One might think values like honesty, harmony, diplomacy, and teamwork are foreign concepts here in the home of the Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Real Housewives of New Jersey. At the least, the way people talk is grittier in the Garden State. "We're not as genteel and polite as Midwesterners," notes Rick Alampi, executive director of the New Jersey Building Material Dealers Association (NJBMDA). "Sometimes, [a saying like] 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out' is a term of great affection" in New Jersey, he says. "We're not cuddly."
Employees at Kuiken Brothers Co. may share that propensity for frank talk, but the way these New Jerseyites operate is oceans apart from TV versions of the state's residents. This construction supply juggernaut has become ProSales' Dealer of the Year with a philosophy that emphasizes honesty, integrity, and professionalism, and that rewards group rather than individual, branch, or division achievements. At Kuiken, there's only one bonus plan, and it's based on how the whole company does.
Like those Jersey Boys of the early 1960s, The Four Seasons, this band succeeds through harmony and teamwork. "Competition is healthy, but we want to compete with other lumberyards, not among ourselves," kitchen and millwork manager Dan Hughes says. At Kuiken, he says, "Everybody jumps in. Everybody does the manual work. Everybody does the thinking."
Kuiken (pronounced CUE-kin) Brothers springs from a special breed of Garden State citizens: a plain, hard-working Dutch family that left an economically depressed Holland in the 1880s and settled in Bergen County. The company frequently is lauded for its ethics. And the praise usually starts with honors for the yard's president, Doug Kuiken.
"The first word that comes to mind with Doug and his family and business is integrity," says Loran Hall, president of Mathew Hall Lumber in St. Cloud, Minn., and current chairman of the Lumbermens Merchandising Corporation (LMC). "They're the gold standard of what you want a lumberyard to be."
"First, he's honest. You can go to the bank on his word," Tony DeCarlo, LMC's former president, says of Doug. "Second, he's smart as hell. And third, he's dedicated."
The Kuiken Brothers motto is equally direct: Get It Right.
But it isn't a simple store. Especially in the decade since Doug took over as president following Evan Kuiken's death, Kuiken Brothers has grown in sophistication and complexity even as it held tight to core values. What in 1990 was a one-store, 25-worker, $7 million firm now stands as New Jersey's biggest pro-oriented dealer, with nine facilities, 240 employees and 2011 revenues that topped $100 million. This dealer is cautious, yet unafraid to get into new lines, such as commercial construction or private-label millwork. Best of all, Kuiken has turned a profit every year since at least World War II.
Today, Kuiken Brothers gets roughly 40% of its revenue from new home construction–primarily on lots where old houses or commercial buildings were torn down and new homes put up–another 20% from commercial projects, and the final 40% from repair and remodel work performed by pros. Revenue from do-it-yourselfers is incidental, and the lumberyard layouts show it; most of the stores devote less than 1,000 square feet to hardware.
"We used to have floor-to-ceiling, chock-full-of-nuts displays," says Jeff Henig, manager of the Emerson store. "Now we don't even have for-sale signs." Succasunna recently pulled all its plumbing and electrical goods so it could focus on more relevant products.
That focus is possible in part because three people–Doug, Henry, and cousin Wayne Kuiken–own 90% of the company, and the five members of the fourth generation who own the other 10% all work for the company. Such closely held ownership enables management to control costs and think long-term. As revenues dropped about one-third from their peak in 2005, Kuiken trimmed its workforce roughly 25%. In addition, perks like the 401(k) match were suspended in January 2009. Conditions improved early enough in 2011 for the 401(k) match to be restored last July 1.
"The wind is not necessarily in the sails, but the waters are quieter," Doug says.