Jeff Sell has earned his stripes at making lemonade—although that’s one of the few items that his business, Central Lumber & Hardware, Harlowton, Mt., doesn’t sell.
His parents, who ran a similar business 40-some miles away, had come to realize that many of their existing customers drove over from Harlowston—a pinpoint (pop. 1,000) on the Montana map, where an existing yard was for sale. So they bought it back in 1984 with the understanding that its manager would stay in place to run the show. Turns out, running the outfit was not in his skill set. Yet, because of his product knowledge, the new owners felt they had to keep him on. So they sent in their son, Jeff, age 20. “Just the two of us,” he notes, in cataloguing the lemons foremost on his plate.
“I had grown up in my parents’ hardware business, so I stepped away from college to temporarily help out. This place had been a lumberyard in name only—to supply one contractor. It had only $30,000 in inventory. So I had to build it back up, during the lean years of the ’80s. I put the lumber back in, to supply it for everybody.”
The town—which, back then, sported three hardware stores and two lumberyards (all gone today) did not look favorably on the enterprise. “Here I was, a 20-year-old outsider in an elderly community. I didn’t know a thing,” says Jeff. “I had to bluff my way. First off, I got rid of bad inventory. I added products like floor coverings and mattresses—which we still sell, today. I added window coverings. Because we weren’t all that busy, I went out looking for customers. I also worked nights and weekends elsewhere to be able to make a go of it.
“Plus, I became very invested in the town. I’ve since been on the school board, the city council, and served as mayor for eight years. My wife is on the Chamber of Commerce. Our employees are on the school board and city council, too; we encourage employee involvement.”
By now, Harlowton’s former competing enterprises have dropped by the wayside, and, says Jeff, “Now we’re the only lumberyard in town. No competition. The closest is in Billings, 90 miles away.” Sounds more like lemonade.
Yet you won’t find Jeff sipping it from his rocking chair. He’s out there, front and center, pushing primo service: “It’s our big thing; we’ll do anything we have to do,” such as make a recent 20-mile run out to a customer who forgot the floor adhesive: “We’ll deliver as far as we need to go.”
His customers are evenly divided between pros and local walk-ins. Local contractors are building a few custom homes—“usually rural ranches for folks who have moved away, made money, and come back. But mostly it’s a lot of remodels and add-ons. Pole barns.”
Jeff hosts Contractors Nights in spring and fall, counting on vendors to introduce new products and supply the eats. The DIYers learn about the outfit via Facebook, “which we use extensively.
“We also serve three Hutterite colonies around here; nowadays we do a lot of business with them, but that wasn’t always the case. We had to develop mutual trust (most of the town mistrusted them). I worked on it, and it made a big difference. Now, they’re accepted everywhere,” he adds.
A staff of nine full-time employees plus four part-timers represent the kind of “people” people Jeff prefers to hire: “They know how to talk to customers. Product they can learn by shadowing an employee. Plus, many already know their trades. One knows plumbing, inside and out, and another is an ex-contractor, who’s familiar with bids and take-offs. I just hired a flooring salesman (I used to do most of that, myself); we’re known for flooring and sell it all over the area, up to 60 miles. Floor coverings recently jumped from $100,000 to $200,000 a year, and with good margins,” he confides.
But the biggest jump in sales—let’s call it an Olympic leap—occurred after Central recently completed a 14,000-sq. ft. expansion—over three years in the making—with the aid of the outfit’s buying group. “We surveyed what people wanted. Yet in the middle of the expansion last year, another yard here folded, so we needed to switch gears and add even more.” Meanwhile, between 2018 and 2019, sales were up a whopping 19%.
“Then in 2019, we held a Grand Re-Opening. In the first five months of this year, sales were up 46%, because of the expansion. Business previously had been strictly with contractors, but this brought in valued new customers—young folks and women,” drawn in part by the addition of housewares and lawn & garden departments: locals who’d never entered his doors before. Folks he reached on Facebook. Functioning as a one-stop shop in Harlowton, Central also has carried such diverse items as TVs, air conditioners and household linens. So, who needs Billings?
Even the dreaded virus provided an unexpected bonus. “It’s another new wave. We’re getting people who quit driving to Billings because of the risk, making last month (May 2020) the biggest month since we’ve been in business. Ever! In the midst of the expansion in May 2019, we brought in $102,000. In May 2020, it was $362,000. And the biggest increase came in Hardware; we’d added so much.
“Yes, the virus changed our sales,” he continues. “Our customer count went way up. Yet big sales are down: fewer lumber packages, fewer mattresses. But as folks ease back to work and get their stimulus payments, business is brewing again. In fact, we just made another hire because we didn’t even have time to put away our orders every week; it was a struggle. Now, we’re handling it.”
Jeff has never regretted the turn his life took at 20. “I love being my own boss, not having to answer to anybody. It also provides a very good income, on which I raised my family and will retire comfortably.”
But not tomorrow. “The business will come up for sale when we get ready to retire, which also drove the expansion idea. It won’t sell locally, so this makes it all the more attractive [to outsiders].”
Oh, heck: He probably would have expanded anyway, following his own advice. Here’s the credo he lives by: “You’ve gotta spend money to make money; you’ve gotta make it happen, re-invest in your business, keep it in good shape. You’ve got to always have a goal.”