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Dealer Profile: Michigan’s Big Rapids Lumber

REMINISCENT OF the CBS TV reality show Undercover Boss, David VanderWeele was on a stealth mission to check out a business without anyone recognizing him.

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REMINISCENT OF the CBS TV reality show Undercover Boss, David VanderWeele was on a stealth mission to check out a business without anyone recognizing him.

It was 2020 and VanderWeele was looking for a new business venture when he heard a nearby lumberyard was for sale. The 115-year-old Big Rapids Cash & Carry in Big Rapids, Mi., was up the road an hour, outside of Grand Rapids, Mi., and VanderWeele was interested in seeing how it was run. So, he decided to secret shop the store.

“I came up and secret shopped the store three different times: once as a pain in the backside customer, once as a customer that was normal, and once with my kids running around the store,” he states.

The Big Rapids’ staff took his “tests” in stride. Their professionalism convinced him that he should buy the company from Phil and Bob Daniels, who had previously taken over the business from their father Jim Daniels. VanderWeele would become the company’s fourth-generation owner.

“I was very impressed with the people that worked here. Their caliber. They were consistent with me each and every time. (The staff was) knowledgeable, friendly. It seemed like the atmosphere was a very positive atmosphere,” VanderWeele explains, adding that he visited the store without Phil Daniels’ knowledge. “He didn’t even know I was coming.”

“This operation, when I secret shopped them, gave me that feeling of premium products, service and people,” he says, something that he was looking for when buying a new company.

At the time, VanderWeele was running a large, national insurance company, overseeing three states. Yet, despite the two companies being drastically different, it didn’t dissuade him from buying the company. “We’re in the people business. It doesn’t matter what the products are or the services, whether it’s an insurance policy; whether it’s spray paint; a 2×4, 8 ft.; a car for that matter. Products don’t matter. My philosophy is: ‘If your business is developed correctly, you’re in the people business, helping to solve problems, helping to make their days better, helping to assist them (to) save time so they can do things that they value more.’ That philosophy has served me very well over time.” The business was also attractive because VanderWeele’s father had introduced him to the contractor and plumbing business as a child.

In the three years since, with the help of Phil Daniels, who stayed on to assist in the company transition, but who is now ready to retire, VanderWeele has transitioned the company from its previous identity of Big Rapids Cash & Carry to Big Rapids Lumber & Hardware (Big Rapids), a name he feels better suits the direction the company is headed in.

In fact, the staff of 19 people is currently in the process of an overhaul, having added 40% more hardware inventory in the past 90 days by extending its 4-ft. shelves to 7-ft. shelves. Ironically, it was VanderWeele’s early stealth visits to the store that led him to making this change.

In March of 2020, six months before the sale of the business was finalized, VanderWeele says he came to the store two days a week to learn the store, understand its customers, and get a feel for the staff to make sure it was what he wanted to do. It was during his visits one week that he overheard three customers ask if the store sold trailer hitches. A staff member at the time replied, “We’re not a hardware store. We’re a lumberyard.” A similar response was repeated two more times. The next month, VanderWeele said to his staff, “How many people have to ask for a trailer hitch or a trailer hitch ball before we order some?”

“The company was so focused on contractors only, they were missing a whole segment of the market out there that our competitors were taking advantage of, which is (a DIYer) that needs help with a product, and they don’t want to drive across town,” he adds. “So, I made the decision back then that we would rename the company, Big Rapids Lumber & Hardware. Saying what we do (and) where we do it to me made a little more sense than the classic name from the ’70s, Cash & Carry.”

“I have a (customer) who is a half-a-million-dollar builder who is getting ready to retire,” says VanderWeele, further illustrating his point with a true story. “I can’t snap my fingers and replace that builder from a projection and diversification standpoint. I would rather have 200 $1,000 customers than one $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, or $100,000 customer. There’s more safety in that diversification. So, that’s kind of also what (led) me down the hardware path.”

Presently, the store is undergoing a complete remodel both inside and out with new signage and marketing reflecting the name change and increased focus on hardware. In addition, the company is concentrating on diversifying its business, including adding more products that are geared toward commercial contractors.

“We have some commercial contractors we work with,” VanderWeele explains. “They stop in for their personal needs, but why aren’t they really giving us a shot (for their commercial business)? Again, I go back to my philosophy—we solve problems. If there’s a product somebody wants us to carry and they commit they’ll buy it from us, I don’t care what the product is… I’m not hung up on the products at all. I’ll do anything to make the problem go away for somebody, and, no, I didn’t say in that statement, ‘I’ll be the least expensive.’ I think what happens is people get so caught up in price… versus, again, the people business, solving the problem.”

It is this flexibility in responding to the needs of the local community that has enabled Big Rapids to thrive despite stiff competition in a six-mile radius surrounding the store. And even though there has been a similar business on the company’s same property dating back to 1905, what sets the lumberyard apart from its local competition today is “having the best products compared to everybody else in our industry,” VanderWeele explains. “We carry a much higher grade, different product of lumber than what they carry. That really helps us differentiate ourselves from a product standpoint.”

The yard carries Hem-fir as its dimensional lumber, which, he says, produces a stronger and straighter building foundation material. In addition, they carry the highest-quality-graded lumber that you can buy, which results in the straightest boards with the least number of knots. This is Big Rapids’ stocked product, not a special order.

“You can literally, physically see a huge difference in our bunks of lumber when they’re stacked up, and from the coloring to the straightness of the boards—they aren’t crooked, the ends aren’t split open,” VanderWeele says, adding that it is worth the increase in price when you factor in the reduction in wasted lumber, and fewer warped boards that need replacing in the future.

In addition, Big Rapids has taken it a step further with its unprecedented delivery. The company offers same-day delivery on 85% of its loads for their contractor customers, and a 100% delivery commitment in 24 hours—at no charge to the contractor. Occasionally, this means VanderWeele makes the deliveries himself.

Thankfully, an increase in construction in the Big Rapids area has provided the company with steady business, due in part to more people moving into the area for its country feel and cheaper housing costs, and the heavy vacation property base around the region’s many lakes.

Looking ahead, VanderWeele says Big Rapids will further explore offering more commercial products, wholesaling products, and looking into possibly acquiring more lumber, hardware or kitchen and bath locations.

And whether Big Rapids remains a single location or grows to several locations, VanderWeele says he is confident that it will remain competitive against the area’s big box stores because his customer “wants somebody knowledgeable to talk with. They want somebody to walk them to the aisle. They want somebody to carry their product out to them. They want somebody to explain, ‘Hey I saw this new product.’” Something, he says, his customer won’t find in a 60,000-sq. ft. big box store.

Nevertheless, VanderWeele is not caught up in adding locations as long as he can continue to address the needs of his customers. “If I don’t ever have another location, that’s perfectly fine. If I have two or three, that’s perfectly fine. If I end up with 10 or 20, it’s perfectly fine. It’s meant to be. We’ll go and I’ll do what the customers want me to do.”

And with Big Rapids’ century of experience helping its customers, and a company culture to always put the customer first, it’s no surprise that VanderWeele’s purchase of the company turned out to be a great deal.  MM