Close to 40 years ago, Harold Baalmann spent his first day at work for 84 Lumber. That night, he headed straight to his local Kmart and bought "the warmest pair of thermal underwear I could find." It was the dead of winter in Reading, Pa., and like every other 84 Lumber location at that time, it had no heat.

Photo-Illustration: Amy Wiersum Long before pro dealers began implementing energy-saving techniques, one dealer was pushing conservation every day: Joe Hardy, 84 Lumber's founder. A major part of Hardy's business model was operating under as low an overhead as possible. One result of Hardy's savings was that 84 Lumber grew to 415 stores and 19 component plants.

But Hardy achieved something else as well. If running a green business means using as few energy resources as possible, then decades ago, Hardy's 84 was one of the greenest companies in America.

"We were conscious of what we were doing long before it became vogue or an issue," says Jeff Nobers, 84 Lumber's vice president of marketing and public relations. The typical 84 Lumber store when Hardy ran the company was pretty much a tin shell with racking for materials, a sales counter, and an unpaved, gravel yard. Managers got a bonus based on how much cheaper they ran the store than even the bare-bones expense targets set by headquarters.

Baalmann, 60, remembers sweeping all day, partially to fight the cold, on his first day on the job. When times were slow, workers would huddle below a small radiant-heat lamp above the store's adding machine. The only other heater allowed was in the bathroom; that's where the store also kept its wallboard mud and anything else that might freeze. Hardy's cure-all for the cold was to stay busy. "The manager did sneak a little heater into his small office at the end of the counter, too," Baalmann recalls.

Baalmann was one of the dealer's rising stars and was once sent to Painesville, Ohio, just north of Cleveland, to help open a location in the dead of winter. "It was colder than hell there," he says. "We did everything we could that week, including cleaning the cracks in the concrete. It was even too cold for customers."

Later, Baalmann took a broom to sweep snow off of lumber outside in the yard. Hardy noticed, and not long after Baalmann was asked to run a store in Springfield, Ill. There, he hit just about every bonus available to a manager by curbing costs, such as lighting and forklift fuel. 84 did urge its managers to hire a janitor at each location, but Baalmann didn't bother, assigning janitorial tasks to himself or his employees.

"I still have a lot to thank for Joe, and the system he got me into, and what I learned there," says Baalmann, who left 84 Lumber for a position with a distributor in the mid-1970s before returning to his hometown of Wichita, Kan., and buying B&B Lumber. He also is the newest chairman of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association.

It wasn't just the stores that were frugal. Workers in the corporate offices recall years of no carpet, and plank floors with gaps–the kind that would catch the heel of a shoe and not let go. Auditors were said to wear old clothes during visits so they would not tear anything valuable on the shoddy furniture.

Today, Hardy has a lot less to do with 84 Lumber, with the still privately held dealer in the hands of his daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko. But his legacy of conserving costs continues.If the company relocates or closes a store, the racking may be shipped and used at another store. "We really loathe throwing anything away that is usable," Nobers says. "And beyond saving costs, it is a beneficial overlay to the environment."

Some 84 locations have light sensors that automatically illuminate a room when in use and shut off the lights when it's unoccupied. Climate controls are installed in units only where required, such as showrooms, office areas, or paint storage. When designing and constructing its latest locations, the company is conscious of how they are built, lit, and heated. "Our stores are what they are," Nobers says. "They are Spartan, they are clean, and they are utilitarian." And most warehouses still aren't heated.

–Andy Carlo