Gary Roberson didn’t want to sit on his hands and wait for the arrival of the big box stores in tiny Silver Lake, a bedroom community of Topeka, 13 miles west on U.S. 24. He knew he couldn’t compete with their prices and hours, so he came up with a strategy that has kept the yard his dad Eldon—83 and still working at the store—humming over the past 25 plus years.
An Exotic Strategy
I started getting us into exotic hardwoods in 1990. We didn’t have a Menards or a Lowe’s in our backyard then, but I knew they’d be coming, and we needed something to differentiate ourselves. You’ve always got to be looking at the next hill. We have genuine mahogany, African teak, purpleheart, sapele, and padauk, which is a bright orange wood, mostly used for decorative inlays. We do keep some rosewood, ribbon stripe African mahogany, and German birch.
The African mahogany, especially the quarter sawn, is the most popular, and we also sell a lot of purpleheart—it’s as bright purple as you could ask for. A lot of the guitar makers use that. We also carry a lot of ponderosa pine, sugar pine, up to three inches in the rough, and clear grain Douglas fir.
You meet a wider variety of people with the exotic hardwoods—architects and artists and people making their own guitars. Fifty percent of the exotic woods are sold locally; 50% shipped. We have a lot of people who drive in from 150 miles away.
About 15 years ago, I started to bring in reclaimed timber—heart pine and Douglas fir. The green market is kind of our market too. I have contacts all over the U.S. You’re liable to find one load in Georgia, and one in Oregon. You have to go over each piece with handheld scanners, then demetal the wood by hand, and bandsaw it into whatever thickness customers want and remill it. You just can’t get this patina from anything else.
Master of Logistics
When I first started to do this, it cost me more to ship it than buy it. Now that’s changed.
A lot of people walk in here and are surprised to see what we have in a yard in Kansas. But once they find you have it, they tell everybody: 95% of our business is word of mouth. We will crate and ship anywhere. [Because] we are centrally located, we can ship everywhere for about the same cost. Plus, the cost of living is low here, so it’s cheaper to operate.
A Family Affair
My dad built this place from the barrel end up after working at another local yard, J. Thomas Lumber Co., for years. His employees at the other yard enjoyed working with him, and came with him to the new yard.
I graduated in 1975, and two days later I was here. I’m known for being able to find anything, and I’m honest. If people are looking for something off the wall, our name will pop up. I’ve had corporate people come after me from time to time. But this is an industry where there are still a lot of salt of the earth, honest types, and that’s worth more than money.
We have seven people, and that includes myself. My dad comes here everyday, and if we forced him to retire, I think he’d be gone in six months.
I have two daughters that have never shown any interest in the business. Twenty years ago, I was down here unloading at 7 o’clock at night, and 4 on Saturdays (when the store was open half a day). They remember the long days.
I’ll be 60 in February, and I figure I’ll be here another 10 years. The problem is if you get somebody good and train them, they leave.
The Biggest Headache
Finding good employees, that is the biggest headache bar none. It’s the one thing that would get me out of this business if it doesn’t change soon. That’s why I haven’t taken this yard to the next level.
If you get 10 guys for a truck job, seven out of the 10 won’t pass a drug test. It’s really pathetic. I had a guy last year, 43 years old, he was big and tough looking. I told him I needed a drug test, and he said, That might be a problem. I like to smoke on weekends.’ I’m thinking, dude, you’re 43 years old, married with two kids. Grow up.