Surviving the Ups and Downs
One Distributor’s 81-Year Roller Coaster Ride
by Alan B. Goldberg
The attractive facade and sprawling complex of this Mentor, Ohio-based distributor belies its colorful history. For more than eight decades, the Mentor Lumber & Supply Co. has managed to survive a changing economy, a changing community, a changing market and stiff competition.
Employee Bob Sanderson is all too familiar with the company’s history of ups and downs. He has lived through many of them. Sanderson recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with the company. As president, he has played an active role in guiding the company through some difficult times.
A History of Change and Growth
With a stock issue of $15,000, three entrepreneurs launched the Mentor Lumber & Supply Co. in 1922. They sold lumber, coal, nails and other building materials, and, in their first year, grossed $98,000. By 1925, they were able to purchase two acres of land on nearby Center Street, the company’s present location.
Two years later, the young company constructed its first building, which served as a retail store, office and warehouse. It is still in use today.
The company expanded four more acres in 1941, and also in 1960, a mill building for sawing and shaping wood products was added, followed by a new store and office building.
Mentor Lumber had survived the Depression and rationing of World War II, but it struggled in the early 1960s. In fact, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1963, following three years of declining sales and profits. A new group of investors assumed ownership; Jerome T. Osborne became president, Harry Fishleigh, manager and secretary and Bob Sanderson, treasurer and sales manager.
“When we took over in 1963, we had no clue as to how we wanted to run this business. Harry [Fishleigh] wanted to be profitable. He saw an immediate need for property because that would give us space to expand, assuming we were successful. Harry was the visionary,” Sanderson said.
Within two years, the company had sales of $1 million, a first in its history.
Sanderson points out that throughout its history, the company has responded to the needs of the local market. As farms and nurseries became housing developments and
the city of Mentor and surrounding towns evolved from rural to suburban areas, the demand for building materials began to surge.
“To meet the growing demand, we built a 10,000-square-foot retail store in 1972, geared toward the professional builder,” said Sanderson.
New departments and consumer products were added to an extensive building inventory. To support a new line of lumber—dense, southern yellow pine—a 9,000-square-foot steel and concrete building was erected. Sales that year hit a high of $3 million.
Sanderson explains that while Mentor Lumber was well-positioned for the demand that was projected for the 1980s, there was no way to predict the high interest rates and their aftereffects, including a significant loss of business from builder bankruptcies and relocations.
In 1987, he says the company set up an in-house shop in a controlled environment to build stairs, doors, mantles and a range of specialty products, often considered too time-consuming to make on-site. This new service grew and a department of one skilled craftsman evolved into a staff of professional trim and framing carpenters. They began assisting contractors as the company found itself entering the installed trim business in 1993.
Overall, the business continued to grow. Seven warehouse buildings and a new five-car rail siding were added in the early 1990s. In 1994, sales hit $30 million.
Sanderson points out that as the city developed, so did competition.
“When the box stores (such as Home Depot) came to Mentor, it marked the beginning of a new era and the end of our retail business (which was dismantled in 2000),” he said. With its retail business closed, it focused its attention on its distribution and installation business.
Service—The Key To Survival
Describing the many services of his company, Sanderson said there is no one thing that makes Mentor unique.
“It is everything we do—all of our products and services—that sets us apart. There is no one else like us,” he said.
Sanderson explained that for an independent, service is everything.
“We are very sensitive to that,” he said, referring to the two full-time people who are dedicated to servicing window and door products solely (which account for 20 percent of the business). He also mentioned the services provided by the shop on the premises.
“It gives us so much more capability. In fact, we will custom-build any of the millwork our customers need. Even the box stores can’t offer what we do. They don’t have the equipment, and they don’t have the skilled people,” he said.
Sanderson attributes the company’s success to its people.
“One thing that we are very proud of is longevity. People have many years of service with us, which says something about the way they are treated. People create relationships, and everything we do is based on relationships. Relationships lead to loyalty, and there is a lot of loyalty from our builder customers,” Sanderson said.
To help customers get pricing, check their billing, review and place orders, the company uses Triad software for distributors.
“Customers can log into our system and get the information they need quickly and easily,” he said.
Mentor understands the value of showrooms to its customers. “Our award-winning showrooms have been a shining star for us,” Sanderson said. Company personnel designed the showrooms, after traveling to similar showrooms around the country.
One of the key benefits to builders, remodeling contractors and their customers, he points out, is the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access. A full display of windows and patio doors, custom millwork (including mantels, stair systems, columns and mouldings) and interior and exterior doors and cabinets “fills virtually any desire a customer may have.” Full-scale displays show a range of cabinet design. The company was recently named to Weather Shield Windows & Doors’ top showroom list.
There is strong support from its manufacturers—Weather Shield Windows and Doors, Trex Decks, Therma-Tru Doors, James Hardie Siding Products, Aristokraft Kitchen Cabinets and Georgia-Pacific Engineered Wood I Beams™.
“Our suppliers give us exceptional service, help us with promotional programs and they sponsor local charitable events,” he said.
Into the Future
Over the past ten years, Mentor has had its ups and downs in the installation business. Sanderson explains that like any new venture, there were many surprises along the way, but, he says, that is where he sees the company’s long-term future. What large builders want, he explains, is one source to supply building materials, to frame lumber, do trim, and install windows and doors.
“Our challenge is to be able to offer a turn-key package that is attractive to large-scale builders and profitable for us. With our long standing reputation for service and quality products, I am very encouraged about our future growth,” Sanderson said.
Today, the one-step distributor employees 140 people at four locations: Mentor, Chardon, Bedford Heights and Broadview Heights. Under one roof (in Mentor), there are 100,000 square feet and 12,000 square feet for office space. Sales are expected to be $50 million this year.
Like Harry Fishleigh, Sanderson has become a visionary.
“I had 30 years of mentoring and it certainly paid off,” Sanderson said.
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