CEO, owner and co-founder of Harbor Freight Tools; Founder of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools and the Smidt Foundation
Eric Smidt is the owner and CEO of Harbor Freight Tools which he co-founded with his father, Allan Smidt, in 1977. Under Eric’s leadership, Harbor Freight Tools has become the leading discount tool retailer in the United States with over 1,200 stores and 23,000 associates nationwide. Each Harbor Freight location carries a wide assortment of quality tools and equipment that provides unsurpassed value to every tool user from professional technicians and tradespeople to beginning DIYers.
Originally known as Harbor Freight Salvage, the company began as a small mail-order tool business in North Hollywood, California. Eric loved the business and learned as much as he could about tools and tool users. It didn’t take long for him to learn that most tools were over-priced. He discovered that he could source tools directly from factories, remove layers of cost and pass the savings on to his customers – value that no one else offered.
Harbor Freight opened its first store in Lexington, Kentucky in 1980, and in the following years, experienced slow but steady growth in its stores and catalogue business. As sales increased, Harbor Freight’s assortment of tools grew dramatically, as did its ability to offer even lower prices. By the late 1990s, few retailers offered a wider selection of tools at lower prices than Harbor Freight. In 1999, Eric purchased his father’s half of the company (he’s been the sole owner ever since) and the company’s growth began to accelerate.
Sustainable High Performance Culture
In response to the 2008 global recession, Eric began to build the senior leadership team that helps lead Harbor Freight today. In the years that followed, the company experienced dramatic growth fueled by an extraordinary team and a sustainable high-performance culture that embraces a few simple core values: excellence, continuous improvement, collaboration, humility, doing the right thing, frugality and community.
Eric also led Harbor Freight’s relentless commitment to deliver a level of quality that meets or exceeds the competition, but at a fraction of the price. He recruited a world class team of engineers and experts in every tool category and developed two state-of-the-art quality assurance labs where Harbor Freight develops and tests its tools to ensure that they meet or exceed customer expectations at every level from beginning DIYers to master technicians and tradespeople.
Harbor Freight’s guiding principle is that a great business starts with great people with the goal of being the best place to work in retail. The company’s salaries and benefits package are among the best in the industry as are the opportunities for career advancement. In 2020, Forbes magazine identified 150 U.S. companies with over 1,000 employees as the Best Employers for Veterans to work and ranked Harbor Freight Tools number one. Eric and Harbor Freight are also committed to diversity and inclusion as reflected in the company’s people statement: “We value people above all else. We value who you are, what you’ve experienced, and how you see the world. We believe our differences make us stronger.”
Eric established The Smidt Foundation to help achieve opportunity, justice, equality and safety for all. The foundation supports a wide range of charitable causes, among them public education, veterans and first responders, and programs to alleviate homelessness.
The Smidt Foundation’s flagship program is Harbor Freight Tools for Schools to support excellent skilled trades education in public high schools across America. The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence awards more than $1 million annually to outstanding skilled trades teachers and their schools.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020, Harbor Freight Tools donated more than $10 million of personal protective equipment to more than 1,000 hospitals across the country. The Smidt Foundation also donated more than $3 million in new rapid response grants to help a wide range of community programs to provide food, care and emergency help for families in need, as well as urgently needed donations for homeless services and child care for health care workers on the front lines.
In 2018, the Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, ranked as one of the top three leading heart institutes in the U.S., was renamed “The Smidt Heart Institute” after the hospital received its largest single gift ever from The Smidt Foundation and Eric and Susan Smidt.
Harbor Freight has come a long way from its humble start in North Hollywood. However, some things haven’t changed — Eric’s passion for tools is as deep as ever and Harbor Freight’s commitment to providing value to hard-working men and women by offering the widest selection of quality tools at low prices has never been stronger.