To hear Paul Barden talk about the celebration of his company’s 100th anniversary, one might think he was celebrating the community instead. He wouldn’t have it any other way. At an event honoring the lumberyard’s centennial, Paul spoke not of the great achievement of his family business, but of the community and the families of employees who have supported Barden Lumber for a century.
The family’s single-location Boyne City, Michigan lumberyard was founded in 1922 by F.O. Barden, Paul’s great-grandfather. It’s no coincidence, Paul says, that a lot of other landmarks and organizations in town, such as the local Rotary club and parks commission, are also celebrating 100 years this year—because of F.O. Barden’s love of the area and belief in the community.
Originally named F.O. Barden & Son, the business was founded after F.O. Barden arrived in Boyne City to revitalize a struggling lumber company. F.O.’s oldest son, Russell was involved with the company and took it over when F.O. moved on to work in other lumber mills. When Russell eventually moved on to other businesses, his younger brother, Aldwyn “Al” Barden (Paul’s grandfather) took over the company.
By the late 1950s, Paul’s father, Ed, had joined the business and some years later, Paul would make his first appearances as a lumberyard kid.
“My entire life I was down here at the lumberyard—from when I could first walk, to later when I’d help shovel snow. In high school my dad would even call to get me out of class to help unload a truck now and then.”
After a career in the U.S. Air Force where he met his wife, Yumi, while stationed in Japan, Paul came back to the company with no real certainty that he would find a career there. Mostly, he says, he didn’t want something handed to him. But it worked out that there was a position available in 1986, and the rest is his part of Barden Lumber’s history.
Eventually, the company’s history will be carried on by his daughter, Asuka, who a decade ago returned from a music producing career in South Florida to help at the lumberyard. Like her father before her, she found a career in the family business.
To acknowledge their 100-year milestone, Barden Lumber threw a party earlier this summer that Paul says was never really about the company. The celebration was to honor the community that has served them. While many businesses point to their years of service with pride—and Barden Lumber certainly does—Paul prefers that the recognition is paid outward. The community of Boyne City and the surrounding area has served his family for 100 years, and for that he is grateful.
“In 100 years, all you have to do is take a look at the events that have taken place—The Great Depression, wars, recessions, a lot of other things. Every one of those influenced the economy in certain ways and still does today. The ups and downs and flexibility that had to take place, that’s where community comes in. There were two fires—in 1965 and 1979—which totally leveled the main body of the business. Because of the community, those were just small setbacks.”
Community played a huge role in reestablishing the business after the fires, Paul says, including the one he remembers from 1979. While he recalls the fire and the losses the company sustained, what really stands out is the community helping the Barden family keep the business going so it could rebuild.
“That was unique in the sense that local businesses— some that were generally our competitors—chipped in and helped. They donated inventory, vehicles, lift trucks. There’s something to be said about that type of community.”
That’s why Barden Lumber is an anchor of the Boyne City area and why so many customers and community members attended the celebration, including Do it Best CEO Dan Starr, who presented the Barden family with a plaque honoring their century of service. Also saluting Barden Lumber with plaques and declarations were Governor Gretchen Whitmer, state legislators, and Rep. Jack Bergman who read an official Congressional recognition on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“We just keep touch with who got us to where we are,” Paul says. “We don’t want that arrogance of market share attitude that sets you back in a hurry. We stay humble, and we keep our pride in check. That’s important in a lot of aspects in life. Without our community, without our customers, we’d have nothing. We just feel strongly about coming to work every day because of them.”
Serving Northern Michigan
Boyne City is a unique area to serve, Paul says, mainly because it’s also a great place to live. Located on Lake Charlevoix, Barden Lumber’s customers are building and remodeling a lot of vacation homes and rentals as well as single-family and multifamily housing. Because of the northern lakes destination, the town’s population of about 3,700 roughly doubles in the summer months.
Barden Lumber handles that boom each year with 12 staff members serving a customer base of 75% professional builders and remodelers. The single-location store with a drive-through lumberyard prides itself on efficiency and customer service. Though with higher-end vacation home customers, there’s also a certain seasonality to working in a Northern Michigan resort area.
“You’ve got to make a pretty good living in five months, and then be frugal enough to spend wisely to get through the time of year when heating bills are high,” Paul says. “As a small, independent yard, we’ve got a lot of smaller builder and remodeler customers.
“It’s not about us until we serve them. Then we’re able to start taking credit. What sets us apart is the quality and variety of our material.”
The company carries a full line of retail lumber and hardware materials, including many product lines that are no longer carried by the big box stores 15 miles away. If there’s a product any customer can’t find at Barden Lumber, Paul is certain he can locate and order it.
“I always say, if they can put someone on the moon, I can find something for somebody,” Paul says, though he admits that supply chain issues since the COVID-19 pandemic first began have made him search a bit harder.
Barden Lumber is known for their inventory and their ability to source products. That didn’t change much during the pandemic, Paul says. Early on, while China was still struggling to contain the virus, Paul and Asuka thought it might be a good idea to stock up on N95 masks. Set to take a vacation to Japan to visit his wife’s family, Paul decided to cancel the trip and instead start preparing.
“We ended up with about 2,000 N95 masks,” Paul says. And while the supplier at the time questioned why they would want so many, the company donated more than 1,500 of them to elder care facilities, hospitals, and schools.
“At the same time, we were able to help educate people on what it took to get through that initial phase.”
Securing the N95 masks is just one example of the Barden family working together to improve the lives of the community. The company also donates to local school causes, sports programs, veterans’ groups, scouting programs, and much more. Not only in Boyne City, but in surrounding communities as well.
Paul says as thankful as he is for the community that has helped Barden Lumber succeed over the years, he’s even more thankful for his daughter’s contribution to the company. While neither of them grew up absolutely knowing they’d be leading the company one day, they each held open the opportunity.
For Asuka, Paul says, the return to the company has led Barden Lumber into a more current operating system, as she was critical in implementing Epicor just 10 years ago. Prior to that, the company still used hand-written receipts.
“Business these days is different. She’s helped us transition to the new generation.”
A focus on technology in serving a younger generation of customer has turned Paul’s business philosophies toward the future. “It has changed my thoughts on a lot of things such as remodeling, resetting the store, and so on.”
Although no one can predict the future, it is Paul’s goal that the family name on the sign outside remain, along with the Barden family’s commitment to the community that has given them so much over the years.
“We’re the same family, in the same location, for five generations,” Paul says. “Our family and the families of our employees, we all show up for this company every day. They take it home and they’re vested in this. I try, as much as I can, to give credit to them.”
When he was asked to deliver a speech at the company’s 100-year celebration, Paul focused on what really kept a business going for 100 years. “Either you’re always at work or meetings, and you’re always doing something, and if you didn’t have loved ones you could rely on to take care of everything else, you just couldn’t do it. It’s important that we pass that along.”