PORTLAND, Maine — Ace Hardware last week acquired a wholesale distributor to hardware stores and lumber mills that was founded in Portland in 1842 and has been owned by the same family for the past 80-plus years.

Employees at Emery-Waterhouse’s headquarters and distribution facility in Portland learned the news on Thursday morning, according to Steve Frawley, Emery-Waterhouse’s CEO.

Emery-Waterhouse is a wholesale distributor of products to roughly 1,100 independent hardware stores, lumber yards, paint retailers and home improvement centers throughout the northeastern United States. The company was founded as a hardware store on Portland’s Middle Street.

Ace Hardware, which operates 30 stores in Maine and is based in Oak Brook, Ill., has acquired a majority share of the business from Charlie Hildreth, whose family has owned the company for the past 80-plus years. Financial details of the transaction are not being discussed.

Emery-Waterhouse will continue to operate as an independent subsidiary of Ace Hardware, which is a cooperative business owned by its members with more than 4,500 locations worldwide. There’s no plan to make any changes in Emery-Waterhouse’s location, management or workforce, Frawley said Thursday.

He said Emery-Waterhouse looked to be acquired because of market pressures and the opportunities available by having the buying power of Ace, which had revenues of $4.2 billion in 2013, behind the company.

“It’s been a tough world for independents to survive,” Frawley said. I don’t think in just home improvement or hardware, I think in any industry. But that’s really the driver in looking for opportunities — to bring efficiencies and economies of scale to independents.”

The average consumer in Portland is not likely aware of Emery-Waterhouse, but Frawley has accepted that fact.

“We’ve been around since 1842, but unless you own a lumber yard, hardware store or home center, generally you wouldn’t hear of us,” he said Thursday. “We’re not a consumer-facing brand.”

But Emery-Waterhouse is not an insignificant employer in the area. It employs 300 people overall, with roughly 200 based in Portland, Frawley said. The other employees work as salespeople throughout the Northeast and at another distribution center the company has outside Philadelphia.

Frawley called the company’s employees “very dedicated, very loyal, very solid.” And if the goal of being acquired by Ace is realized, he said the company could add more jobs in the future.

“If we can go grow the independent side of the business with the resources and help from Ace, we’re going to create jobs and create opportunities,” Frawley said. “This sale of the company isn’t going to define Emery. It’s what we do after the sale. If we can help our customers be more successful in the marketplace, we’ll keep growing and create those opportunities.”

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.