Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products

Volume 44,  Issue 9                                       November/December  2005

     At the Railroad Crossing

A Distributor Builds on a Family Legacy—And Offers Drive-Thru Services to Boot
by Samantha Carpenter

The drive 20 miles northwest of Omaha, Neb., to Christensen Lumber Inc. in Fremont, Neb., includes the typical cornfields you would expect to see between Nebraska’s largest city and one of its small cities with a population of 25,000 residents.

A Partnership is Born
Christensen Lumber, which was originally founded as Johnson & Cheney Lumber and Coal Co., was purchased by Alfred Christensen and his partner Robert Luehrs in 1923. 

The town was considered quite a thoroughfare in the 1920s, and the lumber company was located in the hub between the Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific railroad tracks on South Main Street where it remains today.

Before buying the company, Luehrs was a local home builder and Christensen was a clerk in the bank. When Christensen found out the lumber company was for sale, he partnered with Luehrs and bought the company, which was then named Luehrs-Christensen Lumber & Coal Co. They used the lumberyard as a supply line for building houses and sold building materials to local dealers as well.

There was no lumber sold during the Depression. Then, in 1931, the lumber company burned to the ground and the partners rebuilt the business.

A Family Legacy
In 1943, Alfred Christensen bought out his partner’s interest in the company. The company was renamed Christensen Lumber & Coal. A few years later, coal was dropped from inventory, and the company became known as Christensen Lumber Co. 

Christensen Lumber Inc. has remained a family business since Luehrs’ departure. Alfred brought son David into the business in the mid-1950s. David became chief executive officer (CEO) of the company in 1978. David’s son, Tom, has been CEO since his father’s retirement in 1999. David’s daughter, Dian, is also actively involved in the family business, and serves as marketing director and human resources director.

With a confident smile, Tom Christensen said, “You always have challenges [when working with family members], but you always know that they are going to be there when there is trouble in the air.”

Tom and Dian Christensen have two other brothers who don’t work at the lumber company, but have occupations related to the business. At family holiday get-togethers, Christensen admits that they talk business. 

“It’s hard not to. We touch on shop a bit just to bring one or another up to speed, and then we get on with other topics,” he said.

An Eye for Employees
Christensen Lumber has been at its 127,000-square-foot facility housed on 13 acres for 1 1/2 years. It has 74 employees during its peak season from April through October, and 68 employees during its off-peak season.

Tom Christensen says it’s hard at times to find good employees, but stresses that the company is particular about whom they choose to be an employee.

“We do weed through [applicants] ... When we find a well-suited individual, retention is good.” 

The longest serving employee is Dick Wild, the purchasing manager. 

Wild has been with the company 32 years. Margaret Steiner, controller, has been with the company 25 years.

Christensen says he believes that retention is good because the company strives to pay its employees well and make work fun.

“We ask a lot of them. We try to pay on the top side of the market with comparative jobs.

We have a profit-sharing program. Good benefits, too,” he said.

For many distributors, health insurance increases have been tough. Christensen admitted that last year’s insurance prices were rough. 

“At our old facility, workmen’s comp [claims] seemed to be kind of a problem. But as far as general liability, when we moved in here, our insurance has come down. Insurance really hasn’t been a big issue—at least not this year,” he said.

At the old facility, the company was also storing a lot of lumber outside and faced two mold claims with a customer in 2003.

“At the time we were storing a lot of lumber outside and didn’t have as much of a covered facility. We got involved with an industrial hygienist [a mold expert], and he went as far as having the mold analyzed and made a recommendation. 

One mold claimant was a nurse and the other was a TV broadcaster. It came out just fine. We came out just fine. We all became better educated. Treatment was reasonable. In fact, everyone walked away better educated,” said Christensen, who added that the company tries to sell primarily mold-resistant products.

“The studs that we carry by the Swanson Group have a mold inhibitor. We watch our turns, and we watch our rotation on outside stored material,” he added.

Watching Everyone’s Bottom Line
The company and its employees emphasize making the single-family home builder their top priority. As Christensen said, the company not only worries about its bottom line but its customers’ bottom lines, too.

The company also distributes to some multi-family and commercial builders as well. 

“We are about 96 percent contractor pro-oriented. The balance would be cash-and-carry,” Tom Christensen said, adding that the company’s business is approximately 85 percent in Omaha and 15 percent in Fremont.

One perk the company offers its customers is that it completes an auto-cad engineered drawing on every house. 

“We send out a detailed drawing as far as floor joists, ceiling joists, rafters, etc. We give them a pretty detailed field layout,” Christensen said.

Another perk to customers is the company’s drive-through lumberyard, which was instituted in August 2004. 

Suppliers also help out with the drive-through by sponsoring monthly contractor lunches that are given out in the drive-though and are always eager to put a product on display.

Suppliers are also very willing to help educate builder customers. 

T.W. Sommer Co. of Shoreview, Minn., is an Association of Millwork Distributors (AMD) member and a manufacturer’s rep for Endura, Lynden, Menzner and Lianga. He puts on sales seminars and is always willing to train, Christensen said.

New to the AMD
T.W. Sommer Co.’s strong sense of education prompted its managers to talk to company officials at Christensen Lumber about joining AMD. 

The company has talked about joining the association for the last few years.

“We decided this year to sign up. After talking with Jeff Fogg [with T.W. Sommer] more about the benefits of the show and AMD, we got excited. The association has a great education program,” Christensen said.

Besides its drive-through lumberyard and educational seminars, the company also offers short-notice delivery to its customers, but since fuel has increased and gone from 1 percent of the company’s operating cost to 1.25 percent, Christensen said the company is talking to its customers about working smarter. Instead of visiting some jobs twice a day, they will try to pare that down to once a day.

The company gets many of its customers by referral. 

“We also seek out customers. If we see a builder out in the field, we’ll give him a call and see if we can help out,” Christensen said.

For its customers, the company tries to thank them by doing special events, Christensen said.

“We do a golf outing and a big hunt every year. We do sporting enclaves. We try to do fun events. Not long or lengthy events—they are busy guys.” 

Samantha Carpenter is editor of SHELTER magazine.

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