All of those self-help gurus advise us strivers to learn a new word a day. Well, today is Monday, and my new word is Kentuckiana.
It’s the location of PC Home Center, based in New Albany, In.—right across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. (Get it?) “I can look out my window and see the city skyline right now,” declares owner David Stemler.
He wandered into the industry back in 1977 soon after college by signing on at an outfit called PC Paneling—the company’s first hire. One of his initial tasks was helping in the move from a converted bowling alley into a former ice-house down the street, which meant trundling the inventory—Armstrong ceilings, plastic moulding and such—by hand, for lack of a forklift. The next move, in the mid-80s, was to what once was a roller-skating rink to accommodate the outfit’s increased inventory, which now included lumber, windows and doors, moulding and trim.
When the company’s owner died unexpectedly in 1988, David, now 30, was faced with a choice to make in a hurry: buy the business, or work for somebody else. Easy decision, save for one fact: The young man had no cash.
With the help of his former boss’s estate and an Andersen Windows distributor, he was able to take over the company and all it entailed (including the dubious privilege of working 80-hour weeks). Seven years later, PC had again outgrown its footprint and sought yet-another site. This time, no ice house, no skating rink: David decided to build from the ground up. Since then, thanks to three expansions, it now occupies 90,000 sq. ft. upon seven acres, and its 1995 employee count of 14 has mushroomed to over 110—manning what’s become the largest independent, family-owned showroom in Kentuckiana.
But why stop there? In 2009, David purchased a former Stock Building Supply yard in Sellersburg, In., 15 minutes (and a world) away. “You don’t want to do that,” insiders counseled. But he did. Why? “Because it was so cheap!” David laughs. And so lucrative, he might add. The 14.5-acre site anchors a 100,000 sq. ft. building in what’s now Kentuckiana’s biggest locally-owner lumber and hardware store—where Louisville’s contractors cross the river to purchase their lumber and a whole lot more.
“The two stores complement each other; they’re not the same market,” attests David. “They couldn’t be more different,” he points out. The New Albany store carries everything from the ground up except drywall. It woos the ladies with its showroom displays of cabinets, kitchens, lighting.
The site in Sellersburg draws contractor customers with “big piles of lumber—a large pro lumberyard, with millwork and such—one store plush, the other rough, a mom-and-pop-type atmosphere,” he explains. “We market back and forth. Sellersburg is like a large neighborhood hardware store, friendly and helpful. It got us through the recent down-time. The right people there turned it around.”
Speaking of people: “We hire for a good personality, then offer training. We tell them, ‘The more you know, the more you’re valuable, and the more money you can make.’”
PC deals primarily with contractor customers—nearly 80% of business is driven by pros. Yet in 2016 David added a glitzy new showroom, as if catering to walk-ins. Again, why? “For the Wow Factor,” he explains. “To give people confidence in us. Two hundred thousand dollars of Andersen and Marvin displays and a lovely skylight. Plus, if we ever have another ’08 [recession], it’s something to fall back on.”
Meanwhile, he’s got the pros in his pocket; those builders and remodelers of custom homes are going crazy with new business in these days of COVID. “Our outside salesmen are a big influence in bringing in the big-volume builders. They’re ‘relationship’ people,” declares the boss.
“We take super-care of our customers, and do things right; if we screw up, we say so. And we know the customer is always right (even when he isn’t!). Word-of-mouth is our best advertising because our builders are in love with us and they talk to each other.”
PC’s contractor customers have proved loyal allies. “They like us because,” David stops to ponder—“one, we’re the only independent left in the metro. Our service is superb. We scramble to make good on on-time, in-full deliveries.” PC also rewards its strongest pros with trips like skiing in Colorado or sailing in warm waters—“paid for 100% out of my pocket, not vendors’.”
Worried about any competition? Worried might not be the right word—annoyed is more like it when potential customers blindly head to the many boxes populating Louisville—“yet they expect so much more service from us than the mediocre level they get for what they consider the (supposedly) cheaper prices at the boxes.”
There’s a huge difference, however. “We’re not corporate-owned, so we can make decisions on the fly. We try to do things right—no shortcuts. We work on continuous improvements and treating customers with respect. We continue to learn, though it’s not always easy; we’re always working on it.”
If only the economy would cooperate, right? “Appraisals and prices on homes are sliding downward, but still we’re having a record year. Thanks to COVID, customers want decks, outdoor spaces, more home projects. Lovely, if we can get the materials! Yet the rising price of lumber, by supply-and-demand, has helped us: good margins. Our city brags about a casino gambling boat on the river, but with lumber prices changing twice a week, I don’t need a boat to gamble!” he laughs.
David, 62, is far from counting the days—years!—until retirement. “I have no kids, so the business is my baby, my family. I like to build things, to see the pretty showroom, so I have no interest in selling out. I’m not staying in it for the money—I love to give money away, to the Salvation Army, to cancer funds. I gave out green light bulbs for a COVID-awareness cause. My plan for the company is, to eventually give half of it to my employees and half to the trust of a charity.”
In the meantime, it’s full steam ahead and another record-setting year, with a few tweaks along the way to ensure PC’s continued success: “I’ve learned that you can’t be everything to everybody: Stick to your niche!”