Mike Gates

Ketchikan is a land of extremes. Located on Alaska’s southernmost tip, its 13,000 residents can lay claim to the $400 million “Bridge to Nowhere” project, to one of the world’s largest collections of totem poles, and to an average of 152 inches of rainfall every year. “You have to be kind of hearty to live here,” Bill Mackie says. Here’s what it’s like selling building materials in a region where you need an umbrella on two out of every three days.

Steady Rise I started here 39 years ago. I was the low man on the totem pole at the beginning and I then worked myself into management and finally into the position of president of the company when the original owner retired.

My Work Day We open at seven, so I usually get here a little before. I have a great crew that handles the day-to-day operations. I’m looking at the printouts and invoicing and really just looking for profit potentials and seeing if we have any problems. I go home around four o’clock.

Custom Built Most of our contracting is for custom homes. Since we live on an island, everything either comes by barge or by airplane—that’s the only way you can get here. Our contractors are jacks of all trades; the guy takes it from the foundation right through to the end.

Remote Service What we order comes out of the Northwest mostly, so we are usually 10 days from the order date to the day it hits our dock. Our biggest challenge is trying to order far enough in advance.

Native Culture We deal with totem pole makers. A lot of times they’re looking for cross-members and things when they are standing the totem poles up. They often go with their own trees for the actual poles.

It Went Nowhere When I was going to high school here in the early 1970s they were putting in an airport and, as I understand it, it was decided that it needed to be put across the bay on a better island. People couldn’t get to it [without taking a ferry] and administrators said not to worry about it and that someday there will be a bridge. The bridge was the difference between having the airport over there and not having it there. Once we got our shot [at a bridge], it for some reason became a political football.

My Yardsticks We look at customer count, sales, gross margin, and receivables daily. We look at gross margin return on inventory, inventory, and turns monthly. We can drill down from there if we need to. We are also part of a small community. Word of mouth is very important. So for us, a satisfied customer and—equally important—a happy co-worker means a fair bottom line.