Dealer Profile

DEALER PROFILE: Tahlequah Lumber Co., Tahlequah, OK.

Remember Dynasty, the saga of the badly-behaving Carrington and Colby clans of Texas? Well, there’s another dynasty flourishing right next door, deep in the heart of Oklahoma. The (much nicer) family of Skinners doesn’t carry on in similar McMansions, however; instead, they provide the wherewithal to build them. And there are plenty in tiny (pop. 18,000) Tahlequah, where today Randy Skinner heads Tahlequah Lumber Co., which he and his wife took over from her father, and where their son and daughter and their respective spouses all toil (plus a niece and her husband and grandkids sprouting in the wings).

Beats herding cattle, but perhaps just as challenging. And the way the family business got started back in 1949 is a story just begging for prime time. As Randy tells it, his wife’s father—a young kid, still in college—was in church one Sunday when a fellow next to him whispered, “Wanna buy a lumberyard?” Sure, and the Golden Gate Bridge, too.

But the offer was for real. A small operation—run by its owner and one part-timer—was for sale. For $500. As stated in yet-another dynasty epic on TV, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The young man’s training was strictly OTJ, but it worked out and the company flourished. Then a generation later, while Randy and his wife were working for American Airlines in Tulsa, they got a call from her father: Come down and help out, please, because the man’s wife was stricken—fatally, turns out, alas—with cancer. “So I stayed on,” Randy relates, working side by side with his father in law. An ideal mentorship, he says—“We never had a single argument”—which primed Randy for the top job when the time came. Northing much to tweak, he reports, so simply “full steam ahead.” In 1991 he added a showroom and later moved from the original location on Main Street to a 10-acre site on what was then the edge of town in order to be able to expand both footprint and SKUs to offer one-stop shopping for the outfit’s posse of loyal (and busy) contractors. Retail for the DIY crowd, too.

Although the town of Tahlequah is modest in size, it punches way above its weight. New-home construction is booming (and we’re not talking about shoe-box starters), with hardly a hitch, even during the recession—“many, larger than you would expect,” swears Randy, who offers a couple of reasons for this prosperity, and his yard’s share of it: “Tahlequah is capitol of the Cherokee Nation, which brings a lot of business to us. It’s well run and keeps us busy. There’s a thriving college here too, plus a lake 10 miles away with a lot of second and retirement homes going up. Lots of people are choosing to live on the lake and commute to work,” he notes.

With the help of its buying group, Tahlequah Lumber has become a magnet for one-stop shopping, stocking everything from automotive to appliances, farm & ranch to HVAC. After a remodel in 2005, the store gained both a fresh look and new products, geared to withstand the competition of a new Lowe’s in the market. “They don’t usually open in such a small town,” Randy notes, but the sweet smell of prosperity proved a strong lure.

Tahlelquah was looking to stretch itself as the business grew to include six family members. A yard for sale in Pryor, 45 miles distant, filled the bill. Today its GM is Skinner’s niece, “one of the few females around here” in that leadership role—one who, her uncle underscores “doesn’t take any guff from the men.” Then in 2015 the company bought the yard of a former family friend in Wagoner, 22 miles away, when its owner died. The product lines and demographics of all three stores are similar.

So are the rental ops each offers, which range from party aids—chairs, tables, kids’ birthday bouncy houses—to scaffolding, air compressors and Bobcats. Popular? “Yes, the rentals really are, and bring in good margins. We wouldn’t think of not having those departments,” Randy swears.

Employees throughout the system are cross-trained to serve in any aisle, gaining the expertise that helps them advance as they provide the  kind of customer service that prompt letters of gratitude (“best ever”)—which Tahlequah is quick to post on Facebook. They’ve been hired for “personality; for how they relate to people,” and that’s paid off in priceless word of mouth.

… and in loyalty from the town’s pros. Tahlequah’s contractor-sales staff treks out to jobsites, “seeing how everything’s going, helping them to stay on top of it, get products when they need them. It’s like we’re one of their own employees. We even lock in prices for the duration of the job so they can feel secure.” The company also hosts quarterly lunches where vendors introduce their shiny new toys. Home owners have their day, too—a Customer Appreciation event publicized via social media.

Because Tahlequah stocks “the best possible products” backed by trusted service, it earns commercial business from the town’s thriving medical complex plus the “huge” business generated by the Cherokee Nation’s own medical facilities. “We’ve got more docs per population than most towns of 18,000 can boast,” says Randy.

Perhaps that helped shield the business from the ravages of the recession. “Oh, things slowed down a bit, but we fared better than most; we’ve never laid off anyone. It was ‘business as usual.’”

Or as unusual, once his son, who played basketball for Oklahoma U, decided to return to the family enterprise, followed by Randy’s daughter and her husband, who left the bright lights of Oklahoma City to jump on board. Grandkids are being groomed as we speak. And Randy loves every minute of it: “It’s always a challenge: every day, something new—tariffs, price fluctuations. You’ve gotta make sure products are available and keep competitive.” Speaking of which: Is a fourth location beckoning from the crystal ball? “We’re always looking. If the right situation comes along….”  Just like Dynasty.

 

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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