Can the big retailer shake its consumer roots and win the loyalty of real, live contractors? By Matthew Power

The Home Depot has overcome a lot of obstacles during its rise to the top, navigating through ugly gender bias lawsuits and past environmentalists and corporate watchdog groups, grinding its competitors into dust, and earning the conditional adoration of Wall Street.

But now the Teflon-coated giant has an even tougher objective in mind: winning over trade contractors. The company claims that almost 30 percent of its business already comes from professionals, but it thinks it can do better.

Home Depot Pro (recently renamed Home Depot Supply) centers already have opened in Colma, Calif.; Mesquite, Texas; and Phoenix, with plans for two more in California and Colorado later this year.

Darryl Simons manages the Home Depot Supply store in Phoenix. "I've been here since the store opened last July," he says. "The biggest challenge has been getting pros to understand the difference between us and the other Home Depot stores."

That means hiring better qualified personnel. "We staff our pro desk with eight good people," he notes. Where does The Home Depot find good help? Where else? The competition.

"We hit about 50 competitor locations," Simons explains. He means that literally. He and his colleagues walk right into other stores, target an employee, and say, "We're opening this new place, and we want to offer you an opportunity."

It's an aggressive strategy with the desired end result: happy clients and steady growth.

Photo: David Clark

"We spend about $10,000 in there every month," says Pat Green, field supervisor for Contractors Abatement Services in Phoenix. "At the regular Home Depots you can't find any help, and I don't have time for that. [Home Depot Supply] caters to us, and its account manager, John Newton, has worked with us on pricing. We get a list of estimates, and [Supply] will beat it." Testimonials like that no doubt warm the hearts of The Home Depot's corporate power brokers, who hope to hack off a much bigger piece of the $276 billion professional building materials pie.

Will Home Depot Supply centers ultimately displace local plumbing, electrical, and drywall suppliers? If they do, will prices and employee attitudes remain in the contractor's court?

The rapid growth of the consumer side of The Home Depot's business shows some possible side effects of market autocracy. The Home Depot has come under criticism for spreading itself too thin--talking about improving customer service, yet hiring more part-timers to fill jobs in new stores.

Contractors working with Home Depot Supply centers don't seem worried. "I think any kind of competition is a good thing," says Green. "I just can't say enough good things about what they've done for me."