Rick Baumgarten
Robert Tolchin Photography Rick Baumgarten

Chicago is famed for its fierce local politics, but Barack Obama's election puts it on the national level as well, and Lee Lumber is hip-deep in both worlds. The company was born and remains a fixture in the Bridgeport neighborhood, center of the Daley mayoral machine, and now finds itself a short drive from Obama's home in the Hyde Park section. Rick Baumgarten grew up at Lee and, at 62, presides over a four-branch, six-showroom operation. Here's how he counts the dollars–and votes.

  • What's Easy, What's Tough To Count. Every day I look at our numbers. I know what our break-even point is at any given time. I keep track of any extraordinary expenses, our payables, and receivables. Those are balanced daily. Of course, those numbers don't tell the whole story. The numbers I look at are the orders that closed and that got invoiced. I don't know what orders we've taken today because more than 50% of our business is special orders. They take two to four weeks to process, while kitchens take six to 14 weeks. It's a pain to draw a report that shows the open orders.
  • Hard Choices. I have been faced with laying off people who have done nothing wrong other than getting caught in this miserable economy. It's like putting a knife in my heart and turning it. ...[But] we had to work to get our costs down to a point where we could break even. I'm happy to say we did quite decently in October.
  • The Political Game. If I saw [incoming White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel walking down the street, he'd say "Hi, Rick." He's been to the lumberyard. Luis Gutierrez is the congressman for this area, and he's visited. [In Washington], my job is always to call on the Chicago Democrats. There's certainly an amount of feeling that I'm beating my head against the wall, but if I do some good, it's like getting two votes.