In a heavy agricultural area, Vassar has long been a trusted resource for farmers and other ag-focused contractors. It was growth in the agricultural sector that helped keep the company afloat during the recession. In Vassar and surrounding communities, a lot of residents commute to Flint, Mich. and Detroit to work in the auto industry. When those jobs went away, Vassar became one of the earliest LBM dealers to experience recession-level losses.
“We went from years of making money to years of breaking even or even losing a little money,” MacKay said. “It was unheard of.” As luck would have it, while the auto industry faltered, the agricultural market kept going strong. While employees of the auto plants weren’t building new homes, the farmers in the area were spending money on sheds and barns and home remodels.
Essentially, the farm spending helped Vassar Building Center get back on its feet. “In our growth period from 2010 to 2015, that ag community really helped us. It helped bring us back. I like to say that we were first in, first out, as far as the recession went,” MacKay says.
Perhaps the realization that farm and ranch products helped keep the company going led MacKay to expand business even further by diversifying the product categories the company carries. Appliances and flooring are also new categories that are selling well at Vassar.
Vassar has expanded into hardware with the help of Do it Best Corp. and a new hire brought in from a nearby hardware store. “We’re still not a hardware store. We sell lumber and building materials and hardware items. That’s what we do best, but we’re getting good at niches,” MacKay says.
Recent product additions include Milwaukee power tools and Berne workwear as well as Yeti cooler products and Traeger wood pellet grills. MacKay says they’ve also made a big investment in carrying paint lines from Benjamin Moore. “We’re going after more paint sales and will continue to get more diverse.”
While Vassar Building Centers reached nearly $14 million in sales last year, MacKay isn’t letting his company forget how rough things got during the recession.
“We were at 48 employees, and we went to 24. These were good people. In order to keep 24 families going, we had to let some go. They weren’t doing anything wrong; they were working just as hard as we are now. But the building industry, the auto industry, it was gone. We had to come up with different ways to operate.”
The company has much bigger sales days now and has done so by adding only five more employees. Still, MacKay says that even though things are easier now because of the economy, that doesn’t mean those people during the recession weren’t working just as hard or harder.
“Our employees are the best. They make VBC successful, but it helps that customers aren’t as conservative now as they were during the recession. The economy is giving back right now. Before, we all worked just as hard but the economy wasn’t there. Now, efficiency makes us a stronger and better company. We learned during the recession.”
As a second-generation business owner, MacKay hopes to one day pass the company along to his son, Tanner. But he’s in no hurry. Tanner, who finished college and came back to work at the company has to make his way through the ranks. He’s been a truck driver and now is working the sales counter. “He has a lot to learn and he has the best people in the industry to learn it from,” MacKay says.
MacKay says he’s happy with the one location the company currently operates, but he has looked into expansion in the past and will probably look into it again, but the opportunity has to be right. He’s seen the economy take a quick turn and he’s not looking to get ahead of himself any time soon. A steady, calculated approach is best, MacKay says.
Vassar Building Center will continue to invest in its current location and the communities it supports, MacKay adds. An upgrade to the company’s current facility is in the works and a focus on continuous ongoing employee training in conjunction with vendors and manufacturers will ensure Vassar Building Center is well equipped for the future.