Rooted in relationships
We are a building materials supplier, and have held firm to our roots. We don’t try to be something to everybody, we do what we do and try to do it to the best of our ability. I think that has been the secret to our success for this long,” begins Val Stiener, President at Chase Lumber (Chase), which is currently enjoying its fifth generation of family management. “There is a lot of competition in Dane County, Wisconsin,” she continues. “The market is extremely penetrated, so we are all fighting for the same piece of the pie. The saving grace is that it’s a fast-growing community, and there’s still a lot of development going on here. While the competitive market makes for challenging times, and as a result, many building materials suppliers have tried to get involved in everything from manufacturing to installation, we have stayed true to our specialty. We are a lumber yard, providing materials to builders. We are not a hardware store or a one-stop shop. We focus on the contractor and provide the best materials and service that we can, and have done so for 125 years,” Val enthuses.
The past two years have been difficult for everyone, and the building sector is no exception. As an essential business, Chase didn’t slow down. The industry kept on going, and Chase had to pivot to keep pace. As Val explains: “We had to learn how to enable some of our people to work remotely: those that could, like estimators, could be at home. However, from loading trucks to delivering materials, many of our operations are impossible to carry out remotely. That said, we utilized a skeleton staff and persevered, pushing through the pandemic. It was taxing, but we learned to do things differently, just as every other business had to. Some of those changes are still in play, and while we do see many builders more accustomed to emailing rather than visiting us on-site, several customers do still like to see us in person. I think that’s just the nature of our industry.”
The business was able to retain its team members, and Val is delighted to note that Chase is fully staffed. In fact, in her tenure, she has never known anyone to be laid off. Additionally, this year is set to top last year’s record sales, which Val believes is attributable to a couple of factors. “First of all, our industry kept working during the pandemic. We are also fortunate to experience ongoing development locally. However, in my opinion, the price of building materials is a factor. Prices have escalated, but builders keep building, and as such, they have to push through the cost of materials. From our perspective, if costs escalate, so do sale prices too. While some materials have reduced in price, many are not back to where they were in 2019, others haven’t come down at all.
“However, you have to look at both sides of the balance sheet. The cost of labor has gone up, as have materials purchase prices, alongside insurance and utilities. Fortunately for us, the materials and the amount of business we are pushing out the door have helped offset some of that, but as a result, we have to sell twice as much to manage our margins.
Leading by example
“Chase is part of a lumber buying group that consists of dealers from all over the country. This certainly helps independent lumber yards, like ours, because we all pull together. We are not competitors in that way, but rather, we’re trying to stay independent and that is a contributing factor to why independent yards still exist today.
“It’s certainly been an unprecedented two years, but I work with a phenomenal group of people. We are a family-owned business, and we bend over backwards to try and help our employees, which, I would say, is repaid with their loyalty and commitment.”
Val has been with the company for 25 years. When she joined, both her brother and father were working at Chase, and her father very much led by example to create the culture that’s still in existence today. “My dad never missed a day of work, unless he was really ill. At the age of 83, he was still coming in to work every day, so that sets a good example. The commitment he had to his employees rubbed off. While different today, and particularly in terms of the greater flexibility and enhanced work-life balance we offer, our employees still have that same commitment to us.”
The culture of commitment extends to wider business relationships too. Prior to the pandemic, supplier relationships were very strong, as the business was dealing with the same people, which provided consistency and reliability. Val goes on to explain how those relationships have evolved post-pandemic and the challenges that presents. “Since Covid, staff retention in many sectors has taken a huge hit. As a result, many vendors and suppliers are struggling to meet demand. Quality of product can also be an issue, as can vendor support. While many suppliers do their utmost, unfortunately, we often experience difficulties resolving issues, which can be frustrating. Our priority is to ensure our customers receive top-quality products.”
While personnel may not be an issue for Chase, Val believes it’s going to take time for many manufacturers to get back to firing on all cylinders. “Manufacturers are innovating with smarter processes, turning to automation because they don’t have the people to do the work. In terms of the wider industry itself, there is a shortage of contractors and laborers. It’s going to take time but things will change. The entire building industry needs to change. It’s a driving force in this economy. If we stop building then the economy stops,” she suggests.
Looking to the future, Val is anticipating a downturn in the economy over the next couple of years. “How much that will affect us is yet to be seen,” she elaborates. “I’m sure we’ll feel it, but we are relatively cushioned by the robust health of construction in this area. My job is to keep people working and figure out ways to do that. We have a good group of builders that we work with. Right now, we’re just full steam ahead. We’ll keep doing what we do, control what we can, and see what happens.”