While lumber dealers across the country face challenges brought on by a shortage of staff members, Alex McGehee of Anchor Lumber in Silvis, Illinois has an interesting perspective: Maybe it’s not only the younger generation of incoming workers who need training… it’s probably the managers as well.
Many LBM dealers in Alex’s peer group—60-something years old, multigenerational business owners—are operating their yards by the same code ingrained in them 40 years ago. “We were brought up through this business by a different breed of managers,” he says. “When I was a kid, things were different. The people I was working for were far different than the people my age now. I don’t think we’re paying as much attention as we should to what the newer generation wants out of a career.”
As far as Alex is concerned, labor challenges aren’t anything new. The industry has been searching for a solution for 20 years, he says. Alex isn’t claiming to have the answers to everyone’s labor issues, but he does know what works for his family-owned company.
“I think that people my age need to be better at embracing young people and encouraging them, showing them, and allowing them to be successful in our business. I think that we were a little slow in doing that. We’ve identified it now, but we were slow in doing it.”
Having a son in the business has opened his eyes to the generation gap, he says, and he is grateful for the way his son sees the business differently than he does.
“Our industry and business’s survival are going to depend on management being aware of these differences and embracing the younger generation,” he says. “I’ve watched some of the younger people in our business who are successful, and they don’t do it exactly the way I do it, but they’re being successful. Us older guys, we have to be a little more open minded. People are different now than I was in my 20s. My dad probably struggled with those same concepts, but was really good at standing back, not saying anything, and letting me do it my way. I didn’t get advice from him unless I asked for it. If I was about to make a mistake, he’d let me do it and know I’d learn from it.”
Alex’s father was still in high school when he started in the building trades. Allen McGehee started building houses in high school, taking on a couple each summer all the way through college. Based in Silvis, Allen eventually purchased and warehoused more and more supplies for his burgeoning construction business. As sometimes happens in small towns when one builder has a lot of inventory and others are looking to buy, a lumberyard is opened. So, in 1971 Allen McGehee got out of the building business to focus on running the lumberyard full time.
The rest, as Alex says, is history. As far back as he can remember, Alex wanted to work with his dad in the lumberyard. When he got out of college in 1981, he did exactly that, working alongside his father until buying him out.
“All of my youngest memories are at the family business I grew up in,” Alex says. “I never really thought about doing anything else.”
Growing up working for his father, Alex had every possible job available at the company. He says it was all great training while he worked for the family business all through high school and college.
When Allen McGehee passed away in May at the age of 87, it was an opportunity to reflect on how far the company has come since its founding in 1962—and to understand and appreciate how they’ve stayed true to their vision and remained rooted in the qualities that have helped them succeed. His father’s foundation of providing quality products and outstanding service remains the focus for Alex and his team—and it’s the primary reason the company has grown to be the community anchor it is today.
Now in his early 60s, Alex is working alongside his son, Sam, in the lumberyard business and his daughter, Courtney, in a property management company he also owns. Though his children are capable business managers in their own right, Alex isn’t even close to handing over the reins any time soon.
“I see myself being involved in all aspects of all the different businesses for as long as I’m able,” he says. “I really like going to work every day.”
Anchor Lumber prides itself on serving pro customers and DIY homeowners alike, but does 90% of its business with professional builders and contractors. In 2020, that meant about $28 million in revenue served through its central location, Anchor Lumber Company, and three other retail locations called Builders First Choice. The company also operates a truss and wall panel manufacturing plant, which is managed by Sam.
Two of the Builders First Choice locations are in Iowa, which has brought to light a stark contrast in business opportunities between the two states. While based in Illinois, the company does the majority of its business in Iowa, because of what Alex calls very growth- and business-friendly policies.
“Out of our 30 delivery trucks, we spend the largest share of our time driving to Iowa,” Alex says. “Probably 70% of our deliveries cross the river.”
Anchor Lumber, its Builders First Choice stores, and component plant location are home to about 75 employees, all who follow the Alex McGehee philosophy that has brought the company continued growth throughout the years: “I get up and go to work every day, every year, hoping to do better than I did the year before. That’s what I believe and that’s what I try to live.”
For Anchor Lumber, doing better means always being in tune with what customers need, and when and where they’ll need it. “We’re always looking to expand what we offer to our customers. We’re always trying to reach into another market, reach into the current market with more products or services, that’s the recipe for continued growth,” Alex says.
Another key to keeping ahead of competition is being able to identify opportunity, Alex says.
“We see ourselves surrounded with opportunity. It’s my job and responsibility, and that of our salespeople, to identify those opportunities and do something with them.”
In a market saturated with other independent LBM dealers as well as big box retailers, the competitive landscape is always changing. Companies come and go, and so do their personnel, and Alex is aware of the ebb and flow of personnel changes that can affect the market. The key, he says, is to pay even more attention to your own company. “I’d rather they react to me, than me to them,” he says.
What his competitors are often forced to react to are the results of Anchor Lumber’s pledge to out-service others. In fact, he says, Anchor Lumber isn’t happy unless it is over-servicing a customer. It’s more than a mission statement, it’s engrained in the company culture.
“We consider ourselves a partner with our customers and we want to help them be successful with their business, because that means we’re successful.”
As Alex looks to the future and the next generation coming up in his company, he’s secure in knowing that while they don’t do everything exactly the same way, they’ll be just as successful.