Small Kansas town rallies behind its lumberyard

Eskridge Lumber Tuff Stephenson
With general manager Randy Kemp in semi retirement, Tuff Stephenson (shown here), was brought in to take over operations of the small-town Eskridge Lumber.

There was a time about five years ago when Randy Kemp was about to lock the doors at Eskridge Lumber for good. The lumberyard where he had worked for 35 years was going the way of many businesses in the shrinking towns of rural America. Even in remote parts of South Kansas, big box stores are just a short drive away.

Randy Kemp, Eskridge Lumber
Randy Kemp

But the people of Eskridge, Kansas weren’t ready to let go of a community staple. When the owners of the local lumberyard announced in 2016 that they hadn’t found a buyer and were forced to close, a town meeting was held. Volunteers and investors stepped forward. An LLC was formed. Soon, the people of Eskridge owned the local lumberyard, and Randy Kemp still had a job.

Community support for Eskridge Lumber

In a town the size of Eskridge—population 540—the type of people who step forward to save a lumberyard aren’t necessarily going to be builders and remodelers. There aren’t enough of them in town. In fact, of the 27 community members who initially invested to keep Eskridge Lumber afloat, just six of them were customers of the lumberyard.

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Harold Warner, Eskridge Lumber
Harold Warner

Harold Warner was one of them. A retired homebuilder, Harold had done some remodeling work after retirement and shopped Eskridge Lumber for every job he took on. When he heard the business was on the verge of closing, he rounded up a few other builders and contractors who decided they’d need investors to keep the yard going. “When word got out that they were going to close the lumberyard, all we thought of was how important it was to keep it open,” Harold says. “We got the word out, had a community meeting, and people who were interested showed a good response.”

The original 27 investors (the group has now grown to 31) formed an LLC and began the purchase process. Each has contributed a minimum $10,000 investment to buy the lumberyard outright and what was left was used for physical improvements to the building.

Randy Kemp, who was about to lose his job, became the general manager of the lumberyard where he had started work as a yardman and truck driver, then eventually had been named manager.

Jerry Haahr, Eskridge Lumber
Jerry Haahr

Keeping Randy in charge of the business was part of the deal with anyone who invested in the LLC, says Jerry Haahr, a retired community member who is one of four investors who sit on the board of directors with Harold.

The board of directors wanted Randy to remain in his position because they knew what his experience meant to the community. “Several of the owners are business owners in other fields, several others are successful in their occupations outside the area,” Jerry says. “Most of them are retired or are ranchers, but they’re all concerned citizens who wanted to invest in this effort.”

They weren’t going to let the business leave town. The lumberyard has been in the same location for more than 100 years, though even the local historical society isn’t exactly sure when it started. “Sometime in the late 1800s,” Randy says.

Eskridge Lumber
Eskridge Lumber, Eskridge Kansas.

Out-of-town competition

While the population of Eskridge topped out in the 700s back in the 1970s, the lumberyard has always served builders in a wide-ranging South Kansas ranch market. With Topeka, Manhattan, and Emporia Kansas all within 40 miles, competition from big box stores tends to hurt Eskridge Lumber a bit more than it should because of the nature of employment in the area. The local school is the largest employer, followed by the town’s only grocery store and bank. Most in the area who aren’t ranchers commute to larger cities for work, where they’re easily able to stop at a big box store.

So, the board decided to cater more to the residents who were in the area. They’ve since expanded inventory to include farm and ranch supplies, something that was only available in limited amounts under the previous owners.

Eskridge Lumber
Eskridge Lumber’s move to farm and ranch supplies, as well as updates to the lumberyard, has resulted in annual revenues of $700,000.

“We’ve added cattle feeds and minerals and supplements,” Jerry says. “We’ve gone more extensively into farm supplies since the main industry in the area is ranching.”

The move to farm and ranch supplies, as well as updates to the lumberyard, has resulted in annual revenues of $700,000.

