MISSOULA, Mont. -

Twenty years ago a couple from Illinois bought a hardware store in Missoula, and grew to be prominent members of the community.

Montana Ace in Tremper's Shopping Center has expanded in size and employees since then.

Its owners added four more Ace stores, another in Missoula, plus stores in Kalispell, Polson and Ronan.

Theirs is a business success, rooted through generations of hardware stores and a strong commitment to each other.

Children who came to the Weis' original Ace store off Brooks are now bringing their own children to shop here.

Back in 1993 the two were brand new to town and eager to make Missoula home.

"And here we are 20 years later," said Stew Weis, "and I'm still looking for the reason this is too good to be true."

They started with 35 employees at the Tremper's site. Now with four more stores in the region they have a total of 165 workers.

There's also a Fancy Plants Garden Center in Missoula.

The Tremper's store's front end manger said the Weises are like family.

"Something happens," said Melissa Bartos, "Meg and Stew are there to support you."

Stew said smaller stores can offer more one-on-one service and a wider selection than the box stores.

"When you need that oddball item," said Stew, "you stand a better chance of finding it at Ace than at any big box store."

Stew's family owned hardware stores in Chicago for three generations. Meg is second generation. Her dad had five Ace Hardwares in St. Louis.

"I started working for him when I was 12," said Meg.

The two met at an Ace dealers' convention.

"I always said it was love at first sight," said Meg.

"She's everything to me," said Stew.

Meg and Stew became household names playing exaggerated comic versions of themselves in a series of TV commercials.

They were a big hit, like their free popcorn and open door policy for dogs.

Eventually some day the couple could pass their store on.

"I think we're well poised to entertain the idea of transferring the ownership to our employees," said Stew.

But it could be another 20 years before that happens.