Eli Bliffert, owner, Bliffert Lumber & Hardware

The Northside Lumber & Fuel Co., today known as Bliffert Lumber & Hardware, was founded in 1904, and still exists in its original form in the Streets of Old Milwaukee, a permanent interactive exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The company made its debut in the museum exhibit in 2015, the same year it was also nominated for the Future 50 Award honoring the fastest growing companies in the region—one an acknowledgment of its past service to the community, the latter a salute to its future.

A Rash Decision
Fifty years ago, when the exhibit first came about, the museum came to my great-grandfather J.P., asking if he wanted in for $10,000. He said, ‘Oh hell, no,’ so they put another shop in there. That would have been cheap advertising over the years. My wife works at the museum in marketing, and when the exhibit was being refurbished [for its 50th anniversary] she was asked if we would be interested in being in it. We were. We weren’t going to make the same mistake twice.

We donated all the curly yellow pine paneling from the old office—we never throw anything away here—door hardware, light fixtures, and office paraphernalia to the exhibit. We operate 100 feet from the same location today, from a new office and hardware store.

Family Ties
The business was founded by my great-great-grandfather Christian Meckleburg. It started out as a coal, oil, and ice company. Then the ice went away, then the coal, then the oil. My [side of the] family got into it when Christian’s daughter Lorella started taking the company deposits to the bank, where she met my great-grandfather, J.P. Bliffert, who was a teller there. They got married, and J.P. went to work for his father-in-law. I’m the fifth generation to run Bliffert’s.

Not Even on the Radar
I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, and had never thought about joining the business. But I came to Milwaukee in 1993 to go to graduate school—I was planning to teach history and political science. My mother suggested I contact my Uncle Fred about a part-time job. Fred said, ‘What are you doing going to school, this is a family business, come to work for us.” I only lasted a semester at graduate school, and came on full time in 1994. I bought Fred out in 2013.

The Bliffert Difference
We have eight locations and a much broader range of inventory than our competition. We have some national yards here, as well as the big boxes, but our family ownership gives us an advantage—those national yards are always getting sold and changing names. All our yards are different: We have some that just handle remodeling and retail; others that do production and custom building; and some, commercial. There is no segment of the industry we don’t sell to.

Through the Tough Times
When I came on, sales just kept going up. I had never experienced a recession. That was miserable. We definitely had to cut people, and we got skinnier and skinnier. Then in 2008 I bought that fifth yard, and a hardware store in ’09. I didn’t take a paycheck for a long time. What happened was other lumberyards started disappearing, and we would pick up a little here and there. In 2013, Harris Lumber went away, and we picked up a lot of customers. Do It Best really helped us with financial advice through the downturn.

Retail Challenge
We’re not an industry that attracts young people, and we need to try to recruit them. Our health insurance is really good, and we have profit sharing, and we try to make this a great place for family people to work. But there are so few [independent lumberyards] left that we struggle to remain relevant in the market. People in their 20s and 30s have never even been to a lumberyard. They only know the big box stores. What we sell on the retail side is so small compared to the box stores.

Future Plans
I have a son, 16, and a daughter, 14. They have been coming here since they were little kids, and they work here part time. My daughter works the cash register, and my son works out in the yard. I hope they do come here to work in the future.