In an industry loaded with multi-generational family businesses, Sunny Bowman’s story isn’t exactly unique. Sure, she’s a younger woman in a leadership role, something the industry is sorely lacking these days, but that’s not what makes her a great lumberyard owner.
Ask Bowman what has led Dakota County Lumber to 12% revenue increases year-over-year, and she’ll tell you it’s the team. As a leader, she is no stronger than the whole of the team and she’s the first to admit it.
“They could all do my job,” she likes to say of her Farmington, Minnesota-based team of 24, “but I couldn’t do theirs.”
The fact is, she has done most of theirs—at least for a short time. At the age of 25, she returned to the family business, something she never would have imagined years earlier. While she was being groomed for a management role, she insisted on shadowing someone in each department.
Graduating college during the Great Recession and gaining some work experience that included starting her own personal organization company, Bowman came back to Minnesota when it became clear that operating a lumberyard wasn’t nearly as boring as she had once told her father it was. “The thing I had realized is that I liked the business side of things, like when to go to market, when to hire, how to advertise, and sales,” she said. “Growing up, when I said that the lumber industry is boring, my dad always said, ‘business is business, that’s the interesting part.’”
Her father, Steve Finden, built Dakota County Lumber from scratch in 1984, and the lumberyard now occupies what was once an empty lot across the street from the home where he grew up.
“My dad had a $7,500 loan from my grandpa, and that was it,” she said, adding that her father was a sole employee at first, building loads in the evening to come back to deliver early morning. “He’d build a load at night in his only delivery truck and park the truck pointed toward the gate,” Bowman said. “Then he’d prop up the load so it wouldn’t ruin the suspension on the truck. He’d come back at 5 in the morning, drop off the load, make more deliveries, and then open the doors by 7 a.m.”
When it had come time for her dad to think about retiring, a long-overdue conversation about her interest in the family business was planned.
“His exit strategy was always if the kids didn’t want it, he’d sell. He and I were both staring down the barrel of uncertain futures in 2012. Finally, my mom told us to take a long car ride to the cabin and said, ‘you need to talk to each other,’ and when we did, my role in the company was born.”
That’s how a 25-year-old daughter of a lumber dealer decided to take on the business her father had built from the ground up.
“What I realized when I came into the business at 25 is that some of the employees knew me when I was in diapers. I felt like I was stepping in and that I didn’t have any clue. That’s when I told my dad that if I’m going to do this right, I need to shadow everyone who works here so I understand the whole thing.”
At the end of the shadowing process, Bowman said she had identified some things that she’d like to do differently.
It took time, she admits, for the company culture to embrace her in a leadership role. For example, some people still went to her father with questions. Bowman said that’s understandable, considering she did the same thing. For the first few years, she would walk to her parents’ house for lunch and review things with her dad.
“I’d walk to their place for lunch and talk with him and let him answer questions and guide me,” she said.
These days, Finden is completely hands-off from the business. In fact, Bowman bought out her parents and an older brother in 2018. Today, she’s the company’s sole owner, along with her husband.
“Being so opposed to it growing up, I’m surprised sometimes how much I love it,” Bowman said. “I love this job, the company, the people I get to work with, and the idea of what we’re building here.”
Her own way
Bowman describes herself as a very involved owner, but not a micro-manager. While she has an operations manager on staff, she considers herself more of a general manager, and somewhat jokingly, she added, the “Chief Troubleshooter.”
“I’m very involved, and it works,” she said. “I’m involved in a way that lets them do what they do well, but I also get in there and address what isn’t working immediately so that problems don’t persist. I had to ask ‘I probably exhaust you all with how much we talk around here now, right?’”
Bowman said that as an owner, she benefits greatly from not being trained as an expert lumber salesperson, even as 90% of the company’s business is pro contractors. “I know just enough to fill in if someone is sick or on vacation. I can troubleshoot.”
“I don’t ever try to do their job for them,” she said. “They have so much knowledge and they’re so good with customers. They joke that I need a problem to solve, and that I need to stop looking for something to fix.”
But that’s what makes her leadership style work, Bowman said: the strength of her team and their ability to let her ask questions, to troubleshoot, and learn together.
“They’re so wonderful and are so accepting of me asking questions and looking for the right answers. They are trusting of my judgement.”
Throughout the company, from the yard to Bowman’s own office, Dakota County Lumber stands by its mantra as the home of the perfect delivery.
“Everyone can say they give great customer service, and we’re sure they do and we respect our competitors, but if you want what you want when you want it, buy from us,” Bowman said. “That’s what our salespeople sell on, and what our yard guys strive for. If we make mistakes, we move mountains to take care of it before it’s a problem for our customers.” The perfect delivery philosophy is communicated internally from an employee’s first day, and it’s what drives a lot of referral business to the company, Bowman said.
“We’ve always had a reputation that if you want it done right, you go to Dakota.”
Bowman said there’s growth to be realized in Dakota County Lumber’s current location in the suburb of Minneapolis. There’s room to expand on the current footprint, enough that she predicts the company could double its revenue with yard improvements such as vertical storage.
“We’re a pro yard,” she said. “Those are our stripes, and we’re not trying to change them.” The company turned around $15 million in sales in 2019 at its single location and has been seeing a consistent 12% growth each year. This year the rise in remodeling spending during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought nearly 35% increases in sales year-over-year through June.
“This year has been an insanity,” Bowman said. “About 30% of our base customers are deck builders. We take a strong stocking position in Trex and Azek decking. Therefore, our decking is very competitively priced. We’re able to buy well and we’ve built a reputation for having decking in stock.”
Dakota County Lumber has seen an increase in walk-in traffic too, Bowman said. She’s heard from customers who felt they wanted to support a local family business rather than a big box store, and from customers whose orders haven’t been completed by larger retailers. The added attention to her store led her to hire a counter salesperson who specifically answers the phone for inside sales staff.
“We’ve never had someone like that before,” she said. Overall, through the pandemic and its complications, Bowman said her team has been stronger than ever.
“They responded to increased demand by putting their heads together and working smarter. They’re all aware that we don’t know if this is the new normal or if this is temporary, and they’re just working so much harder,” Bowman said. “Our processes haven’t fallen apart at all, and our customers haven’t felt us being challenged, but I have seen this team working harder than I’ve ever seen them work before. Even though they have stepped up and have worked so hard, they shouldn’t have to, so we’ve added a couple extra sets of hands that can help us.”
Bowman’s focus is sustaining service during the growth the company has experienced and trying to bring on more staff amid the coronavirus unemployment policies.
An independent lumberyard is a great place to work, but it’s not easy to ask, “Want to put in a really hard day in the heat and make less than you’d make on unemployment?” she said.
Still, the small, family-like atmosphere of the company is its greatest strength, Bowman said.
“Being able to recognize that and respond quickly is key. The advantage we have is our small size. We’re able to turn a little more quickly, and over the last eight years we’ve really focused on hiring the right kind of people. I know that I can go to them with an issue and say, ‘here’s what we’re not going to sacrifice, and here’s what I need from you.’”
The heart of the business is still the same as it has always been since her father loaded his first truck 36 years ago, Bowman said. The changes that have had the most profound impact was hiring the right people.
What’s the key to Dakota County Lumber’s success? “We’ve really added good people on the team to supplement the good people we already had,” Bowman said. “Hard working, good people, open to honest communication.”