“We are smaller, but better now,” says Roger Hames of the company he took over from his father in 1983. He admits someone else might have done it differently — perhaps more ruthlessly — “but I always wanted to come home and sleep at night.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Leadership is changing hands at the Hames Corporation, and for the first time in nearly 70 years someone other than a family member will be running things.

The Sitka-based grocer announced this week that chief financial officer Max Rule will become president of the company, and Roger Hames — after 4 decades working in the business — will step aside to become chairman of the board.

Roger Hames stopped by KCAW to talk about the evolution of one of Sitka’s oldest family businesses, and how he hopes his family will remain involved for years to come.

Downloadable audio.

Roger Hames has been president of his family’s business since 1983. He was only 27 years old when his father, Lloyd Hames, handed him the keys, so to speak. Many people have probably seen him at Sea Mart stocking the dairy case, or washing down the parking lot, and never realized the guy running the hose also ran the show.

He doesn’t feel ready to quit just yet.

“And I’m still not thinking retirement. It’s just a different role.”

Hames will stay on as chairman of the board and run the corporate giving program, and the day-to-day business will be in the hands of Max Rule, who’s been chief financial officer and Hames’s “go-to guy” for the last 25 years.

Hames says he’s been thinking about Rule for a long time, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until a consultant arrived in early December and ran the management team through a self-evaluation exercise.

Hames saw that he still loved the business, and didn’t want to leave, “But the passion wasn’t there. I had been feeling this slipping for a while, but I didn’t have the answers for what it was until last week, when it all came together. The moon, the sun, the stars — everything lined up to where, in the end, it felt really good.”

The alignment is about more than Max Rule. Hames’s son Andrew, who returned to the family business three years ago after a career teaching music, will take the job of Sea Mart store director, replacing Paul Busby who’s retiring in February after 12 years. Another Hames son, Brian, has also returned to Sitka with an International Business degree. Brian Hames will take over finance, IT, and marketing.

This positions a fourth generation of the Hames family to possibly lead the company in the future.

The business Roger Hames assumed control of 33 years ago was larger than it is now, with additional stores in Ketchikan, but the advent of the big box store forced the company to do some soul searching. Roger Hames decided that bringing the company home to Sitka was the better move philosophically, if not financially.

“There are probably a half-dozen times I should have been fired in my role as president of the company, because we didn’t make money for many years. And someone else could have come in and started cutting and hacking to give shareholders a return on their investment. But it wasn’t all about the money. In the end you have to take care of the business. The business is greater than me. It will survive me. It will survive my kids.”

The family’s grocery business was founded by Hames’s grandparents in what is now Market Center in Sitka. His father married into the Rand family and later organized the Hames Corporation. Son Roger, though, shaped the enterprise that is now comprised of Sea Mart, Market Center, Cascade Convenience Center, Watson Point Liquor, and Silver Basin, along with a number of real estate investments.

As chairman of the board, Hames won’t have final say over the future of the business. He says he and his father quarreled at times, but his mother Barbara and wife Mary have anchored their families, and helped guide business matters.

Hames says he won’t go far away, but he’s going to have to step back.

“I would hate to see any kind of division in the family, but obviously people are going to have different viewpoints. And that, ultimately, is something I’m going to have to respect.”

Hames thinks Max Rule understands the leadership philosophy at the company, and is ready to develop his own vision.

The new chairman of the Hames Corporation may not have to stock the dairy case anymore, but don’t be surprised if he’s washing down the parking lot at Sea Mart this spring. The janitor always thanks him for keeping sand and gravel out of the store. Hames has been doing this work for 40 years, and “I like to look at it from the ground up,” he says.