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DEALER PROFILE: Adams Lumber, Kearney, NE.

“A my!” Chad Leibbrandt called to his young wife as they hauled their belongings back to their hometown of Imperial, Ne., after finishing college in Kearney and starting out there on beginner jobs. They drove past Adams Lumber. “Wouldn’t it be neat if it were for sale?”

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“A my!” Chad Leibbrandt called to his young wife as they hauled their belongings back to their hometown of Imperial, Ne., after finishing college in Kearney and starting out there on beginner jobs. They drove past Adams Lumber. “Wouldn’t it be neat if it were for sale?”

“The funny part is, seven years later, it was,” Chad continues. “Cool!” he gasped and signed on the dotted line. “Basically, to my own surprise, we ended up buying it.”

Having grown up in Imperial—a small (pop. 2,000) town in Southwest Nebraska, 20 miles from the Colorado border and 30 from the Kansas state line, he knew the territory. He decided to keep the Adams name to honor the enterprise Mr. Adams had purchased 35 years prior and was now ready to pass the torch and enjoy retirement. The Leibbrandts closed the deal in August 2002.

An impulse purchase, sure, but not as zany as it sounds. Chad had gained experience working for Builders Warehouse before returning home. And he was familiar with the area. Wisely subscribing to the “Ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of business management, all that was required was fine tuning, not a major overhaul. Except…

Except for a niche called for by changing times and range of offerings now available in box stores like Walmart, 60 miles distant. (“Around here, everybody drives.”) A Design Center. Consider it done. It features everything from showers and baths to tile, flooring and cabinets, all overseen by a full-time designer. The community received it so enthusiastically that a second designer was hired.

The business draws customers from a 30-mile radius—both contractors (60%) and walk-ins (40%). “The pros like our service: It’s over and beyond. Timely delivery (including via forklift). Plus if ever there’s an incident, we first correct it and only later pause to figure out what was wrong, thus saving the consumer’s time. You won’t find that at the boxes, so that’s gained us loyalty. Plus, we’ve instituted a Gold Rewards program. If your account is paid in full all year long, we give you dollars back. That sends business our way, too—the idea of rebates.

“To meet the competition, we’ve had to shrink margins a bit, but folks understand that you pay a little more for outstanding service. Eighty percent of our customers charge to our house account—kind of old-fashioned,” Chad notes with an edge of pride in his voice. And “old-fashioned” can be a good thing: “Our employees walk around with pads in their pockets, making homemade SKUs for the shelves, telling what things do. Then three times a day, they enter the info on a computer. This gets customers in and out in a timely manner.”

While that contractor trade is robust, Adams’ retail trade is also healthy because, notes Chad, “Around here, folks are fairly handy—installing their own showers, cabinets and such. More and more, those customers are ladies. They love the Design Center. We also revamped the paint department to make things little brighter. And we added a Pinterest Night. A local lady likes doing this, so she takes on projects. At the last event, the ladies built a service tray—staining, varnishing, everything.” The venture has built repeat customers.

Chad also utilizes mailers, ads in newspapers and on radio, plus a Facebook presence designed to attract new and younger customers. “It draws folks to both stores.”

What? Hang on. What’s this about “both?”

“Oh,” Chad explains, “the same time we bought the Imperial yard, we also purchased a store that Mr. Adams owned in Grant, 30 miles away. It’s smaller, but it also has a small Design Center—just enough to get ’em going and interested. I have a GM at each location (plus a Ready Mix plant with its own GM, too).”

“I know, I know,” he says it first, “it’s slightly idiotic.” The two stores carry roughly 80% of the same products, but with small tweaks. “You’d be surprised, but in 30 miles, things change a lot. For instance, folks in Grant buy lava rock, within Imperial, it’s cement block. Each has its own contractor base, but 80% of the pros work both towns.”

This works because Chad can count on his crew of 21—some on board even longer than the boss himself. “We cross-train: bookkeeper to management to delivery. Everybody has his key spot, but each is also prepared to drop everything to wait on a customer.”

Why do they like working here? “I’d say it’s the low-key environment. They’re empowered to make decisions on the spot and then talk it over later.” And then there’s the family bit. “They know they can take time off to go to a funeral, say, or a kid’s ballgame.”

As a high-school student in Imperial back in the day, Chad worked at this very yard in a work-release program, so he and Amy (who serves as bookkeeper) believe that it’s very important to continue this tradition of mentoring kids and employ them on a part-time basis.

Chad is willing to take a chance at adding niches, too—even if success is not always guaranteed. Take rentals, for instance: “It was a nuisance for us; we didn’t do it right,” he allows. “It could have been a home run. Still, in a small town like this, folks like to see a progressive company.”

Has Adams rebounded from the recent recession, I ask? Turns out, it’s complicated. Says Chad, “Actually, the recession of the past didn’t affect us. It was one of our better years, because we’re an agricultural community, and the ag economy was good, so the recession didn’t hurt. But right now, compared with four years ago, commodity prices are down. Last year was good; we supplied materials for additions and remodeling. But today,” he says, “we’re going through our own recession here in town.” The spin-off is, “We don’t replace a lost employee, and we’re paying more attention to inventory levels: more just-in-time.”

Chad’s prepared to tough it out. “I’m here for the long run. I’m 41 years old, and I don’t have a choice,” he laughs: “I’ll be here when I’m 90!”

And that’s a good thing. “I like to interact with people, help them fix their problems. Plus, the town is always willing to give us a chance.”