Save the fanfare. No, no, no, wrestled Darrell Derstler upon high school graduation: The last thing on God’s green earth he had in mind was working in the family lumberyard. He’d try anything instead—like, say, farming.
But farming, as was quickly brought to his attention, required colossal outlays of cold, hard cash for everything in the John Deere catalog. So instead, Darrell labored laying floors in nearby Kansas City for three years, “until I blew out my back.” So, what next?
You guessed it—back to Richmond, Mo., 30 miles from the bright lights of the big city, and the yard his granddad, dad, and uncle had bought from the Long Bell chain in 1960. They’d been farmers, too. “They had no idea how to run a lumberyard, but they put in a bid and got it,” as Darrell (too young to remember) spools their story.
Eight years later, they expanded the 3,500-sq. ft. space and added new hardware lines. But only months after that, an arsonist did his dirty work and destroyed the operation. (Thirty fires later, he was apprehended.) A Ford dealership across the road offered the use of its used-car building during the reconstruction, so Derstler Lumber never closed. That’s spunk.
That spunk must have been lurking in Darrell’s DNA, too. He bought out his uncle’s share of the business in 1995, his grandpa’s in 1998 and, following the death of his dad, paid his mom for her remaining share in 2002, along with his wife, Terri—“the first time the business ever had a single owner. And it’s the best thing I ever did!” Darrell now proclaims.
By 2005, he’d relocated the outfit to a new space just off the main drag, and on its three acres built an 8,000-sq. ft. retail store to anchor the yard. (Never mind that it stood in the shadow of a WalMart. We’ll get to that later.)
Derstler’s customers are pretty evenly divided between pros and walk-ins. The contractors provide the bigger revenue, but the DIYers make the bigger numbers of transactions in this bedroom community of 6,000. But what makes a whopping difference, notes Darrell, is this: “I do drafting. I draw a ton of houses. Keeps me busier than heck! Seventy-five percent of what we build, I’ve drawn—and you won’t find that at Walmart. Or in Kansas City. I make it clear that if I draw it, they buy it [the package] here. Last year, we supplied 20-some new houses in the area—all custom, no specs. Between 1989 and 2005, before the recession hit, we’d never sold less than 35 a year, mostly to folks in their 30’s and 40’s—north of Kansas City. Also Lexington. Delivering an hour-plus away, even to Lake of the Ozarks, three hours from us.”
Why do new-home builders flock to Derstler? “My sparkling personality,” giggles Darrell. And he’s only half-kidding. “Every time we make a sale,” he insists, “there’s a connection. A relationship. Never out of the blue. In Kearney, I bowl with a contractor (and I sponsor three bowling teams). Of course, we also remodel, do a couple of pole barns a week, some decks….”
When he’s not bowling, he’s probably resetting the store. “We took out the sales counters, moved them, made them smaller. Put in $80,000 of new inventory—plumbing, electrical, nails. New paint. More complete lines. Added LED lighting. People are still cussing me because they can’t find anything now,” he jokes.
But they keep coming back. Why? “Our staff is far superior” to that of the looming neighbor, Walmart. “All we have to sell is service,” he instructs them. “Folks can buy product anywhere.”
Service, these days, includes a robust rental department. “Terri and I were talking: Should we add appliances, or rental? (The True Value that used to offer rental had gone out of business.) It’s a pain in the butt, stuff breaking, but we decided to just go ahead with it. I thought, smaller things: concrete saws, nail guns. But our supplier advised us, ‘No. Bobcats. Backhoes.’ And oh, man! That was a good idea. It’s done quite well.”
That same fellow also wanted to know if the Derstlers had ever considered a second store. Quick answer: No! “But if something comes up, would you be interested?” “Not really, But I’ll take a look….”
Which is why the couple now owns a second store in Concordia, a smaller town of 2,500 33 miles away, which became theirs in June 2015. “It had limited inventory, not much on the shelves, and did $1 million in sales its last year. So, first thing, we remodeled the exterior and interior, put in a bunch of inventory, added thousands of SKUs. We also added Lawn & Garden because there wasn’t that Walmart close by: grass seed, rakes. And more contractor stuff.”
In less than six months, sales had doubled to $2 million. “It’s far enough away from our Richmond location, yet we can help each other out with stock. The customer base is similar.”
Darrell kept most of the original staff, but, by lucky accident, added a key position. “We’d never had an outside salesman (It was me), but, after being open a couple of months, an outside salesman from Lexington came in, wanting a job, and I hired him. Best thing I ever did,” he says (again). “He brought in customers from Warrensburg, from Odessa. That really helped double those sales.
“I said I’d never own a second store, but it’s worked out really well. I’d do another again tomorrow if it were in the right spot.”
But, before that burst, there was the Great Recession to soldier through. “Oh yeah, it was bad. It made a heck of a difference. In 2005, we did 54 houses; in ’06, just nine or 10. So I had to cut some staff. I mowed the yard myself instead of paying for that. Terri did all the books herself, too.”
Bounce back? Yes it did. And it didn’t hurt that Derstler Lumber is the only indie yard in town. “Plus, we sell better stuff. Our treated lumber is #1, our studs, premium Doug fir. If I were someone building a custom home, I’d be concerned with stuff like that.” Good call.
So it’s safe to assume that farming’s out of the picture and that Darrell has found his calling.