When Hank Wittman III bought JC VanDoren Lumber three years ago, the attorney's original plan was to liquidate everything at the small Hopewell, N.J., lumberyard as quickly as possible to make room for a condo project.
And the younger Wittman still can't legally crack open a beer to celebrate his hard work. He just turned 20 on July 27.
"I became involved as a summer job, and got really into it," Wittman says, noting his father essentially "gave me the business." But it's not that cut and dry: Wittman had to find his father another piece of property for the condo development. He also pays the mortgage on the yard directly to his father.
Less than 10 miles from the campus of Princeton University, JC VanDoren derives more than 95% of sales from contractors, with a focus on remodeler customers. "We have just about everything you need to build a house, and we try to sell only quality material," Wittman says.
Dealing in higher-end materials has allowed JC VanDoren to ramp up sales. The yard brought exotic hardwoods on board to "capitalize" on customer needs, and only sells No. 1 studs, Wittman says.
JC VanDoren's proximity to the Princeton campus and the surrounding community's well-to-do neighborhoods, including a wealth of historic homes, lets him tap into a high-end niche, whether it's a remodeling job, additions, or new construction. In fact, it's the closest dealer to Princeton, which translates into sales it might not get otherwise.
The main building at JC VanDoren, an old barn, houses a small custom millwork shop on the ground floor and company offices on the second. Wittman wants to the turn the upper floor into a small hardware department with a better assortment than the basic hangers, nails, and fasteners it carries now. Block, stone, rebar, and other masonry needs are on hand as well, with a plan to bring more roofing products into the fold.
Although his legs are firmly planted in the industry, Wittman is not turning his back on an education. He attends Raritan Valley Community College in the evening, taking classes in anthropology, marketing, and sociology. "I want to make sure that I don't miss out on anything," he says. "Eventually, I would like to get the business going enough that I can go to a four-year school."
In an age where banks are cutting back on their loans and credit is tight, one lesson Wittman has already learned is to not give his customers too long of a leash. The young dealer has not cut his customers any slack and requires payments within 30 days of a sale.
"One thing that is always difficult is earning the trust of your customers and some of the builders in the area," Wittman says. "But you don't want people taking advantage of you, either."
And while he's not a part of the day-to-day operations, Wittman's father is still involved in the business; after all, he is an attorney. "He takes care of some of the collections," says Wittman.