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DEALER PROFILE: Michigan’s Vassar Building Center

This is not going to be one of those perky accounts of how a lumberyard in a tiny town is doing enviable business despite a puny population base because (choose one): 1. It’s a booming resort community; 2. It’s mining uranium; 3. Another miracle.

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This is not going to be one of those perky accounts of how a lumberyard in a tiny town is doing enviable business despite a puny population base because (choose one): 1. It’s a booming resort community; 2. It’s mining uranium; 3. Another miracle.

Vassar, pop. 3,500—which fits in the “mitten” that’s the map of Michigan where the thumb meets the fingers—is not that town. It used to be a logging center, but those days are long gone, and no more-recent industry has moved in to take its place. Yet Mike MacKay loves it here, and Vassar, in turn, loves Vassar Building Center, which he co-owns with his wife, Brenda, whose father started out here as a driver back in the day. Later he was hand-picked to take over from the founding Cook family in 1985 (bypassing their own kin). Now Mike’s next in line.

Mike was working in the auto body shop across the street when he heard of a job opportunity selling paint for an automotive company. Only trouble was, he had no fax machine to send off his resume. So he walked across the road to use the one at the lumberyard. “Looking for a job? Does your dad know?” the GM grilled the lad. The fellow then followed up with, “You oughta try working here.”

That was 25 years ago. Along the way, Mike married the boss’s daughter and they’re both still working at the company they now own. And loving it. Back when Mike stepped aboard, the outfit was doing over $3 million in sales a year with a staff of 48. Business kept right on booming until the recent recession took the wind out of that happy sailing, plus the bad news that Mike’s father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer.

The good news is that both are doing fine today. Sales have soared by 30% since 2013 and a staff of 28 is handling the increase by working smarter. Vassar’s core business—80%—lies with the contractors it serves—repeat customers who deal, Mike says, in “a bit of everything: mainly remodeling, but also new custom homes, pole barns for the surrounding ag community, decks, anything you can think of. They like us because we deliver with a heavy truck (and return to do pick-ups, too) and because of our service, especially if there’s an issue. Plus our competitive prices. And that we’re on the cutting edge of new products,” he adds. “Our staff keeps up to speed with building codes, energy codes, everything. And these contractors especially appreciate that we offer in-house accounts, making billing really easy.”

Mike learned the ropes from his father-in-law, who schooled him not only in product knowledge but in leadership, grooming him for eventually taking on the top job. “We went through tough times during the recession, but kept the cash flow good by right-sizing,” Mike attests.

“We try to stay on top of trends, visiting the market twice a year, always looking for new lines that would be a good fit. We took on work wear a couple of year s back, not sure we could sell it (A: yes!). Over several visits, we looked at Yeti coolers but couldn’t believe anyone would spend $500 for a cooler. We finally did place a $2,500 order, though,” which sold out ASAP. “We’d been underestimating their following, for sure!” he laughs. “Same with a Traeger wood pellet grill: Do we really want to carry that? (Again: Yes! Folks ate up that aroma) Now we even sell hunting supplies because contractors seem to be outdoor people. And we recently added Milwaukee tools because we like to take the lead in offering quality products, and they’re selling really well.

“We added appliances during the bad days of the downturn to attract more sales. We used to ‘give away’ that category to other stores, but they bring in a good margin, so why not keep that business in-house instead of sending customers elsewhere? Plus, with our kitchen department, it was a good fit. Yet,” Mike emphasizes, “our core business remains lumber—two grades, to satisfy everybody.”

If all those new items don’t top what the boxes can offer, try this: a staff that includes three kitchen designers and two home designers, enabling homeowners or wannabes to get a preview of their dream, underscored with estimates and 3D renderings. Pros, meanwhile, benefit from the expertise of a GM who was one of their own before heavy lifting took its toll. “He’s brought in a lot of knowledge, including how to build and install cabinets,” Mike says.

To market these advantages, Vassar utilizes billboards, circulars and outside salesmen. Social media plays a strong role, too. Vassar’s website is managed internally (“otherwise it’s hard to control it”) by a store manager. And Facebook. Definitely Facebook.

“Contractors are definitely paying attention,” Mark reports. “We get a lot of back-and-forth because they’re on Facebook, too, checking in and looking for information. We use it to get word out on special promotions, cookouts and contractors’ breakfasts. It’s a great way to stay ahead of the competition. We don’t do Twitter yet, but I think it has great potential.” But the best marketing tool of all? Says Mike, “Good old word of mouth!”

These marketing efforts work to draw business from three neighboring towns as well, and Mike has cultivated a cadre of employees well-equipped to serve them with the attitude and expertise vital to retain loyalty. This is no accident. Vassar’s staff, numbering 28 (down from a pre-recession high, but working smarter to drive business up by that admirable 30%), flourish in what the boss calls a “family environment.” He handpicks people destined to “be right—to fit into our team”—especially vital because he makes it a practice to promote from within. As a for-instance, he points to an outside salesman, promoted from his job as dispatcher, and, before that, truck driver. “As part of our evaluation meetings, we ask about goals. When someone mentions that he’d like to do outside sales, we’ll say, ‘Then you need xxxxx product knowledge and xxxxx skill set to work toward it. Then we help him along.” It’s win/win because, as Mike puts it “He’ll be a better fit than someone from the outside.”

When Mike MacKay mentions that personnel are treated “like family,” he’s not just blowing smoke. Some of them actually are family: his wife, Brenda, works in the back office and recently their son jumped into the family business. All of which reinforces Mike’s love of the community and Vassar Building Center’s place in it. “I’m interested in people, keeping a team together. I’ll be here the rest of my life,” he swears—“unless,” he adds with a laugh, “I win the lottery.”

When it comes to meeting challenges and moving a company forward, looks like he already has.