While that’s a respectable revenue number for a business with three employees, Eskridge Lumber also harkens back to an era of business that customers won’t find in a big box store, Randy says. The company doesn’t use a point-of-sale system, though they do point out that they can accept credit cards. Much of the business is done via house credit accounts.

“We’ve looked into point of sales software, and the number of items we have and the cost of the system, well…we can hardly justify it. We’ve looked at it seriously but haven’t made the move. We’ve got other places that we should spend our money,” Jerry says.

Instead, the company issues paper invoices and uses what Randy calls “just a regular, old-fashioned cash register.” Most of the store’s hardware comes from Blish-Mize, out of Atchinson, Kansas. The distributor was chosen because they’ll break order quantities into smaller batches, so Randy is able to order just one or two of an item at a time.

“We are a small operation, there’s no question about that,” Jerry says. “We never really sold ourselves as being out there to make a large return. It was mainly to keep the operation in the community because it’s one of the few things left in the town that is still bringing in revenue.”

COVID-19 strikes Eskridge Lumber

Remember how Eskridge Lumber nearly closed its doors forever back in 2016? Fast-forward five years and it almost happened again. This time, COVID-19 was to blame. When general manager Randy Kemp contracted the virus, the store’s hours were curtailed and deliveries were postponed. Some builders brought their business to the big box stores instead. Some in the community thought the lumberyard was done for—again.

Instead, members of the board of directors asked if any of the LLC owners would be interested in a second round of fundraising to help the store through the unusually difficult time.

“We got to the point where we were ready to close up last fall, but we talked to investors, and everyone agreed to put up a little bit more investment and we’d continue,” Jerry explains.

The store would remain open, but Randy wouldn’t be there. In all, he would spend 26 days in the hospital. Health issues resulting from the Coronavirus have since forced him into semi-retirement, working a minimum number of hours each week alongside Tuff Stephenson, who will be his heir apparent.

Tuff was brought aboard in May to fill in while Randy continued his recovery. Before Tuff arrived, board members volunteered time at the store to keep things going. With Tuff in place, yard operations and deliveries were trending back toward pre-COVID numbers.

“Tuff picked it up real quick. He’s done a hell of a job for us,” Randy says. “I’ve been fortunate that they’ve got a man like him to take over.”

Local appreciation

While the company is still recovering from the hurt that COVID-19 brought, there’s plenty to be proud of at Eskridge Lumber, the group says. Much as there’s still reason to be proud of Eskridge, Kansas.

“A really big advantage is that we’re the closest lumberyard for a number of builders,” Jerry says. “We give a lot of personal service to our customers. We’ll do an estimate on the house for you that you won’t get at any big box store.”

“Every time someone comes in from out of town they’re amazed at our inventory. So, if we can just get them in the store, we can sell them something. Our employees are qualified, they’ve been around a long time, and they know how to use the products.”

Ultimately, they agreed, the community is the connection. Randy is still around the store, and still known as the face of Eskridge Lumber. Both he and Tuff grew up in town, where Tuff’s father and grandfather still live. “That all helps,” Jerry says.

The board meets monthly and each time focuses on not just the current finances, but ways in which revenue can be improved, Harold says.

“It works really well. We haven’t had any conflict with the board or employees. We haven’t had any problems with the balance of the owners. We’re a very cooperative group,” Harold says.

Of the 27 community members who initially invested to keep Eskridge Lumber afloat, just six of them were customers of the lumberyard.

The board of directors is working to attract business from surrounding communities. As Harold says, “every time someone comes in from out of town they’re amazed at our inventory. So, if we can just get them in the store, we can sell them something. Our employees are qualified, they’ve been around a long time, and they know how to use the products.”

The group is also open to additional investors, which they’re still finding from people within a 30-mile radius, including ranchers, residents of lake community outside of town—people who grew up in Eskridge and moved away but just want to see the lumberyard survive.

“Everybody’s objective is the same,” Harold says, “to keep this thing alive.”

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