In the land of 10,000 lakes, Brian Klimek lives and works among some of the best of them. His family’s company, Hilltop Lumber, supplies builders in the central lakes area of Minnesota, where second homes and vacation properties have brought record sales in recent years.
Now with five locations, Hilltop Lumber, like many success stories, started out small. The first location was established in Glenwood, Minnesota in 1988 by Brian’s father, Paul, who ran a successful construction business with his brothers. As the brothers were toying with the idea of spinning off a second crew, Paul was visiting with another contractor near Glenwood and learned that the lumberyard had closed.
“There was nowhere in nearly 20 miles to buy a 2×4 or a nail to put in it,” Brian tells of his father’s story. Seeing opportunity in what would become a prime vacation area, Paul placed a bid on the bank-owned property, and soon had ownership in a lumberyard.
Serving the Glenwood community and delivering to an increasing number of builder clients in a larger radius, Paul expanded to Alexandria, Minnesota in 1994. The Alexandria yard would eventually become the company’s headquarters, and locations in Parkers Prairie, Brandon, and Ottertail, Minnesota would follow between 2000 and 2014.
Brian now runs the operation, though he prefers to be called a team leader if there must be a title attached to his name. Paul still owns a 51% stake, and is now more involved in other building-related projects while Brian and two of his sisters work on supplying materials and building relationships with customers.
Serving the lakes area
Through all five locations, Hilltop Lumber serves a customer base made up of 84% professional contractors. Because the company serves small towns with some high-end vacation property construction, Brian says the Alexandria location, with its 40,000 square-feet of display area, office space, and warehouse, is essential to Hilltop’s growing business, making up about 70% of the company’s total sales.
“In our area, the builders don’t have showrooms,” Klimek says. “They rely on our showroom and our people to help their customers pick out products.”
Both the Alexandria and Ottertail locations have complete showrooms. Alexandria’s was updated in 2005, when it tripled in size and now features four different “model homes” Klimek says, in which most everything is a working display, including two recently-added, fully operational 16′ wide Marvin doors.
Hilltop prides itself on being a complete stop for builders and homeowners alike, including a home décor area where Klimek says a customer can meet on one side of the showroom and pick out windows, then cross the room to choose flooring, cabinets, countertops, and blinds.
No one knows the true number of residents the area sees over the summer months, especially in Alexandria and Ottertail, Klimek says, and the area continues to grow with teardowns, remodels, lake homes and second homes. Some 350 lakes in the surrounding area make up some of the best fishing and boating in the state.
“In the Alexandria area and surrounding communities, there’s a new high school, great manufacturing, a variety of retail, and a lot of good jobs here. On top of all the recreation that’s here, we’re fortunate to be around this area,” he says.
Klimek says Hilltop Lumber’s core values have led him and his team to success. Overall, 64 team members work among the five lumberyards, with 40 of those based in Alexandria. Of those employees, 11 work as outside salespeople.
“We help plan, supply, and deliver dreams,” Klimek says, citing directly from the company’s Purpose Statement. The core values at Hilltop Lumber are ethics, teamwork, excellent service, having fun, and making a difference in customers’ lives.
“Family first” and “giving back” are also core tenets of the company’s values. “If a team member has to bring kids into school every day, we can adjust hours,” Klimek says. “Their family is first and we want them to come to work and not have to worry about it.”
Community involvement includes everything from sponsorship and donations to youth groups, to wood duck houses for Boy Scouts, and many other materials donations. In a large service area made up of a number of smaller towns, Klimek says he feels fortunate to have added strong team members in recent years, and he intends to keep that trend going. The same amenities that draw vacationers and retirees to the area are what he says will bring in new team members.
“The business is there, and we’re stretched a little thin, but we’re adding great people and will continue to do so. We are a place that I think people want to work and so we have been fortunate to keep raising the bar with the team we have been able to add. Where our stores are located in rural Minnesota, there are a lot of recreational things you can do, plus, being located in Central Minnesota, you can drive pretty much anywhere,” Klimek says.
Klimek is focused on maintaining Hilltop Lumber’s competitive position among local independent yards and nearby big box stores. Most recently, he began switching to Kerridge’s K8 software platform, which will transition the company to e-commerce through online and mobile applications.
“It’s a long process to switch,” he says, “but for our own salespeople to have the mobile option in the field and to do so many things away from the office is big for us.”
His focus on the future doesn’t rule out growing with more locations, Klimek says, though he doubts he’d build anything new. Growth through acquisition is how the company has expanded in the past and he plans to continue that path when the time is right.
“There are many independents that maybe don’t have a plan in place, and we’re interested in looking at those if it works out as far as time and location,” he says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taught Klimek a few lessons that he plans to carry through after things return to some form of normal, he says. While the company has had some of its best months yet during the pandemic, he’s discovered that a good entrepreneur learns to position their company for the unexpected.
“I don’t know that anyone would have predicted it, but we’ve been fortunate with the commodities side of things,” he says, adding that masks and cleaning products have become regular SKUs in most Hilltop locations.
While pricing and sourcing have been “interesting,” Klimek says, his team has weathered it fairly well. In learning to plan for extended lead times, the company started a Market Memo to send out to contractors and customers to keep them up to date with lead times and current pricing.
Training from vendors and through the Northwestern Lumber Association, along with servant leadership training for team leads keeps Hilltop Lumber focused on relationships with builders that often feel like a partnership. Close builder relationships established by Paul when the first location opened 32 years ago are modeled by Brian and the rest of the Hilltop Lumber team still today.