New View: First-time hardware owner learns on the job

Big Rapids Cash & Carry owner talks about his business – what he’s learning, what he’s changing.
David and family bigger
David VanderWeele, first-time hardware owner of Big Rapids Cash & Carry Do it Center, with his family, William, Isabelle and Kelly.

David Vanderweele is the owner of Big Rapids Cash & Carry Do it Center, a Do it Best dealer, in Big Rapids, Michigan.

He is new to ownership in the hardware and LBM industry…. This is his story.

“Growing up, I knew about the building industry. My father worked for a plumbing wholesale company for more than 30 years before his passing. I remember all the conversations he would have at the dinner table about the industry. I never thought at that time that I would become part of that industry.”

The business has been on the same property for over 117 years in one shape or another, he said. Back in its history it was a lumber mill and a large flooring company. Over the years, and over three different family ownerships, the business has evolved to what it is today – a pro-shop lumberyard along with being a kitchen and bath design center.

When this new owner looks at the learning curve of the LBM industry, he thinks he may have a little advantage compared to some. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know two years ago. At this point in the industry with everything going on, I think nearly all of us are back to being new to the industry, when I look around and talk with my peers.”

Between technology changes, staffing challenges, supply chain problems, price changes every week, building trend changes, people retiring and consumer purchasing habits adjusting, he thinks we are all back to being new in the industry up to a point.

“I have always been open to conversations about change and open to new ideas and ways to do things,” said Vanderweele.

The best ideas I have come from other people that I just modify to fit my goals and objectives. The good part is, I have run all different kinds of business over the years. My focus has and continues to be on learning all of the different products.”

He began ownership of his business right in the middle of the pandemic. Why’d he do that?

“This is the most common question I get from everyone I personally and professionally know. I assure you, I didn’t wake up on a Wednesday morning and say, ‘I’m bored, I think it would be fun to buy a business in the beginning of a world-wide pandemic.’”

To fully understand why he did what he did, he asked us to step back with him in history for a few minutes.

“In my history, I have worked for and run good companies both large and small. Back in 2009 at the beginning of the recession I received an email that asked me to meet my boss in Lansing, Michigan, at 6:30 a.m. I wasn’t the only one that got that email. All the leadership team in the company were contacted,” he said.

“In a matter of two minutes, we were all handed an envelope. Once I opened the envelope all speculation went out the window. When it was all said and done, I had to close three offices and let nearly 40 people go in face-to-face meetings all in one day. By the fourth person at the first office, I was already out of tears from crying so much with them,” said Vanderweele.

“The worst part about it was, good people were let go; and at the time I just couldn’t understand. It was the worst day of my life professionally. I said to my wife that I would never be put in that situation again because of someone’s spreadsheet decision.”

Over the next 10 years he looked for a business that had the right fit for what he was looking for: A business that offered premium people, premium products and premium service.

“I wanted to part of a team that solves problems for people with products and services that provide value, form and function.”

Ownership reveal

Challenges happen to us all in business. That’s no different for this owner.

“You may think this is funny, but my biggest challenge is trying to learn all the product codes we use to check items out,” said Vanderweele.

At this point they don’t use barcodes to scan products – that’s coming. Each product in the store has a code, he said, and the retail codes are easy. He can look at the tag and 785213 brings up a hammer.

“The true challenge comes from all the lumberyard products that have custom designed codes that were created 40 years ago by multiple people. Over time you can start to guess who made what codes because little patterns emerge,” he said.

A second part to the new ownership challenge is then knowing where to go to find that product when needed.

Big Rapids Team
The Big Rapids team, from left: Randy Langworthy, Laurie Foos, Phil Daniels, Sarah Atwell, David VanderWeele, William VanderWeele, Bill Howes, Bobbi Lodholtz, Travis Palmer, Juile Taubitz and Bart Chupp.

The new owner found it funny when someone would say it is in door three or four. Doors three and four are part of a building that has hundreds of products and is at least 4,000 square feet over two floors, he said.

“During my first two months of ownership, I spent most of my time getting to know the yard side of the business. You can still find me each week helping in the yard. I find that it keeps me in tune with what is really going on within our business.”

Looking back, he said, “these two problems developed over time because most of the team I work with have been at the company for 20 or 30 years. With that in mind, the team never really understood why it was so hard for new people to join the team. The good part is everyone at work is really kind and patient.”

Surprises along the way

Ownership for Vanderweele has brought surprises – and rewards.

“Before I purchased, or even had a meeting with the past owner, I secret shopped the company three different times. I went once with my son and daughter; once with my wife; and once by myself.

“I portrayed a good customer, a pain in the backside customer, and a customer that had no clue what he was doing. The team handled each situation great, so I knew the past owner built a great foundation.

“The surprising thing that I learned over time is just how good they truly are.”

He said his team makes the company what it is, and he serves to help support them and provide clear direction on the vision when it is needed.

“My philosophy has been that you manage the situations, and you coach and guide team members you work with. If you have the right people on your team, you shouldn’t have to manage them.”

They are a contractor pro-shop, he explained, “and nearly all the builders we work with fit the same description that I outline above. I enjoy the talks I have with them and already started to develop some friendships.”

In his past job, he said, Vanderweele worked hard to keep his personal life and professional life at arm’s length from each other.

“In this situation they are much more blended. My belief is we are in the people business and just happen to have lumber and hardware products.”

The owner brought merchandising experience from Valvoline, which has helped him in his new business.

“My background was retail. When I worked at Valvoline, we were the category captains of the store sets for some of the largest retailers in the country. That experience really helped teach me that there is a science behind the designs of stores and product placement.”

It also taught him that when making decisions, you really must look at what the data is telling you and it’s a lot less about what you feel when it comes to carrying certain products and where they are placed.

Also, he learned how important it is to find a good corporate mentor. “I had great leaders help guide me, they made a big difference in my life at the time.  I tell young people all the time, one of the greatest keys to success is to find a good group of mentors to learn from.”

Plan to expand

Going forward at Big Rapids Cash & Carry Do it Center, the owner said the next two years will see changes that are noticeable.

“We will be changing our marketing name to Big Rapids Lumber & Hardware along with our logo. These changes will go into effect early next winter. They will provide us a needed update.”

In addition, Vanderweele said, “we are remodeling the store inside and out from top to bottom. The team is really excited about the changes that are coming. To look at us today we are a great lumberyard. In 2023 we will be an even better lumberyard and a full-service hardware store.”

This owner said he has heard people in the industry say you can’t be both lumber and hardware. “They say lumberyards are lumberyards and hardware stores are hardware stores. I disagree. As a company, if you are not growing and diversifying, you are slowly going out of business and just don’t know it yet.

“As a business, you need to add new customers and the best way to do that is by adding new services and products that the customers want.”

Over the next few years, he will also be looking for the next locations to build or acquire. “I have found over the last two years this will be an interesting process. Now that I do know the industry better, I know what to look for more closely when it comes to acquisitions.”

Vanderweele said he will be looking for a like-minded business that focuses on people first and that has a strong base to build on. His goal is to take his company to the next level.

“You never know,” he said, “I like to secret shop all of the time and you may find me in your store someday.”