Keim Lumber embraces past and future

Three years shy of its 100th Anniversary, Keim Lumber could be considered a paradox in the building industry.

There’s the fact that Keim is located in the Amish capital of Charm, Ohio—in the midst of hayfields and cornfields—yet its 120,000-square-foot showroom is a cutting-edge facility that receives orders from across the state and beyond.

There’s the fact that Keim only became computerized a few years ago, yet its 100-plus species of domestic and hardwoods (from locations as exotic as the West Indies, Africa and the Pacific Rim), custom doors (19,000 square feet worth) and unique trims and moldings (done on seven high-end molding machines) ship all over the nation.

And there’s the fact that this fourth generation family owned business—which still has hitching posts for its Amish and Mennonite customers—is a pioneer in the progressive green building area, using advanced processes to create high temperature thermo-treated wood, thermo-treated decks and sidings and solar powered products.

Not what you’d expect in a small village like Charm, whose population teeters right around 100—and whose other businesses include antique shops, a general store, a harness and boot shop and a dry goods store. The closest Lowe’s is a half-hour away in Wooster, Ohio; the closest Home Depot a 45-minute drive to Canton.

Keim Lumber, No. 170 on the Home Channel News Pro Dealer Top 350, racked up sales of $51 million in 2007 (a 20 percent increase over the previous year). The business was started as a sawmill by brothers Mose and John Keim in 1911 and grew into a thriving lumber business over the next several decades. Mose’s son Roman joined Keim Brothers in the 1930s and started to sell plywood under a new name, M.J. Keim and Son. By the 1950s, they were manufacturing hardwood flooring and had expanded into several buildings, including a main office and a hardware store.

KEIM LUMBER

Headquarters: Charm, Ohio2007 sales: $51.0 million2006 sales: $42.5 millionUnits: 1

Source: HCN Top 350 Scoreboard

Yet most of the growth has come in the last 40 years, under the guidance of third generation owner Bill Keim and his son, Robbie Keim. They have built it into a mega-business that covers approximately 40 acres, with almost 700,000 square feet under roof, more than 330 employees and 23 delivery trucks making daily runs to all parts of Ohio and to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and a smattering of Michigan locations.

“We’re nowhere, so we need to draw people in,” Bill Keim said. “We wanted a store that was nice and appealing. People want to see the pretty stuff. Displays attract women. Tools attract the men and contractors. We wanted a big showroom. Keim Lumber is one of the nicest and largest showrooms in the country.”

That showroom starts with a 36-foot entryway and is all trimmed in cherry wood, much like a fine furniture store. On display are product lines from more than 400 manufacturers, and the on-site millwork shop produces more than 12 million feet of hardwood trim a year. There are fireplace mantles, homemade kitchen and bath cabinets, hardware, windows and doors and kitchen and bath products. There’s an 11,000-square-foot tool department, an extensive lighting collection, a full-service Carpenter’s café and nicely appointed conference rooms where contractors can meet with clients to discuss what does—and doesn’t—fit into their budgets.

“We have become a destination,” said John Swaffer, Keim’s advertising manager, who has been with the company since 1995. “Someone walks in the door, and the inevitable reaction is, ‘Wow!’”

About 70 percent of Keim’s employees are Amish, another 20 percent Mennonite. But while many do not use phones, lights and computers at home, they make it all happen at the office. The staff of more than 30 sales reps is keeping busy despite the less-than-robust housing market, as the company is more focused on high-end custom builders, who haven’t been as affected by the downturn as tract builders.

“There are 700 to 800 contractors we supply, and because we have a diversified operation going, over the years we’ve been able to weather the storms a little bit better than most,” Swaffer explained. “Typically, when one is down, we’re picked up by another.”

On an average Friday in August, Keim registers rang up more than 900 sales—and that’s not even their long day. The store is open till 7 p.m. every Monday, providing a dinner buffet in the on-site café, as well as live entertainment. Keim now advertises in 23 newspapers, on television and billboards, and is upgrading its Web site, trying to appeal to a national audience.

“How many lumberyards do you know that are tourist attractions?” said Shasta Mast, executive director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “It brings in busloads of people, and the economic impact is tremendous—not only from a tourist standpoint but the number of builders Keim services all over the state.”

The customer base is 60 percent to 70 percent professional, and the rest is about as diverse as the U.S. citizenry. Recent orders included custom trim for a 30,000-square-foot home outside Cleveland, custom doors for a Baltimore man who is building a retirement home in Arizona and custom windows for a customer based in England.

“We’re getting more exposure, and people are starting to take notice,” Swaffer said. “They’re saying, ‘Who is this company? Where are they?’ The best advertisement is word of mouth.”

Then there’s the green aspect, which Swaffer admits is a tough nut to crack, given the confusing variety of standards followed in the industry. The company recently installed equipment to heat treat wood, taking the moisture out without chemicals. He says Keim doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but that the company is dedicated to driving the importance of green living home to customers.

“From my viewpoint, we need to offer seminars to help educate the customer base,” Swaffer said. “There’s a lot of confusion over what is green. It is an area coming to the forefront. We’re trying to stay abreast of what’s going on. That’s one of our goals—to take the lead.”