OMAHA, NEB. —When Rick Russell purchased a 68-acre tract of land here in October 2006, single-family building permits in the Omaha area had already dropped 33 percent from the previous year. But the industrial-zoned property came with direct access to the interstate, a rail complex and the old Western Electric manufacturing plant.
Millard Lumber was scattered between a dozen buildings in the city’s old business area, where Russell’s father founded the business in 1948. Public streets separated one operation from another, making communications difficult. Russell’s two sons now worked in the business, and the family wanted to consolidate the Omaha operations under one roof.
A 580,000-square-foot former cable factory would do the trick. The mammoth building also made it possible to build an indoor, drive-through lumberyard, several of which Russell had visited back East.
Construction began in 2007, and this past spring Millard Lumber opened its U-shaped drive-through lumberyard designed by Ron Johnson of Portland, Maine. “Our [pro] customers’ most valuable asset is their time,” Russell explained. He pointed to a “greeter” in the lumberyard entrance who can radio ahead a contractor’s order. After the materials are loaded on the truck, the customer pays at an exit kiosk. Said Russell: “We can get them in and out in 10 minutes.”
The lumberyard adjoins a new retail store, designed with help from Do it Best. Both opened in March 2008. Three months later, Millard Lumber unveiled its 13,000-square-foot design center, which took the longest to complete. A Minneapolis architect was hired to do the main design, although Russell supplied his own inspiration: the “indoor jungle” at the Omaha Zoo.
“Our concept was to put in a winding path so that people have the opportunity to discover things,” Russell explained. Among the many surprises are a home theater room with cherry wood paneled ceilings and walls (“Every man’s dreamden,” he observed.), several working kitchens, a kitchen pantry vignette and cabinetry that ranges from Mission to traditional to ultra modern. One section of the showroom is devoted to fireplaces (gas and electric, installation available), and another contains a gazebo that displays different types of exterior siding and interior decking.
The Millard Lumber showroom was designed to wow most homeowners, and it hits the mark nicely. Russell held a separate grand opening for the public in June, and he’s hoping that, in his market at least, consumers will let go of their irrational fears about buying or remodeling a home.
“Yesterday one of my builders came in and said his customer had just cancelled her [custom home] project,” Russell said. “She said she thought it was the wrong time to build. But [building material] prices are low—it’s the best time to build. We have a solid economy in Omaha and good job growth. The downturn here is driven by fear and the media.”
Russell has been through other down turns before, and without a doubt, this one is the worst, he said. Single-family building permits in the Omaha region continue to drop, with declines approaching 50 percent. But the former banker has decided to focus on what he calls “the medium to long-term horizon.”
This horizon also includes green building materials: all three of the company’s lumberyards, including those in Waverly, Neb. (near Lincoln); and Des Moines, Iowa, are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). All three locations offer installed sales, which started with insulation in 2003 and then branched out into framing, trim, siding, windows and exterior doors.
This year the company also opened its Turnkey Building Solutions division, a program that packages labor and materials, including components from Millard’s truss plant in Waverly. The program serves commercial as well as residential builders, although the emphasis is on wood framing. Builders and contractors make up approximately 85 percent of Millard’s customer base.
On the near horizon, the $76 million pro dealer has to figure out what to do with 145,000 square feet of unused space in the former electrical plant. Millard Lumber is also looking to develop or sell some of the land purchased for the new Omaha location.