Lampert Yards may be among America's biggest and oldest independent dealers, but by August 2009 its facilities serving Minnesota's Twin Cities had gotten so badly out of whack they threatened the entire company. "I never viewed Lamperts as competition or as a pro yard," one former employee at a rival says. "They were second-tier."
And of the four Lampert yards surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, the store in Rockford was the worst. Conditions were so bad that company president Dan Fesler considered putting Rockford on the chopping block.
Instead, he handed complete control of the yard over to his wife, Jane Fesler. The result? Sales at Rockford jumped 58% from 2009 to 2010 and are slated to rise another 31% this year. The store's operation has been so rejuvenated that, in April 2010, Dan promoted Jane to run all four Twin Cities facilities.
Jane's success is even more eye-popping considering she is a total newcomer to lumberyard operations. She also carried the baggage of being the boss' wife and the status of being one of relatively few female LBM executives nationwide in an industry where sexist attitudes persist.
But at the same time, Jane brought to Lamperts long years in management, extensive experience in turnarounds, and a combination of personal energy and concern for her employees. Her success casts into doubt any notions that LBM success depends on growing up in the business and being part of the Good Ol' Boys club.
"It's one thing to know a business, another to run a business," she says. "If you know how to run a business, you know how to run a lumberyard. It's putting together a plan and executing it."
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Six feet tall and athletic, Jane Fesler has an air of confidence, an engaging laugh, and a Toyota pickup truck. In person, she is neither combative nor effusive. Her immediate persona is warm without being overeager, a warmth overlying a rather comforting doggedness.
About that new pickup truck. "I couldn't very well make deliveries in my Lexus," Jane says equably.
"Oh, she got that truck for the credibility it gives her," says her husband over dinner at a local restaurant. Dan might rib her about her choice of vehicle, but he has no doubts about his wife of six years' business acumen or her skill in managing people. "I absolutely trusted Jane," he says later. "She has a remarkable background."
Jane began her career at one of the Twin Cities' own big retail corporations, Target, then moved on to other retail outfits in the Northeast. From there, she went to AT&T Consumer Products in New Jersey, where she headed the cordless and wireless phone business group, the corporation's largest unit, with $330 million in sales. Later, she worked in Silicon Valley as an executive vice president for sales and marketing of a leading developer of cable modem systems–a high-stress job that led Jane into long-distance running–and worked in Denver as a marketing and business development executive before moving back to her hometown in 2002 to open her own consulting business and be near her father, who was having health problems. (Her father, Robert Tolkinen, a retired detective from the Minneapolis police force, died in 2008).
Jane married Dan in 2006 and eventually got the itch to return to management. Working for Lamperts seemed a logical choice. "She wanted to help, and I could make that happen." Dan says. Jane's only requirement was that she be totally in charge, reporting to no one but the president. Dan agreed.
Lampert Yards was founded in 1887 by Dan's great-grandfather, Jacob Lampert, and Jacob's brother Leonard. The Rockford site only became part of the company in 2003 when Dan acquired the former Metro West facility. By 2009, it was in such bad shape that Dan was thinking of closing it.
"We dumped Jane in a yard with a high level of untrust," he says. "Jane just had an extra level of pressure because she is a woman and a Fesler and that didn't help one bit."
But Dan says he started seeing results immediately. "Within three days I would say she had put people at ease," he says. "There is no pretense with Jane. That's what gives her a lot of trust with employees. Everybody who works for Jane ends up telling her their life story."
Ask Jane about her first days and she brings up the staff. "I didn't want to see the yard fail; I didn't want to see those people fail," she says. "I cared about what happened to them."
Within 30 days after taking over Rockford, despite coming into this industry cold, Jane could take calls and work the counter and answer any question that came up, Dan adds, noting: "There are people who've been here two years who couldn't do that. She might not have everything just right, but Jane can fashion an answer that deals with the gist of the problem. She is willing to make a mistake and correct it later."
Under Jane's lead, sales at Rockford jumped from $4.6 million in 2009 to $7.3 million in 2010. Dan was so impressed that he gave her responsibility over the other three Lampert yards serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. They're in the suburbs of Apple Valley, Lake Elmo, and North Branch.
Retooling those yards was an imperative for Lamperts as they, along with the Sioux Falls, S.D., location, were accounting for only 18% to 20% of the company's total sales rather than the nearly one-third they contributed before the recession, according to Dan. Company-wide, Lampert Yards' sales rose 4.2% from 2009 to reach $123 million in 2010, the company's latest ProSales 100 report shows.