Every spring, Knudson Lumber sees an increase in door orders. It’s not because homeowners are upgrading to a new style or there’s an influx of remodeling—it’s because Central Washington University is about to send students home for the summer.
“What happens is, at all these apartments, the kids have parties and they wait until the last second before leaving campus to fix everything that broke,” says Marty Shelley, manager at Knudson (or “boss man” according to his nametag). “We have these sheets they fill out and it takes us a few days to get the doors. It is kind of humorous. They have excuses like, ‘Oh, something fell over and hit the door,’ and you’ll see a fist-sized hole. It’s always right before school’s out.”
When you’re Knudson Lumber and your hometown of Ellensburg, Wash., has 19,000 residents, being located a mile from 11,000-student Central Washington University means business is sure to change dramatically each school year. “The college is huge as far as all of the stuff it creates,” Shelley says. “The rentals and the regular houses, the fixing of everything. They’re not coming down to buy $1,000 worth of lumber, but that all adds up quite a bit. Once school starts, it’s a madhouse. Come September, it’s almost double the traffic.”
Knudson’s story is common across the country for building material dealers that operate in college towns. Our checks with dealers from coast to coast found that being sited near an academic institution can affect a dealer in lots of ways, not all of them economic.
Most dealers said they don’t do an enormous amount of business directly with the local college, and the benefit they get from all those students can be relatively small financially—cutting keys and selling shelving boards, for instance.
Rather, it’s the construction of off-campus housing that provides the biggest single benefit, dealers say. After that comes the steady business from meeting the housing needs of faculty members and other professionals who work at a place where the employer has been in business for a long time and likely will be there decades from now. That brings stability to the town and the LBM operation that serves it.
Off Campus, On the Money
Higher education is a growth industry. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions rose 16.6% between 2005 and 2015 to reach an estimated 20.4 million, and enrollments are expected to increase another 13.2% to hit 23.1 million by 2025. That’s a lot of college students, and those students need housing.
The Association of College and University Housing Officers says roughly 2.6 million students live on campus. That means millions more need to find beds in adjacent apartment buildings and single-family homes.
“Over the last couple of years, the biggest sales growth is off-campus housing,” says Josh Kroell of Lezzer Lumber in State College, Pa. “The university is growing and younger professionals are moving into town. [There’s] a huge amount of off-campus growth. A lot of the stuff we’ve seen is new from the ground up.”
Indeed, the research and consulting firm Axiometrics estimates enough new housing took place in 2012 through 2015 to accommodate 170,000 new beds, while by this fall enough housing for 47,700 new beds will hit the market. For 2017, new housing is planned that will deliver another 43,800 beds. (If you prefer to think in terms of housing units, figure each unit has three beds.)
And all this work doesn’t count older houses and apartments that are being remodeled as one generation of students leaves and another arrives.
“We deal with a lot of houses here. Parents will buy a house and they’ll have a kid live in it and then rent it or flip it,” Knudson Lumber’s Shelley says. “A lot of the houses being built here are all rental houses. They pop these houses up; that really helps our business. The college definitely adds a lot to this town.”
Off-campus housing traditionally has been composed of multifamily apartments or condos, but many of the dealers we spoke to said single-family housing has grown to be a popular option for students. These different projects all have different needs, and local yards can provide quality customer service to ensure the job stays on schedule.
“We did one real large job out here about two years ago,” says Glenn Miller, owner of Miller Wholesale Lumber of Tempe, Ariz., near the Arizona State University campus. “[It was] about a mile and a half from our yard. There was no room [for construction materials]; it’s retail underneath. We agreed to allow them to come to our yard and rented them a couple acres and they panelized the job right in our yard. They would come over here, frame the whole floor, then erect the floor and repeat the process.
“They wrapped our yard as part of the job, an offsite fab shop. They actually insured us, too. We sold them the material, kept it in a secure facility, and they spent the next nine months working in and out of here.”
Miller says Arizona State doesn’t buy directly from dealers for housing projects; instead, it hires general contractors who then sub out the work. Thus, Miller’s focus is on the GCs.
Hired (Helpful?) Hands
Knudson Lumber also capitalizes on its college-town location by hiring students. Shelley says that, for the most part, they’re willing to work as long as Shelley respects their ever-changing schedules.
