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Modern service, the old fashioned way

Chase Lumber celebrates 125 years of customer focus.

For 125 years, Chase Lumber has supported the needs of builders and remodelers as Dane County, Wisconsin has grown. Throughout those years the company has adapted and progressed with the times, all while leaning on one simple commitment to its customers: service.

It may sound simple, but the motto on the company’s sign saying, “We do business the old-fashioned way, with service,” has propelled fifth-generation, family-owned, Chase Lumber to three locations and consecutive years of record revenues.

The business’s three locations, in Sun Prairie, McFarland, and DeForest, are now majority-owned by Val Stiener, company president and fifth generation to work in the business.

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Chase Lumber
Photos courtesy of Piston MFG.

Local history

Val’s family history, like the history of the company and even the community it serves, hinges on one of the early settlers to the area, Moses Chase, whose son, J.W. Chase, would eventually expand on the family’s agricultural operations and purchase interest in a lumberyard in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Through the generations, the Chase family gained sole interest in the lumberyard and after consolidating some of their business interests, formed Chase Lumber and Fuel in 1923.

Three generations later, Val’s father, David Chase, took control of the business in 1980 upon his father, Theodore Chase’s retirement. Like many family businesses in the industry, it wasn’t assumed that a girl would grow up to take over the lumberyard, so after high school Val chose a career outside of the company. But also like many family businesses, she came back home to help out along the way and decided to stay. For Val, it was 1996, when she came home to help at a time when she was also considering a career change.

“When I came on board, no woman in our family was ever given the opportunity to work for the company. But I came on when my dad asked if I could help with the administrative side. He knew I had management experience and experience with computers.”

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As such, Val’s first task was a big one, when she was charged with computerizing the company. “As you can imagine, I wasn’t the most popular,” she says. “I was the owner’s daughter, and nobody wanted computers. Nobody wanted to hear about them.”

For years, however, the business operated in what Val describes as “a wonderful triangle,” of her running administration and HR functions, her brother running operations, and her father overseeing it all. “All decisions were made by the three of us jointly, with my dad having the final say, and it was a wonderful working relationship.”

But as her father developed health issues in later years, a succession plan was forced to the forefront, and in the end, Val’s brother decided to retire, and she was named company president.

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“In my father’s mind, there was always succession planning in place. In a perfect world, I would have continued working side-by-side with my brother.”

Val’s father, David Chase, passed away in 2017.

New leadership

When Val Stiener took over the company, she followed her father’s focus on the customer. Over the years, she has seen the percentage of contractor sales increase from around 85% to now closer to 95%.

“As time goes by and more big boxes enter the picture, we’re pretty darn close to 90 to 95% contractor trade,” she says. “We also welcome the retail sales.”

According to Val, Dane County Wisconsin, which houses the city of Madison and its suburbs as well as rural areas, is home to more building materials suppliers than any other county in the state. As such, maintaining and holding market share in such a competitive environment is a challenge.

“The best way I can describe it is that we have a very rich, embedded reputation. We’ve been around a long time, and what’s kept us in the game—what our customers see, and our philosophy has been—is to focus on what we do best. We don’t try to be everything to everybody. We’re not a hardware store, we don’t have plumbing. We don’t even try to say that big boxes are our competitors. Our main focus is what we know we do best and that is a building materials supplier. We have loyalty, honesty, and do the right things for the right reasons. If my father was alive, he’d say the same thing. We put our employees and our customers first.”

Val knows it’s significant that she is the first female leader in the company’s history, though she doesn’t like to tout the fact. “I’m just following the footsteps before me,” she says. “It’s not about me, it’s about everyone who works here. I couldn’t do it without them, and it doesn’t really matter who is in my chair.”

Chase Lumber
Chase Lumber

Serving growth

What is good for business in Dane County, Wisconsin, is that the area’s housing needs are plenty. In a way, however, it’s also not always great for business. Because of the market, Val says, her staff is sometimes running a little leaner than she would like.

On a typical week, there are 45 to 47 employees at Chase Lumber’s locations. Because of both a lack of qualified job candidates and an extremely competitive job market, Val says her team members wear multiple hats.

“Right now, the competition for employment in this county is ruthless,” she says. “There are more and more players coming into the market because it’s one of the fastest growing counties in the state. The pricing increases and product availability have been huge challenges, but the workforce, in my mind, is the single, top challenge.”

Yet Val says her team has made the best of lean staffing. A product of everyone wearing multiple hats is that now any team member can help in any department. “That has contributed to our success as well,” she says. “We run lean, we don’t carry a lot of extra fluff, which ultimately helps the bottom line.”

Business evolves

Val says the COVID-19 pandemic only strengthened the company’s focus on old-fashioned service, even as they found new ways to complete it. But now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, the company is focused on continuing loyal, face-to-face communication with customers.

“We believe in face-to-face. You lose that with customers and miss out on establishing relationships. If you want to see or talk to your estimator, they’re here. We don’t have to turn anyone away and say, ‘they work from home.’”

While the motto on the sign still says, “We do business the old-fashioned way, with service,” Val has shown how that service can be completed a bit differently these days.

“Business has changed a lot. When I started 27 years ago, it was nothing to see stores full at 7 a.m. with contractors, often talking with a cup of coffee and a donut. But now, the contractors all have phones, and they text and email orders. You have to evolve with that, and that’s what we do now. That’s the new way to offer old-fashioned service.”


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