Dealer Profile

DEALER PROFILE: LA CROSSE LUMBER OF WISCONSIN

What do you get when you plant a lumber company named Lacrosse (a town on Wisconsin’s bank of the Mississippi) into a community called Louisiana?

What do you get when you plant a lumber company named Lacrosse (a town on Wisconsin’s bank of the Mississippi) into a community called Louisiana? Outside of muddled geography, you get the headquarters of a very successful, 14-location enterprise in Central Missouri, that’s what.

It’s one that was launched way back in the 1880s by the governor of Wisconsin and  his brother-in-law, looking for a suitable spot to build a lumber mill for the Northern white pine logs floating down the river from their home state. Louisiana, Mo., made the cut because the area’s east-west railroad lines intersected with the north-south river traffic here. Over time, the planing mill’s customers demanded more, and more again, in the way of products and services. Today they’ve got 11 one-stop-shopping locations in Missouri and three more across the river in Illinois to serve their needs.

President Kevin Keely, who came up through the ranks, appointed Jason Schnettgoecke as the company’s general manager just over a year ago. Jason had managed the Carrolton, Il., location since 1994, bringing a hands-on education in day-to-day operations to his new post.

But, he stresses, in this outfit, one size does not fit all. No cookie cutters in the company’s tool box. “Each store is slightly different, depending on the community. Some serve the walk-in trade almost completely. Some are one-quarter pro; others, three-quarters. Some have only three employees; others, as many as 20. They run the gamut.

“Our managers all have a lot of power in how they run their operation. We tell them, ‘Manage it like you own it.’ Unlike many other chains, they have more freedom. Of course, our headquarters here in Louisiana is here to help, and to provide purchasing power.”

Product stocked also depend on the individual markets, and their unique competition, “which can be other independents or farm and home stores or big boxes.” For instance, in Glasgow (yup, also right here in Missouri) they carry a lot of seed, hanging baskets and yard supplies the others wouldn’t consider. But all of them benefit from a strong relationship with Milwaukee Tools. “We offer rental equipment in six locations, which we started last summer and are still building up. Yes, it’s a tough niche,” Jason agrees, “especially getting the word out. But the margins are really very good. And everybody uses it, from the walk-in customers to contractors to municipalities.”

Because the stores are about a half an hour apart, they can quickly draw from each others’ inventory if necessary. “There’s a lot of sharing and cooperation,” Jason stresses. “Managers get together to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and what to watch out for. We’re one big family.”

It’s a family with a strong service ethic, and that’s one major factor in attracting and retaining the loyalty of its contractor customers. “They appreciate that we carry quality materials—top-grade lumber—and that we make a priority of timely service: You call in an order, and we’re on it! We deliver as quickly as possible—something that puts us ahead of the competition.”

Lacrosse’s pros also benefit from events like Tool Days, sponsored by companies such as Milwaukee and Bostitch, where these customers can bring in tools, get them repaired, benefit from deals on new ones, and—of course—have a bite to eat. What are these pros up to? “Depends on the markets where they’re located. The bigger towns, they’re building new homes, also spec homes, in the $250,000 to $300,000 range. In smaller towns, it’s more remodeling.

“Pros appreciate that we go the extra mile, provide services others may not, like timely deliveries and top-quality lumber. We’re less strict in our return policies, too. And our outside salesman in Columbia deals one-on-one with our contractors, visiting their jobsites.

“Our staff likes working here, too, because we’ve been around a long time. We treat everybody well: we’re loyal to them, and they to us. We’re a little more easygoing. And our managers like having the freedom to make important decisions.”

The company is starting to direct more attention to the retail crowd, too. “We’ve noticed that these customers are more and more female. So to appeal to them, we’ve added new products—cleaning supplies, lawn and garden, and Sherwin Williams paints, which we display right at the entrance. Also, we’ve upgraded to better displays, better lighting, and cleaner aisles. We’ll hold our first Ladies Night in July. And our managers have instituted staff training to stress being a little more refined, if you will, in our approach and conversation with these female customers.”

One-stop shopping is the aim. “We try to have complete lines to do the job, including farm & ranch, HVAC, lawn & garden, power tools. And we have a draftsman in our main office who can work on plans.”

To get the message out, Lacrosse knows that e-commerce is the wave of the present, to position itself for the future. “We do online advertising, and each of the stores has its own Facebook account, where they post at least once a week. (‘Advertising doesn’t come any cheaper than Facebook!’ Jason laughs.) We still do fliers and mailers, but we’re looking to change how we do things: enter the digital age.”

Lacrosse’s dedication to charitable causes has become almost legendary. “Schools,” says Jason, “are on the top of our list. Churches, too. Every town has a little different focus. We donate time, money, materials, lend people equipment.” And it all comes around. “People really appreciate it and remember it,” he notes.

All that helped the outfit pull through the recession, which “hurt. Sure did! Especially in our pro-based yards. In the retail and agricultural side, however, people still needed hardware.” To cope? “We did everything you usually do—cut costs to weather the storm. Now, we’re back—absolutely on a roll.”

And that’s the way Jason loves it. “I like getting to see a lot of different people, meet all kinds of folks. It’s a broader scope than when I was in a smaller, farming community. I can see how others do things, pass on tips. As a company, we’re looking to grow: add more locations, and grow rentals beyond our six present stores.”

That’ll keep Jason in the office for the foreseeable future, and the future looks rosy. States Jason in no uncertain terms, “I’m 45, and I plan on being a lifer!”

 

 

CARLA WALDEMAR
Carla Waldemar

CARLA WALDEMAR is a contributing editor to Building Products Digest and The Merchant Magazine, profiling lumber dealers each month since 2002 in her “Competitive Intelligence” column. Based in St. Paul, MN, she also specializes in freelance articles for the LBM and travel industries.

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