Bill and Robbie Keim
Photo: Richard Kelly Bill and Robbie Keim

You don't need to walk inside Keim Lumber Co.'s showroom to know it's a special place. You can tell as soon as you enter the parking lot.

Keim is one of probably just a handful of lumberyards that still have hitching posts in regular use. They're for the horse-drawn buggies used by the Amish and Mennonite communities that surround Keim's store in Charm, Ohio. But equally rare, Keim's parking lot also gets use from tourist buses loaded with people who have made the Keim showroom one of the region's singular attractions.

That 120,000-square-foot extravaganza regularly draws visitors living two hours away in Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. They start their visits in an entryway that boasts a 36-foot ceiling, clock tower, chandeliers, and a cherry-trimmed grand stairway. They stride across a 16-foot Keim Lumber logo that features seven wood species and a black granite border, then proceed past the 60-by-60 foot, granite-topped sales desk beneath a 56-foot ceiling to visit any of 13 different departments, some of them bigger than other LBM dealers' entire offices. The interior doors and finishes department alone covers 19,000 square feet. If visitors' kids get antsy, there's a playroom for them to let off steam, particularly if contractors and customers need to convene in one of several conference rooms. (There's also a seminar facility that can hold 300 people.) And when customers need a break, they can retire to the in-house Carpenter Café.

Why do it? "To stay alive," company owner Bill Keim replies. He certainly can't count on a growing area to support his business. Charm has just 100 residents, and in six years, Keim's home county has seen fewer new residents than Maricopa County, Ariz., gets in one week.

"We've got all these big boxes [competing with us], and we're in a little town with less people than we have employees," Bill Keim says. "We have to have something impressive to attract people."

Jack Huls, a 30-year veteran of store planning who managed the showroom's development with interior designer Tom Krupansky, says Bill didn't put any financial boundaries on their work. "After we got going, we finally understood that he wanted a project that would be head and shoulders above anything you'd see," Huls says. "At one time, he said, 'I want to have the Cabela's of the lumber business.' "

"We decided to go all out," Bill says.

The displays feature more than 400 manufacturers' product lines and thousands of individual items. There are more than 200 siding and roofing samples alone. And that doesn't count displays made from products in Keim's on-site millwork shop, which churns out more than 12 million feet of hardwood trim a year.

Keim's location in the heart of Amish and Mennonite country certainly affects how it sells (business often is conducted in the community's German dialect) but it also influences what it sells–often turning a difference into a distinction. For example, the area is teeming with furniture and cabinetmakers, so Keim displays and sells more than 120 species of exotic woods. And while locals might drop by to pick up that wood, Keim's policy of free delivery within 150 miles makes it popular with woodworkers as far away as West Virginia.

Of course, builders and woodworkers need tools, and Keim has more than 11,000 square feet of them on display. Many Amish and Mennonites also shun being on the power grid but do sanction the use of solar, air, and hydraulic power, so Keim sells solar panels and 12-volt batteries. It also converts electrical tools so they can be powered in an Amish friendly manner.

Building the showroom was clearly a huge expense, which Bill declines to detail. But thanks in part to the showroom's ability to attract visitors, Bill says Keim's stands "a little bit ahead" of last year financials at a time when other dealers are suffering.

And for all that Keim Lumber is today, wait until the millwork showroom is done.

"It's going to be spectacular," Huls says. "They want to impress their millwork customer so that they can do whatever the customer wants to have."

Vital Statistics

  • Company: Keim Lumber Co.
  • Year Founded: 1911
  • Headquarters: Charm, Ohio
  • Number of Locations: 1
  • Number of Employees: 300
  • 2006 Gross Sales: $55 million
  • Percentage of Sales to Pros: 60%