It wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. That’s the consensus from a number of lumber dealers who have emerged from a business closure due to a mandated shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Jim DePretto and Rick Jensen, co-owners of Bayview Building Materials in Elma, Washington, it comes with a major sigh of relief.
As Washington state saw the earliest recorded cases in the U.S., it became one of the first to declare a state of emergency in late February, and shut down non-essential businesses—including residential construction—in March. In all, residential building was shut down for seven weeks, DePretto said. “That had an effect on our contractor base for sure, but in the meantime, the retail base did pick up, so that helped.”
For the only full-service lumberyard in a town of just more than 3,000 residents, losing the builders’ business for that long may once have been too much to withstand. Recognizing an increased customer demand for DIY retail years earlier, the company was in a good position to continue outfitting its store to serve those customers, and that’s what kept the Bayview Building Materials team in business, and in the black, even while their biggest customers were out of work.
With a robust hardware store within more than 11,000 square feet of remodeled retail space, along with a large lawn and garden facility, Bayview became the perfect destination for a quarantined customer base eager to improve their homes and yards with recently-arrived federal stimulus money.
“We expected that business could have really, really gone in the tank, and it never did,” DePretto said. “In fact, it led to a couple of the busiest months we’ve ever had.”
The store now operates with signs for social distancing; there are shields at the cash register, and staff and customers are encouraged to follow state and municipal health guidelines. In all, Jensen said, the rural area around Elma wasn’t hit as hard by the coronavirus as the rest of Washington.
“When we thought that business would go down, we had record customer numbers,” Jensen said. “What we planned for and what actually happened were pretty much two different things. We still have a concern down the road a bit. We took a lot of time out of the planning for home building and what was on hold, as far as plans, financing, bids, and permits. We’re still in a little bit of a quandary about what’s going to happen.”
From colleagues to co-owners
The ability to adjust on the fly and press on so well through a global pandemic was aided by DePretto and Jensen’s history of working together. The two have been colleagues and friends for decades, back to when they each managed individual Ace Hardware stores. Prior to meeting each other in that arena, DePretto had been in hardware, and Jensen in the lumber industry. Their friendship was right for what would later become an equal partnership in Bayview.
Both unsatisfied with where their careers were headed as hardware store managers, they decided to join forces and combine talents in 2003 when they set out to purchase their own full-service lumberyard and hardware store.
“Rick came to me and asked if I was interested,” DePretto said. “He asked if I had ever wanted to own a store and I told him I had been working toward that for my whole career.”
The store Jensen had in mind was a single-location, small-town lumberyard 60 minutes from Washington’s Western coastline, and 90 miles outside of Seattle. Bayview Building Materials was first established in 1964 by Robert E. Bush, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from WWII, and his business partner Victor Druzianich. The store was passed along to Robert Bush’s son, Rick Bush, in 1985, who then sold it to DePretto and Jensen in 2003.
Purchasing a yard in an area in which big-box stores are a half hour drive away, Jensen’s background in LBM, along with DePretto’s retail and hardware credentials enabled the business partners to forecast how they could best serve the future needs of the community. In 2016, Bayview unveiled a 5,000-square-foot addition to its existing home center showroom that more strongly and directly connected with the region’s growing base of DIY customers. The company’s enhanced showroom enabled Bayview to introduce and expand several product categories and brand offerings, including paint, rental, and power tools.
Since the expansion, they’ve added a greenhouse and other DIY consumer-focused products like grills and outdoor living, continuing to feed into the company’s growth throughout the region. Bayview’s strong rental department and a focus on STIHL power tools are a big part of that growth.
“When we expanded the store, we went from 6,000 square-foot retail and basically doubled the size,” DePretto said. “We converted an old storage area to the greenhouse, so the lawn and garden category is a big area for us now.”
The lumberyard still stands on its original location, where prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it served about 60% professional builders. The split after the stay-at-home orders were lifted is closer to 50/50, DePretto said. Jensen added that Bayview is well-equipped to handle the increase in retail and DIY traffic, and he suspects it will stay at the balanced level even after building is back to full swing along the coast.
With a large builder footprint that includes urban, rural, and coastal homes, Bayview serves pro customers wherever their projects may be. “Where their job is, that’s where we deliver to,” Jensen said. “There are times where we’re up by Seattle, other times down by the ocean.”
The company employs about 35 staff members and has maintained that number throughout the pandemic. Even with pro builder business shut down momentarily, the increase in DIY traffic meant steady work for the whole team.
“Jim and I do as much as we can so that we can provide a family-wage job for our employees,” Jensen said. “We gave everyone a hazard bonus for the pandemic. It’s important that they want to come to work. We’ve got people who have been here 25 to 30 years or longer.”
Overall, the pandemic may have even earned the company more customers, as Bayview attracted shoppers in the area who may not have been aware that they are more than a typical lumberyard and hardware store. The business partners are now looking at the new DIY and retail customer acquisitions as a permanent part of their customer base.
“The shortages that happened throughout retail because of COVID, all of those things such as household cleaners were a small area of our store, but now they’re extremely important. Now more people know that we have that. It opened their eyes that we carry more than a ‘small town lumberyard.’ They’re starting to see that now.” DePretto said.
Jensen added, “Every day we talk about what’s going to happen for the balance of the year and we’re still trying to figure that out. But, I don’t see any reason that it wouldn’t hold up. We’re convinced now that it will stay the same.”
As DePretto and Jensen look to the future, their only interest is strengthening and optimizing the base that they’ve built in Elma, they said. “We’ve been here since the 60s and we’re not going anywhere,” Jensen said. “We’re in a great spot, and we’re always looking to optimize our footprint on our property as business grows.”