In May 1951, young Robert Arnold, fresh from college, snagged his first job, working for his stepmom’s boss. That job was selling feed in upstate New York in a small town called Malone. But that didn’t last long. The older gent was in a hurry to retire. He approached the Arnolds. Young Bob voted “no.” His dad, however, voted “yes”—and “yes” prevailed. Ironically, Dad passed away two years later, leaving Bob to run the show.
But the show must go on, and it did. Did it ever! Before his passing, Dad—a contractor by trade, who knew that line of work inside and out—had parlayed with his son about changing the focus of the enterprise, changing with the times. Goodbye, feed and farm machinery; hello, lumber.
And hello, next generation. By the early ’90s, Bob’s own sons Dan and Tom were active in the family business. Things were going well—so, why not add another new direction? The Arnolds proceeded to buy a Redi-Mix operation in town, which had recently been sold to a new employer its crew didn’t think much of—so they came to Arnold, asking if he might be interested in adding cement. Bob knew zero about Redi-Mix, but never mind: Those rogue employees did, and they begged to sign on with him and do what they could do best. So today Arnold, which amended its name to include the addition of concrete, keeps three cement trucks busy (plus five serving the town’s lumber needs), pouring driveways, retaining walls, foundations and even producing pre-cast pieces, not only for the local building industry but also for monuments and other signage and displays.
So far, so good. Building materials? Check. Concrete? Check again. So, why not sell fuel, too?
That opportunity arose with the retirement of the local fuel dealer in March 1998. Arnold purchased Connors Oil (now called Arnold Oil), expanding the enterprise’s market to sales of heating oil, gas, diesel and kerosene to the town and its farm neighbors. Oh, and it included an actual gas station—a full-service operation, where, says Luke Arnold, son of the third-generation owner (he’s 27, almost the same age at which his grandfather Robert assumed leadership), “where we still pump your gas—the only station around that still does it, and people love it. We also have one guy who installs boilers, furnaces, and plumbing, and also services heating systems. He’s one of a kind and we’re lucky to have him! Our contractors have charge accounts at both companies.” And when they stop by to fill up, they’re likely to pop inside for whatever their current project requires.
Malone, N.Y. (pop. 8,000), doesn’t boast a lot of industry. “It’s primarily an agricultural community; we get a lot of business from farmers, and it’s steady,” immune to economic ups and downs, Luke reports. But not much trade from Canada, whose border is only 10 miles to the north. Not with the unfavorable exchange rate these days. Instead, the contractors, who account for 75% of Arnold’s customers, are putting up houses in the $250,000-350,000 range, plus “lots of remodeling; lots of deck packages.”
Arnold Lumber & Concrete sports a showroom featuring windows and doors, flooring, paint and what-not, overseen by Sandy, who also takes her turn at the cash register. As does each of the outfit’s six employees (seven, counting Luke’s father, who owns the operation). Cross-training is the name of the game here. (“If someone hasn’t mixed paint before, they’ll ask, ‘Can I watch you?’”) And, thanks to a complete remodeling of the store in 2000, it now boasts widened and reconfigured aisles, enhanced lighting, and a new island dedicated to check-out. “Now the flow through the store is much better,” explains Luke. Ladies like it better, too, he adds, noting last week’s open house attendance.
With a small community, there’s no dedicated outside salesperson—“a little more difficult for us,” says Luke, “but the Internet helps with marketing.” (“I’m not into the Internet,” his dad interjects, just like his generation is geared to do.)
Luke maintains a robust Facebook presence and utilizes Instagram for sales pricing, give-aways, and other attention-grabbers “to keep people watching us—both the contractors and the do-it-yourselfers,” both of which rely heavily on Arnold’s longtime employees for advice and the extra-mile kind of service that helps the operation stand out from the competition. In return, the staffers can count on perks like a festive Christmas party and summer barbecues.
Competition? Yes, it’s strong: three in the cement line and five other indie lumber dealers close by. That’s why service is vital. “We take care of our customers. We’ll run out just a couple of boards if someone needs them in a hurry,” Luke notes. “They appreciate that our family’s been here in town a long time. Their word-of-mouth is our best advertising,” he maintains.
In 2001 brothers Dan and Tom bought Upstate Memorials, but that niche failed to turn much of a profit, so—quick to learn—they’ve divested it. In 2009, the brothers established Arnold Pre-Cast Inc., taking the concrete business one more step. Then, just recently, a rental niche was launched. “We just got into it; we’re still feeling it out. Decent margins,” Luke adds.
Add up all these enterprises and the sum is: one-stop shopping. “Contractors come in with blueprints and we’ll take it from there—septic tank, framing, roofing…. We stay pretty busy.” And that kind of enterprise doesn’t go unnoticed. In 2017 the company was voted Best of the Year by the Malone Chamber of Commerce.
By now it’s in Luke’s blood. “It’s pretty much all I ever knew. I grew up with my father keeping busy buying little pieces [of businesses]. He had to work his way up from the bottom—manual labor; pouring concrete. And that’s how I was raised. It’ll all be helpful, come the day I take over. My brother’s in the Army now, but he plans to come back to us, too. Sure, it’s stressful sometimes, but we stick it out. It’s a good feeling to know you’ve got everything done you had to get done in a day.”
But then, if Luke’s like the rest of his clan—and he seems to be—you keep looking ahead. “Could we keep on expanding?” he repeats a reporter’s query. “We’re always looking for more opportunities, seeing what else is out there….”