If you haven’t heard of Shipshewana, In., in the corner of the state where it meets South Michigan, well, that makes two of us. There’s not even a dot on my map to pin down the location of Alpha Building Center, Inc., which counts over a hundred locals among its staff.
And no, it isn’t the town’s biggest employer, either. “The largest industry around here are the RV factories,” reports Darin Hochstetler, Alpha’s GM. “They produce 80% to 90% of all those manufactured in the U.S. Big plants that pay well. They drive our economy.”
But if I’m guessing right, not many of the town’s locals own a model. Their traditional mode of transportation is horse & buggy. They’re Mennonites and Amish. And they’re local customers of Alpha.
Here in what Darin calls the heart of Amish country, “60% of our clients are contractors, working on barns and commercial buildings, but mostly homes—new, remodels, re-roofing—and garage doors,” another strong Alpha niche.
“We’re having a big year,” he divulges, pointing to an early spike in sales due to the coronavirus, which shut down those RV factories and gave folks time on their hands for home projects. For contractors, however, “it’s been more challenging—like, getting their inspections, etc.”
The company was launched in 1985 by Henry Hershberger, whose kinsman Keith serves as today’s president and CEO, presiding over the financials and major buying. In 2008 the company built a branch in Nottawa, Mi., which today employs a staff of close to 20, who have engineered a loyal following. In December 2019, Alpha opened a third store—this one in Nappanee, staffed by another 20—still in its early stages, says Darin. Money was the driving factor for expansions, he explains, because of Alpha’s free delivery policy. The new locations lower transportation costs while adding welcome service to these outlying communities (neither of which merits a dot on the map, either).
They serve to combat competition, too, for which Darin has one word: “Fierce! Both chains and independents. But what sets us apart is our small, mom-and-pop store feel. We build relationships. We’re not the cheapest; instead we offer quality and service,” thanks to primo employees.
Finding and retaining these employees is an “interesting challenge,” he notes. “The Amish and Mennonites are very connected in their communities and get together often, so it’s a matter of word-of-mouth. In the past, if you didn’t know somebody, you just asked around. But as we grew, we began to rely on Facebook and such platforms, too.
“We are the go-to place to be employed, rather than the RV facilities,” he allows. “We offer flexible schedules; we have an attitude and culture that attracts them and fits in with their values.”
True to the maxim, “we hire for attitude and train for skills. We rotate them through the various departments for a couple of months so they can see what we have to offer, pairing them with a mentor to shadow. At first, we produced generalists, knowing just enough to be dangerous,” Darin jokes. “Now, we prefer them to specialize: doors, windows, decks….
“I’d say 50% of them are Amish, and until recently, almost all of them, spoke Dutch [called that, but what many designate as Low German].” Alpha can assist this community with items their way of life deters them from owning, lending them access to such business essentials as cellphones and computers. “Our outside salesman visits those contractors two or three times a week, face-to-face. They’re very friendly, very polite.”
There’s even a Woodworking Supply Route set up to serve them. “It started as a tool and repair business,” Darin explain. “Then we started to hear, ‘Do you have….?’ Turns out, 80% of what they need is small stuff, like blades and rosin paper. So we put it on a truck and take it on a route, kind of like rural mail delivery. They get to know the driver, become friends. They build cabinetry and countertops for the RVs and other custom work. The Amish are known for craftsmanship, ingenuity; they’re good at working with their hands.”
Alpha birthed another lucrative niche when it launched its Vinyl Exterior shop in 2007, when a former independent operator came on board. Why vinyl, anyway? Explains Darin, “Wood decks are very popular, but they present challenges: They rot, they need treating. Vinyl is unique. Different. And you can bend it to produce, say, gables. We offered mostly a stock assortment at first; now, it’s mostly custom, for uses such as a pergola.”
Another specialty—garage door sales and installation—is far from a walk in the meadow, with five active competitors within 30 miles. To combat this crowd, he says, “We work hard at being professional. Our customer service draws folks back, and we provide all-authentic parts. People are willing to pay a little more for that kind of value,” he finds.
The newest customer lure in this collection is a Design Center, which opened just months ago after Darin discovered space going to waste above the main floor. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does Darin. He got it cleaned up and outfitted it as a showroom with windows, doors, cabinets and more, including an area where contractors can leave their clients in Alpha’s capable hands to help the homeowners with design decisions.
Thanks in part to town chatter (Darin is a devotee of marketing by word-of-mouth), business has mushroomed by 10% a year. This success also is driven by events such as Makita Day (Alpha boasts the largest single-store sales in the state), fueled by pricing specials, events and food. “And our Spring Open House draws 1,500 people—a huge community event that sets us up for the rest of the year.”
Alpha’s biggest challenge ahead? Darin’s quick with an answer: “Growth. And getting our management team geared up for it. (Keim Lumber, of Charm, Oh., is his role model.) Like Keim, he figures that the town’s Amish-inspired tourism could be tapped into—but how? Maybe,” he muses, “ways visitors could do stuff with their hands, like Design Your Own Sign.” Or….
This GM wasn’t always a small-town kind of guy by nature. He’s been born again. “I was part of a big corporation, when Alpha’s GM at the time—my cousin— approached me with ‘You know what?’
“I appreciated that it was a Christian-based business, very friendly. Plus it offered an opportunity for growth; doors were open. I started as an inside salesperson and fell in love with the challenge, and what it takes to be successful, such as ‘Keep your word.’
“You learn to ask customers (who are searching for an item), ‘What’s important to you? Performance? Value?’ Then help them find the best selection.
“I became sales manager, then general manager. What do I like about my job?” he ponders. “Working with the owners—which can be challenging, at times. Their work ethic: They care about their employees. The opportunity to work with very talented people. To develop leadership within the company and help other people grow, to empower people to step up. (If you develop leaders, company growth will take care of itself,” he’s certain.) “Plus, develop them at a very young age. You can see their growth in front of your own eyes!”
No better reward.