A lot of lumber dealers may have their names on the sign on the front of the building. Not many, however, share that name with their great, great grandfather, the founder of the company.
Founded in 1844, S.W. Collins Lumber Company is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Based in Caribou, Maine, the company has remained in the same family’s hands since it was founded by Sam W. Collins, great, great grandfather of today’s owner, also Sam W. Collins.
Every-other generation has seen a Sam W. Collins as head of the company, starting when the original Sam W. Collins, along with partner Washington A. Vaughan, first built a mill on the banks of the Caribou Stream in an area recently established as the state of Maine. Since Collins bought out his partner later in life and brought his son and son in-law into the business, the company has carried the same family name. And for as long as it has been in the family, the business has been a part of the community, a fact not lost on current owner Sam W. Collins.
“We are stewards of a company for a period of time and we are committed to our customers and our employees. Our mission statement directs our action, ‘To continue to offer excellent products and legendary service as we strive to be an active, positive influence in the communities in which we live and work.’” Sam says. “There’s a commitment to grow and improve the business to pass on to the next generation of leaders.”
Over a 175-year span, S.W. Collins has served as a solid part of the Caribou, Maine community, and has seen the area through both good and bad times economically, all the while evolving with the times to best serve the market.
“In the 1800s we were the general store for the growing community, providing dry goods as well as lumber and building materials.” Sam says. “The ledgers with the stylish calligraphy noting the sales of the day recorded oats, molasses, nails, shingles clothing, tea, tobacco, flour and herring! We’ve diversified and changed with the times as the company witnessed a Civil War, two world wars and the Great Depression. After World War II, there was a great need for housing for the many returning veterans, so S.W. Collins formed a construction company to employ veterans and to fulfill the housing demand in the 1950s.”
Today, Sam along with his brother Gregg are the fifth generation to lead the hardware and building material retailer that now has five retail locations, a millwork shop and a stand-alone kitchen and bath center.
Serving Northern Maine
Like many companies in rural areas, S.W. Collins is seeing a declining population. Aroostook County, at the Canadian border, has a population of about 70,000 people, down from around 100,000 as recently as the early 1990s. The closing of a nearby U.S. Air Force base meant 10,000 fewer residents, followed by the loss of those whose livelihoods existed from serving the base.
At the same time, Sam says, S.W. Collins was in the midst of an expansion project, opening a store in Presque Isle, Maine, about 20 minutes from Caribou.
“It enabled us to diversify a bit into another market 13 miles down the road, but timing-wise, it came with trials for sure. Certainly, as we geared up the new store, it was lean times.”
Still, with a population aging and the loss of the Air Force base, S.W. Collins has continued to serve Northern Maine. The company has expanded to seven locations, including a design center and millwork shop. In the past six years, S.W. Collins has added two locations, most recently in Fort Kent and prior to that in Lincoln, Maine.
The Caribou location outgrew its footprint, so the company demolished some old warehouses and relocated the millwork shop to a building on the former Air Force base, and constructed a new drive-through warehouse, which became the blueprint for future stores. At the same time the kitchen and bath showroom was moved to a building on land next to the lumberyard in the late 1980s.
Serving a customer base that is a near even split between retail and contractor, S.W. Collins features an outside sales team of three, led by an outside sales manager. An additional 100 employees work among the stores and millwork shop. Sam runs the company along with his younger brother, Gregg, who is vice president.
Strong service to pro customers as well as DIY, Sam says, has kept the company growing. Sales have increased by 23% over the past few years with the additional stores.
“We continue to look for opportunities for growth in markets where our model will be successful. Our growth is a reflection of our very capable and dedicated management team and the many wonderful employees that are customer-centric,” Sam says. “We are most proud of the people that we employ that understand our mission statement and are extremely hard working and dedicated. Our model revolves around partnering with our customers and providing some of the extra services such as home and addition designs, material takeoffs, construction methods consultation and referral to contractors for their building projects. We advise customers on building material alternatives depending on their building goals.”
Essentially, Sam says, S.W. Collins will help guide the homeowner through the process and make it easier, helping them work with the builder and subcontractors. “Our role is one of consultation and direction for what can be an overwhelming process for the homeowner. We are in a position to answer the contractor’s and subcontractor’s questions when we have designed the new home or addition for the homeowner. We hold the customer’s hand through the entire process. Homeowners and contractors appreciate the service”
Like many lumber dealers across the U.S., Sam can sum up his company’s biggest challenge in one word: Labor. The shortage of employees has led S.W. Collins to reevaluate how it recruits and retains staff members. Gone are the days of advertising in the local papers only, or just putting up a sign in the store.
“We’re focused on Indeed and Facebook,” he says. “We’re using social media not only to find people who are looking for a job, but also those who might be a good fit here. We’re crafting how we advertise our open positions to give more color and richness to the jobs that are available in the lumber and building materials business.”
The company is also working to attract more women to the industry, Sam says, recognizing a largely untapped talent pool.
Along with labor, high on the list of challenges is the population and demographic changes in the S.W. Collins market area.
“The demographics are changing. It’s difficult for the entire county,” Sam says. Because of the aging population and fewer young people staying in the area, there are also shortages of tradesman such as builders, plumbers, electricians, and concrete workers.
Local economic development groups have formed to work together to draw younger people—including those in the trades—back to the area. An unemployment rate of less than 3.6% throughout the state makes it difficult for all employers, and many companies share the same challenge.
At a 175-year-old company, you can’t help but focus on future generations, Sam says. As of now, neither he nor his brother have children involved in the business, but Sam’s daughter is about to graduate college and Gregg has a son, both of whom Sam hopes enter the company.
S.W. Collins management continues to guide the company through recent changes in an ERP system to continue to modernize practices. As with anything, Sam says, training on the new system is critical and will determine how the company is best able to leverage the software.
Whether a homeowner needs a storm door, a new faucet, a new kitchen, windows replaced, an entry door, a design for a new home or a new roof, S.W. Collins Company sees its role as one of consulting with the customer on what is the best product for their project, and if needed, lining the customer up with a contractor best suited for their building needs.