In an area like Montana, where Western Building Center serves an expansive market with a sparse population, Ty Shanks took it upon himself to help solve his area’s labor crisis.
Through the Kalispell Student Built Home Program in Kalispell, Mont., Shanks, the vice president of Western Building Center, works with two area high schools to build houses with students. The program, which recently started its fifth house in as many years, introduces young people to the trades and serves as a recruitment program for area builders. The homes are sold to fund the next year’s project. Shanks tells the story of one woman who recently completed the program: “There were two young females in the last class. One who was a senior was in my store last week and I recognized her. She was buying tools because she’s now working for one of our largest builder customers. She got a job with them and they told her that if she works for them for one year and likes it, they’ll pay her to go to construction management school.”
Shanks says the young lady wants to one day run her own all-female construction company.
“She’s not even three months away from graduating high school and she is on her way,” he says. “She showed up with experience, references, knowledge and was offered a job.”
Another program Shanks is involved with is a federally-funded project in which students from Columbia Falls high school build homes in national parks to serve as lodging for park employees.
“We designed the programs for kids who aren’t college bound, but we’re finding that a lot of them do go to college,” Shanks says. “And those who didn’t go to college got a job in the trade of their choice, almost guaranteed. One of the recent graduates is joining my lumberyard. We’re seeing real results.”
When students graduate from the program, they receive a Montana pre-apprentice certificate, which gets them to the top of the list of an apprentice program for electrician, plumber, or carpenter.
The program is creating longterm results across the trades, Shanks says, adding that one of the students who helped wire the first house now came back as a certified electrician and wired the program’s fifth house on his own.
Growing with the times
In 1946, Western Building Supply existed as a small cabinet shop before opening a lumberyard in Kalispell, Mont. Shanks’ father started working at the company in the 1970s and became an owner shortly after.
“He started out as a yard guy,” Shanks says. “It’s truly a company of opportunity.”
Shanks himself started with the business in 1994, when he picked up hours during high school repairing screens and replacing glass panes. He worked his way up to a yard position where he continued on each summer through college.
When the company built a corporate distribution center and needed to add a night shift, he was the first employee. He moved from there to contractor services, and eventually took over as manager of the Columbia Falls store and later took over the Kalispell location.
Today, there are 335 employees across the organization, 98% of whom are full time. The company is overseen by an ownership group of 22, all who are current and former managers of the company. With 11 full-line lumberyard and hardware store locations, as well as a design center, Western Building Center serves a customer base of 90% professional contractors. In 2018, the company generated $105 million in sales, up 34% from the year prior. In 2019, that figure will likely remain flat, Shanks says, which he attributes to the lumber market.
“Ownership at the company ranges from some key initial people who ran the company in the early 2000s, and as we brought on new locations, we needed to continue to grow, and during the Great Recession, we formed an S Corp,” Shanks says. “Every time a manager is appointed, we allow (after a short time) that manager an ownership opportunity.”
The program began as a way to maintain managers as the company grew and acquired other lumberyards, Shanks says. “We could come in and offer those managers a potential ownership stake. We’re saying, ‘We want you to be a part of us.’ Those managers then continue and are a part of the decision-making process. It allows for growth, allows new blood to come in, and it allows people to get out of the business without having to sell a business off.”
Distribution has become a key factor in Western Building Center’s growth. In a company in which there can be a 15-hour drive by truck from one location to another, Shanks has relied on distribution centers to keep products flowing to stores from Western Montana to the North Dakota border, and parts in between.
Western Building Center now has two distribution centers: one in Columbia Falls, and a second in Great Falls.
The plan is to keep expanding those facilities, which allows for more inventory on hand, and lets the company focus on key items that it can buy in bulk. As Shanks says, “not just a rail car, but 20 rail cars. We’re still in the infancy of what we can do with centralized buying.”
Serving the width of Montana is no small feat. Western Building Center serves areas ranging in population from Missoula, to a town as small as 350 residents that is 500 miles from its base of operations. That particular store, Shanks says, has a staff of two—a husband and wife team. The largest store, in Great Falls, is operated by an employee base of 38.
“It goes to demonstrate how geographically different we are,” he says. “We’re committed to finding ways to connect the dots to different cities. We’ve found ways to make things more efficient even though they’re very spread out.”
The future of the organization, and the industry, Shanks says, is in component manufacturing. Along with Western Building Center’s lumberyards and design center, the company also operates a truss plant and a wall manufacturing facility, along with its own fastener wholesaler, Big Sky Fasteners.
In 2008, the company built a truss plant just as the Great Recession ramped up. “That didn’t stop us. Prices were low and we said, ‘let’s build!’”
The wall plant is the company’s most recent addition, one that Shanks refers to as “One of our biggest opportunities of the future.”
Western Building Center has recently opened a research and development facility at the wall plant to study opportunities for more component manufacturing, including stairs, elevator shafts, and more.
“We hope to grow our component manufacturing,” he says. “We’re researching things that we can manufacture and sell to our customers to make their jobs easier.”
The company is trying to take advantage of what has become a market for “houses on demand,” Shanks says. The truss plant is now at three shifts, running 24/7. The wall plant runs two shifts, seven days a week.
Two of the largest overall Western Building Center customers are also the two biggest wall and truss plant builders. “We’re still sending out lots of sticks, but we have delivery trucks now going 12 hours straight. They barely turn the engines off, and they’re going all day.”
Along with Western Building Center’s lumberyards and design center, the company also operates a truss plant and a wall manufacturing facility, along with its own fastener wholesaler, Big Sky Fasteners.
Shanks says that even though the process is optimized to deliver trusses and wall panels in about 10 days, his builders are asking for even more prefab.
“We hope to keep growing this. There’s a lot more money to be made in prefab panels and trusses than there is in a retail lumberyard. We’re trying to be the leaders in that.”
To be leaders in that area, Shanks knows he’ll have to expand with more manufacturing sites, and plans are in place to do just that. “When it takes a truck eight hours to get to a job site, that’s too far. We need another plant.”