“Of around 30 or so employees, a third or half are college kids,” he says. “We have a core bunch of employees and then we use the college kids for fill or weekends. A lot of the college kids scoop it up real quick and are valuable, and some act like it’s a temporary job. They go from part time to full time for the summer. Then in the fall, as winter approaches, they go back to school and we cut their hours. I don’t have to lay people off.”
It seems like a no-brainer to turn to the local college for part-time work, but not every dealer has found success looking to the students.
“Over the years, it’s hit or miss,” Lezzer Lumber’s Kroell says. “It’s part-time general labor, a lot of grunt work. Usually what ends up happening is they work here part time, and when they move back home, if we have a location they go full time there.” Kroell’s success in hiring college students even led one part-timer to move back home to become the dispatcher at his local Lezzer location.
The Russell Do It Center in Auburn, Ala., has found success in transitioning those part-time employees into full-time staffers.
“We use them on the lumberyard mostly,” manager Mike Emfinger says. “It makes it tough working around their schedule, but they’re intelligent and they catch on quick. They have a lot of energy and are helpful to have around. A lot of people that stay here after college, most of the time we move those guys into sales.”
Miller has found that the number of college students willing to work in a lumberyard has decreased in recent years. “I’ve owned two lumber companies in Tempe, [and] both of the lumberyards were less than a mile off campus,” he says. “In the 1980s we used to have a dozen kids a year. Today’s kids ... don’t want to get their hands dirty. It’s completely different. You’re hard-pressed to find anybody young that wants to come into our business.”
Miller estimates that the change in students willing to work in his yards happened in the late 1990s, coinciding with more affordable technology and connected devices.
And while colleges might seem like a breeding ground for employment opportunities, dealers aren’t actively recruiting on campus. Some say students tend to be too flighty and unlikely to remain in the college town after graduation, and some yards are still recovering from the recession.
Dealers are interacting with students on deeper levels than just hiring them for summer jobs. Some dealers are taking to the classroom themselves, sharing their years of business with students by teaching classes, serving on collegiate boards, and advising business students.
“There’s times where they’ve approached us for help about a business project,” says Eric Spencer, president of Spencer Home Center in Lexington, Va., home of both Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute. “When Lowe’s came into town, [people researched] the impact it would have on mom-and-pop lumberyards. That’s a real specific one. I’m also involved with a local bank and [students] approached us about how a small bank works in a small town. It’s helping students with research papers for their classes.”
John Mensinger, president of American Lumber in Modesto, Calif., takes his skills directly into the classroom, serving as a member of the advisory board at California State University’s Stanislaus campus. In addition to being on the advisory board, he’s lectured a class there and also has taught business at the University of Phoenix.
“We’re providing general support to the university,” Mensinger says. “Mentoring programs to give students advice, review curriculums to find out what kinds of skills are needed in our types of businesses. It’s a way we can formally meet with faculty.”
Inside the classroom, Mensinger shares his experiences with students. “The interesting thing about lumber is it’s a screwy business,” he says. “It’s quite entertaining too. When I’m teaching, I have a lot of examples. It’s amazing how certain issues that are important come up; it’s a cyclical business.”
Students also tend to be patrons of the yards near colleges. Apart from purchasing replacement and repair products, dealers see an influx of students at the start of the semester looking for materials to customize their rooms and throughout the year for art supplies.
“They come in at the beginning of the season and buy boards that make shelving,” Shelley says. “The art classes, they’ll say, ‘We have a class that all needs 1 foot by 1 foot Masonite.’ We’ll go and cut a whole bunch of that stuff. We don’t make a kit, but we make sure we have enough of everything. We’ll make a SKU number and sell it to them.” Some dealers also said they saw visits from drama departments for materials to construct sets.
It may not be toga parties or streaking, but dealers near college campuses still have distinctly collegiate culture. Relationships with local contractors are key to landing the biggest jobs, but the steady growth and renovation of both the local campus and the business it attracts are key aspects of proximity to a college, not to mention the students shopping.
And the overzealous partiers replacing doors? Well, the best stories do tend to come from college.