Norton "Nordy" Rockler spent about 25 years laying the foundation for the business he founded in 1954, now known as Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. Then he turned it over to his kids, including his daughter, who became president of the company at age 24.
"He had smart kids, so he let go," said his daughter Ann Jackson. "He trusted me and my brother. It didn't matter that I was a woman."
After his retirement in the 1980s, he spent the next 40 years meeting nearly once a week for lunch with Rockler employees, both hourly workers and senior leadership, who'd tell him what was going on. "He was still meeting with them when he was 96 or 97," said Steve Singer, chief executive of Rockler. "He was the heart and soul of the business, but he let his people grow the business, including his daughter."
Rockler died at his Golden Valley home Dec. 28 of natural causes. He was 98.
His father was a furrier, a trade that didn't interest Rockler. "A friend of his said, 'Why don't you sell plywood by mail?' " said Jackson, executive chairman of the board of the family business.
He started the Minnesota Woodworkers Supply Co. in north Minneapolis, a small mail-order business that aspired to be woodworkers' go-to resource for everything to complete their projects. Though the first retail store didn't open until 1978 in Minneapolis, the company grew to 37 stores in 20 states, along with catalogs and a website.
Described as sweet, kind and quiet by Jackson, he loved his woodworking business, but in the early 1960s, he drove the family cross-country to California. "He took a month to be with his family," Jackson said. "All five of us in motel rooms at a time when his business was struggling. He loved us kids."
Matt Cremona of Grant, Minn., stumbled across Rockler Woodworking when it was a burgeoning hobby for him a decade ago. His first purchase was clamps from rockler.com. "The older generation likes to say that woodworking is dying, but it's not dying. It's just evolving," said Cremona, 33, whose woodworking YouTube videos, with one sponsored by Rockler, have been viewed 43 million times. "Rockler's absolute core values are innovation and community."
Rockler was a products guy who brought goods to the consumer that previously were available only to cabinet or furniture manufacturers. "He'd sell knobs, pulls and hinges that the hardware stores didn't," said Jackson. "We were one of the first retailers to sell European hinges, the hinge you can't see."
He wasn't content to sell products that could be found in multiple sources. As an avid woodworker himself, he was always looking for a hack to make processes easier or cleaner. "He fueled people's passion for woodworking," Jackson said. "He gave hobbyists the ability to do work that only pros could do in the past."
Rockler began selling proprietary supplies that made it easier for woodworkers to use power tools, including a workbench cookie, a disc with rubber on both sides to keep things in place during aggressive manipulations; silicone glue brushes; and jigs for installing drawer glides. The company holds more than 60 patents, Jackson said.
"He pioneered the idea that woodworking can be for everyone," said Timothy Roseth, franchisee owner of Woodcraft in Bloomington, a competitor of Rockler. "He put stores in strip malls in Minnetonka, Burnsville and Maplewood next to stores like nail salons where the average person goes, not the contractor."
Rockler is survived by Jackson of Sarasota, Fla., and daughter Janie Rockler of Minnetonka; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Bert, and son, Gary. Services have been held.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633