Case Studies

Self Serve Lumber

Serving rural Michigan with a superb home, hardware and building supply selection since 1953

For more than 60 years, Self Serve Lumber has been operating in Michigan. The family-owned operation started as a lumberyard in Saginaw and has since grown to 19 locations throughout the state, making a name by going where the big-box stores won’t and offering the convenience of a drive-thru lumberyard and a massive retail selection of more than 15,000 items.

Hardware and hand tools, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling supplies, housewares and lawn and garden, automotive supplies and even sporting goods — Self Serve Lumber’s name is a bit deceiving, as the company is much more than lumber supply. But building supply is where the business’ roots began as a conventional lumber yard back in 1953.

Standing up to the test of time

Arthur Schwannecke and his son, Bill Schwannecke, established the company in central Michigan in 1953. “My father was in the coal business and as it goes, that industry went quickly downhill once oil and gas became more readily available,” recounts Bill, now second-generation owner of Self Serve Lumber. “People no longer wanted to deal with shoveling coal into their furnaces.”

Self Serve Lumber

“One day my father turned to me at 55 years old — I was only 22 at the time — and said he wasn’t making any money; he asked me what he should do,” says Bill. “I had worked for a lumber company in the past and I suggested we go into business as a lumberyard, so that’s what we did.”

The father-son pair saw a niche in the cash-and-carry lumberyard business and established their first retail yard in 1958. “We created a low-cost operation and it’s been successful ever since,” says Bill.

At the time, there were 12 other, larger lumberyards in Saginaw, but today, only Self Serve Lumber remains. “We’re the only one left,” says Bill. “We sought to change what we were doing when the time called for it, while other companies didn’t diversify their business models.”

Instead of catering to builders and contractors, Self Serve Lumber began to target homeowners, farmers, landlords and small-scale remodelers, because there was more business in this market in the rural region. “We began to add more in terms of retail, adding a full line of plumbing and electrical supplies and hardware, as well as a home center,” says Bill.

Direct family ownership

Over time, Self Serve Lumber has steadily added locations. Now the company operates 19 stores in various small communities. “We go where the big-box stores won’t go and even as a smaller retailer, we still offer a wide selection and competitive prices,” says Ryan Harden, Bill’s grandson and president of Self-Serve Lumber.

Ryan and his mother Sandra Harden, director of human resources and finance, represent the third and fourth generations of family involvement at Self Serve Lumber. “There’s no doubt about it, the family aspect is a huge part of who we are,” says Bill. “Once I retire, Ryan and Sandra will be taking over ownership of the business.”

Maintaining this family-oriented company culture helps keep all locations on the same page. “Overall we have about 130 employees, many of which are longstanding employees who have been working for us for many years,” adds Bill.

Self Serve Lumber also has many repeat clients who feel more like friends than customers. “All of our stores are situated in more rural areas — small towns and farming communities,” explains Ryan. “What we offer that the big box stores do not is the convenience of being located in rural areas, as well as adept knowledge and friendly service. We’re open seven days a week and we offer a wide range of products for home repairs, additions and remodels.”

Added e-commerce

Self Serve Lumber distinguishes itself by catering to small-scale remodelers, landlords and do-it-yourself homeowners. “One of the areas we’re really growing in is plumbing supplies,” says Ryan. “Landlords and home remodelers are always making improvements in plumbing and this continues to be a strong category for us.”

Self Serve Lumber

In a recent push to do even more for its customers, Self Serve Lumber did some renovations of its own, totally redoing its website. “Our new site supports e-commerce with a complete online catalog of over 80,000 products,” says Ryan. We just launched this project a few months back so we’re still working the bugs out, but so far it’s been quite a success and we have already received some online orders.”

“The website also offers added flexibility for our customers,” says Bill. “They can save on freight if they see an item and order online. Rather than have it shipped directly, they can have it shipped to one of the stores and pick it up if they live in the area.”

With a vast amount of retail products — patio furniture, paint, kitchen and bath supplies, fireplaces and accessories, door and window hardware, sporting goods and more — Self-Serve Lumber still has a fully functioning drive-thru lumber yard. “You can drive in and load up the products you need and pay at the exit gate,” explains Ryan.

Ryan says Self Serve Lumber’s business model helped the company fare well through the recession. “We weren’t relying on new construction,” he says. “When people decided to stay in their current homes and just make repairs and upgrades, we were here with the products and equipment to help them do that — all at a competitive price, which really kept people coming in the doors.”

That’s not to say the company hasn’t seen its fair share of challenges over the years. Even after 60-plus years in business, Bill says he learns something new every day. “This is the type of business where you’re always learning,” he says. “Between new products and pricing, suppliers and managing all of the locations, there’s always something to work on and sometimes there’s a fire to put out. You also have to stay one step ahead of the competition all the time. If a new product comes out that someone else has and we don’t have it yet, you bet we’re going to look into it and see if it makes sense for us to carry.”

For Self Serve Lumber, success is about listening to its customers, delivering the convenience and selection they’re looking for and doing it all with the touch of family-friendly service. 

Published on: January 4, 2016

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