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In-town and online: Knudson Lumber prepares for growth

Knudson Lumber
The Knudson Lumber contractor team. Pictured from left to right: Lucas Eiffert, Contractor Sales; Blake Hale, Contractor Sales Manager; Renee Kraft, Office Manager; Eric Asmus, Contractor Sales; Reiley Clark, Contractor Sales. Not pictured: Kristy Watts, Contractor Sales Support.

In a small county in Central Washington, Knudson Lumber serves customers with the same tools and philosophies as some of the world’s largest online retailers. That may have once been considered a lofty aspiration for a single-location lumberyard, but Renee Kraft says it’s already paying off.

“For a store our size, I know we spend a lot of time and invest a lot of money into our digital presence. It is making an impact and it will help us as we continue to grow the business,” she says.

Knudson Lumber has supported the community of Ellensburg, Washington for 82 years. Renee, daughter of Bob Knudson, is the fourth generation to operate the company founded by her great-uncle Carl Knudson.

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Knudson Lumber
Knudson Lumber truck.

Like many in the LBM industry, Renee grew up in the lumberyard, helping when she could as a young girl. Along with her brother, she took on more responsibility every summer as they grew, helping her father in the yard and mother in the office. And like many in the industry, Renee left for college to chart her own path before returning to the family business. For Renee, it was culinary school and a career in bakeries and restaurants in California and Western Washington. Renee returned to the company in 2003 when her mother, who served as office manager, wanted to retire. The big cities and busy schedules in the restaurant industry helped convince Renee that the hometown atmosphere of Knudson Lumber was where she really wanted to be.

Today, Renee’s title is still office manager, but she readily admits she does “about everything” when it comes to overseeing the company. Her parents still come in from time to time and an official succession plan is in the works.

Physical footprint

Though online sales can come from anywhere, Knudson Lumber is 100% focused on Ellensburg and the Kittitas County, Washington area of just under 55,000 people.

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While retail sales have picked up in recent years, contractors still make up 60% of the company’s business in a service area that includes two other independent lumberyards.

With box stores some 35 to 40 miles away, Renee says the county’s population growth has been good for business and will be reflected in future retail and DIY sales numbers.

“The area is growing greatly. We do not have enough houses on the market, and not enough to rent. We don’t have enough affordable housing and that will only get worse.”

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Renee and her 45 team members serve pros and DIYers alike, with a contractor sales team that takes turns getting out into the field and meeting with builders. The system works to the tune of $15 million in annual revenues that Renee says “are definitely on an upward trend.”

The company has added an onsite millwork shop in the past year and brought on a shop manager to focus specifically on that quickly growing area. A renewed focus on the store’s paint department means a specialist now leads that category.

“Overall, one thing we’ve done is established a leadership team,” Renee says of a group of department leaders that meets weekly and works together for improvement in each department.

“It has made a profound impact. We’re aligned on reaching the same goals. Our communication is better, and our customers see that as well. Our focus is taking care of customers. We feel like we have five things that we do really well. A lot of places do some of them, but they don’t consistently do all five of them well all the time.”

What are those five things?

  1. A wider selection of premium lumber, cedar, and beams that others don’t stock.
  2. Free same-day delivery Monday through Friday.
  3. Quick turnround times.
  4. Onsite custom millwork shop.
  5. Up-to-date technology—customers can look at products online, submit orders online, view orders and statements, and pay bills online.

Number five has been the biggest change for the company in recent years, Renee admits. Along with that change has come a fair share of rewards as well as challenges.

“It’s been a bit of a struggle finding the right fit with e-commerce tools that understand the lumber side of things and can make everything work well and seamlessly,” Renee says. Her company is in the process of transitioning to BuilderWire for its e-commerce solutions.

Taking it online

So why the focus on digital commerce for a small town, one-location lumberyard? It’s driven by customers. Renee sees where things are headed and is ready to serve a new generation of builders who have grown up with the convenience of online shopping.

“In this day and age, you have to be visible, and you have to be transparent about your business. You have to be online, and you have to be relevant. You can have an e-commerce site, but if you don’t have the right tools and the right people to support the site, drive customers to the site, and get the conversation going about the site, you are throwing a lot of money into it and not getting a lot of return or value out of it. Knudson Lumber is continuously thinking about improving our customers’ in-store and online experience.”

It has been a challenge, Renee says, to “get it right.” Everything from pricing transparency, the right units of measure, the correct images and products, and the correct quantity-on-hand numbers all play a role in how a customer perceives your website and, in turn, perceives your business. For Knudson Lumber, that means 4,800 SKUS need to be entered and catalogued so that when a customer searches for a certain caulk or specific ladder, their search results bring them to Knudson Lumber. “There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes and is part of your overall digital presence,” Renee says, none of which is “glamorous or a selling point of a new e-commerce platform.”

Beyond helping Knudson Lumber stay agile and relevant in retail, the site will continue to pay dividends for the business in terms of search engine optimization, Renee says, bringing a growing number of new residents into her store.

Hometown team

Teamwork drives both retail and online business for the company, Renee says. At Knudson Lumber the teamwork doesn’t end at company logo on the shirts. Renee sees the customer relationship as a partnership.

“Our sales team is a great group of individuals dedicated to solving customer problems,” she says. “They help builders be more productive and more successful. They think of it as a partnership and it makes a huge difference. The builders appreciate it and recognize it.”

Like most retailers these days, Renee says her biggest challenge is attracting and retaining knowledgeable employees. She has a great core team, but some of the stronger employees are getting to an age where they’re thinking about retirement.

“We’re trying to prepare ahead of time so we can get a replacement they can start training. It’s been very difficult, and I know we’re not alone in that.”

To ease the difficulty a bit, Kundson Lumber has raised the starting wage of new employees, along with introducing an internal referral program to pay employees who refer someone the company hires. Renee has also brought on a part time human resources employee who specifically seeks out potential hires through LinkedIn and other social media platforms.

Big growth ahead

Like prepping for future online buyers and identifying replacements for senior employees, Renee knows that what she does today will help shape how her company performs in years to come.

As Kittitas County housing projections continue to rise, Renee seeks to bring Knudson Lumber to a $30 million company by the year 2030. To double current revenues in eight years means additional expansion and additional lines and services.

“We have lots of opportunities right now to help our customers. There is a lot of opportunity for market growth,” Renee says.

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