As it looks to the future, Island Lumber wins national recognition

For the last seven years, Island Lumber has held a Ladies’ Night on a Monday in November, drawing hundreds of women to the sprawling building supply store for special discounts, catered food, glasses of wine, drawings and camaraderie.

Brian Cobb

For the last seven years, Island Lumber has held a Ladies’ Night on a Monday in November, drawing hundreds of women to the sprawling building supply store for special discounts, catered food, glasses of wine, drawings and camaraderie.

The event doesn’t earn the store any money. But it has earned it some loyal followers, Earl Van Buskirk, its owner, says. And now, the event has helped the store garner some national attention.

LBM Journal, a nationwide industry publication, named Island Lumber one of its three “entrepreneurs of the year” — giving the Vashon store its top spot for the “sales under $10 million” category. A store in Michigan won the honor among stores with $10 to $50 million in sales, while a building supply store in Alabama grabbed the spotlight for sales of more than $50 million.

Van Buskirk said LBM Journal’s editors were particularly impressed by Island Lumber’s Ladies’ Night, which last year drew 1,000 women to the store. They were also impressed that the store’s sales figures have remained steady, despite a recession that has hit the building industry hard.

In 2010, according to the magazine, Island Lumber had $7.95 million in sales; last year, it brought in an estimated $8 million, the magazine says.

“Our sales have not grown over the last two years, but we’re holding where we are,” Van Buskirk said.

Ladies Night has been a highlight for the store. “It’s a big, fun event,” said Brian Cobb, sales manager at Island Lumber. “Every year, it’s grown.”

But the event is also part of a business strategy Van Buskirk and Cobb have embraced as they look for ways to ensure Island Lumber’s survival and future growth in a shifting home construction landscape on Vashon.

“We’re trying constantly to make our store more shopper friendly. We want to be more than a lumber store … and appeal to the women shoppers,” Van Buskirk said.

To that end, the store is in the midst of a significant expansion, adding 11,000 square feet to the 20,000-square-foot shop. Crews recently punched out the store’s back wall, extending the store 64 feet further back and much closer to its warehouse.

The expansion — expected to be completed in a month or two — will enable the store to widen its aisles and increase some of its product lines, Van Buskirk said. More importantly, he added, Island Lumber will be able to continue its shift towards becoming a center for home remodeling, not just building and construction.

New construction is down significantly on the Island, Cobb said. A few years ago, 50 permits were issued for new home construction, and 20 permits for remodeling were handed out, Cobb said. The situation in 2011 “flip-flopped,” he said, with 50 permits issued for remodeling and three for new home construction.

“Building is way off on the Island — way way off,” Van Buskirk said. “We think the future will be in remodeling and what people are doing on an almost daily basis to take care of their houses.”

Industry analysts expect the trend to continue, Cobb and Van Buskirk said. As a result, the two men said, they want the store to be roomy enough for people to easily examine the items they might want for their new kitchen or bathroom — windows or doors they might want to install or appliances they might want to buy. And that approach takes room, Cobb said.

“People are hands-on,” Cobb said. “They want to see it.”

Cobb and Van Buskirk have also expanded the store’s product lines in recent years. They now sell pet food, horse supplies and chicken feed — an expansion that has rankled some of their much smaller competitors on Vashon.

But Van Buskirk, who purchased the store in 1984, said he considers his competitors not other Island businesses but big box enterprises such as Lowe’s and Home Depot in Seattle. He also said he’s working hard to keep his business viable. The store has employed as many as 42 people; it’s now down to 35.

“We don’t want to create any rivalries. We just want to have a nice place to shop on Vashon with the products … that people want to purchase,” he said.


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