hardware in 1969 and moved the store to its second location at 1989 High St. in 1970. The store has been at its third location of 2051 High St. since 1998.

Upon Ted and Marilyn’s retirement in 1977, their sons Doug and Don Nelson operated the store. Don then left the business in 1994 to pursue another career.

“I really didn’t get involved in the business until college,” Mike Nelson said. “I started from the ground up, sweeping floors and eventually got into the assistant manager position, then manager and eventually owner.”

Although Doug Nelson hasn’t completely retired, Mike Nelson bought the business from his father in 2004.

“All my plans were set to be a fireman. But when I graduated, my dad said he was thinking about retiring and asked if I wanted to take over the business. I decided to take over the business and I’m glad I did. I enjoy what I do.”

Now in its third generation, Nelson’s Ace Hardware is having a 70th anniversary celebration March 2-3 at both their Selma and Kingsburg stores. Cake, hot dogs and donuts will be served and the stores will be offering a 20 percent discount and specials on a variety of items.

Since brick-and-mortar stores are facing stiff competition from online shopping options, Mike Nelson said they focus on customer service, convenience and quality products to compete.

“At one time there were three mom-and-pop appliance stores in town, but they’re all gone. It’s just an issue of where customers feel comfortable shopping. For us, if a customer’s washing machine breaks down, they can call us and talk with either me or the appliance manager. We’ll make sure it gets repaired. Otherwise, you’ve got to call 1-800 numbers and deal with someone over the phone or over the computer and it’s automated.”

There are now 33 employees and a second store was added in Kingsburg in 2014. Nelson also owns the Nelson’s Power Center that stocks outdoor equipment. What’s helped the stores survive and thrive despite competition from big-box stores, he said, is their helpful staff and connection with the community.

“When you come in, we have lots of employees to help you. You’re greeted at the door and we want to help. You’re not having to wander up and down the aisles looking for products.”

Nelson said he also feels a sense of home-town pride in being able to continue the tradition of sponsoring local youth sports, civic groups’ fundraisers and school raffles.

“That’s the benefit of working in a small community. You get to help out with charities and organizations in need,” he said.

At the Selma location, they also added a Sears Hometown outlet two years ago where the gift section used to be.

“That’s like having a store within a store. That’s a new concept for Sears and we’re one of the first to pilot the program. Sears has a great brand name and I thought it would fit well since we only brought in the appliances. We’ve sold almost $1 million per year just in that 3,000 square foot area.”

With three locations, Nelson said he’s grateful to have good managers at each site so he can trouble shoot and take care of behind-the-scenes matters.

“Every day, it always changes and I’m constantly bouncing around. I have really good managers at all three locations so they handle the day-to-day operations.”

What’s next for the store and the family?

Of Mike and Staci Nelson’s three children, it may be the youngest Trevor who takes over as the fourth generation shop owner someday. Caleb, 16, is enjoying working with his grandfather welding and grinding metal and Ashlyn, 14, wants to be a nurse.

“I’m hoping. I’ve got two boys and a daughter. My youngest, Trevor who’s 10, seems to be the most interested in the business. He does like talking with people so his personality would fit.”

Until then, Nelson said he’ll keep doing what he’s been taught and treating customers the way he’d like to be treated.

“We are a Christian family so it’s an issue of serving others. That’s also our leadership style of adding value to people’s lives. Every time someone comes in, I want them to leave feeling better than when they got here and I try to treat my employees the same way.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.