40 years on the job
Gerald Koehn in the new addition to Scott County Lumber which significantly increased the showroom space available for merchandise.
By Rod Haxton, editor
Under Koehn’s ownership SCL Home Center has found its niche
ea customers have been able to rely on two certainties when they step inside what today is known as Scott County Lumber.
First of all, they could count on seeing familiar faces. During that time, the lumber yard has had just four managers.
Secondly, the lumber yard has been able to establish a successful reputation, joining First National Bank as one of the two longest operating businesses in Scott County.
Give credit to Gerald Koehn for being a key part in that success. As of Feb. 19, he reached a 40-year milestone with the business, and this year is also observing his 35th year as the manager.
That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who had begun working part-time for the lumber yard while still in high school, but never considered it as a career. It wasn’t until he received a phone call from former manager Don Irelan that his life took a major turn.
“He asked if I was interested in coming back to work at the yard full-time,” recalls Koehn, who was driving a feed truck at the time for a local feed yard. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
That began a long and successful career move for Koehn.
Started in 1892
Foster Lumber Company wasn’t the first lumber yard in Scott City - that distinction belongs to the Kansas Lumber Yard, established in 1886. But Foster Lumber wasn’t far behind, opening its doors in 1892, in the 100 block of West Fourth Street (across from the Scott City Chiropractic Clinic).
In more than 120 years since, the lumber yard has remained in business as a number of other similar operations have come and gone.
In 1977, the lumber yard was relocated to a new facility at 1510 South Main Street, where it is today, and two years later was purchased by Diamond International.
Because the Scott City site was so new, that may have saved it when the company began liquidating a number of their lumber yards in 1983.
“I don’t believe Diamond sold off this site because they had a pretty significant investment here,” says Koehn.
However, he questioned the lumber yard’s future, and his own, when three executives with Diamond came out to Scott City for a visit in the fall of 1983.
“I figured the hammer was coming down,” says Koehn.
Instead, the three individuals, who had previously been executives with Foster Lumber, informed Koehn they were going to purchase the yard and wanted him, along with his sister, Sharon Roemer, and current employee George Wray, to continue with the business.
That lasted until 1997 when the same three executives asked Koehn if he would be interested in purchasing the lumber yard. With assurance from Security State Bank officers Mike Thompson and Rohn Shellenberger, Koehn decided to move ahead with the transaction.
“After being in the business for so many years, I had no doubt I could continue making it succeed,” Koehn says. “I just wish I’d have done it five years sooner.”
Finding a Niche
Koehn has sales records dating back to when the business opened in 1892. In its first full year of operation in 1893, Foster Lumber had sales of $11,163 and a net profit of $1,090.
“In 120 years this lumber yard has never lost money,” Koehn points out. “Even during the 1920s and ‘30s it squeezed out a profit.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy.
The lumber yard has survived the Depression era of the 1930s, the outmigration of people from rural communities during the 1980s and, perhaps the biggest threat today has been the big box lumber and hardware stores.
The key to survival, says Koehn, “is to find your niche.”
He recalls that the original Foster Lumber building had a 12x20 display floor.
“During the 1970s we were mainly a contractor’s yard. It wasn’t a shopping experience,” he notes. “The big box stores have huge displays with millions of dollars in merchandise on the floor. We can’t match what they have in quantity, but we’ve done a lot over the years to expand our customer base beyond local contractors.”
That includes creating a better shopping environment for the individual who is building an addition to their home, doing some remodeling or is simply taking care of some fix-it-up jobs around the home.
“While contractors are still a big part of our business, our walk-in traffic has increased significantly,” says Koehn. “People are seeing us as not just a lumber yard, but a home improvement and hardware center.”
However, the lumber yard still lacked the space that Koehn felt was needed to meet this growing segment of their market.
In late 2010, he acquired the building immediately to the south and connected it with his existing business. The newly remodeled addition has given SCL another 3,600 square feet of display space.
Making that kind of investment was a major decision for Koehn who acknowledges he’s nearing retirement age.
“But with my son (Evan) returning to help with the business, I felt this was a good investment for his future,” Koehn says. “Plus, the community needs more than one hardware store.”
In fact, the slight modification of the name to Scott County Lumber Home Center is a reflection of that shifting retail emphasis.
Computer technology and customer service are two other features which make it possible to compete with the big box stores.
SCL has the computer software which makes it possible for customers to view cabinets, for example, in 3D and to make modifications before they are ordered.
“We can design a kitchen while they’re sitting next to us in a couple of hours. There was a time when doing that kind of work would have taken two weeks,” Koehn says. “On some things, it can be hard to compete with the purchasing power of a big box, so we have to make up for it in customer service.”
He relates the instance where one local couple had gone to a big box store for countertops and six weeks later their order still hadn’t arrived.
“They came to us, we showed what we could do and we had their order in three days,” he points out.
Koehn says they have also enjoyed the benefit of owning a business in a community in which construction has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
“Our local contractors have kept us extremely busy,” he says. “We’ve added one full-time and one part-time employee to keep up with the demand.”
Koehn’s ability to own and operate a successful business at a time when many similar lumber yards have closed their doors comes down to a simple philosophy: take care of your customers and learn to adapt.
“It’s tough to compete with the big retailers, but it’s not impossible,” he says. “We have to find those things we can do and make sure we do them better than the competition.”
That’s how your company can remain in business for more than 120 years and show a profit every year.
That reflects a tradition of customer satisfaction which Koehn is proud to continue.
Scott County Lumber History
1892: Foster Lumber Company opens in Scott City.
1949-69: Herbert Brantley was lumber yard manager
1969-73: Don Irelan was lumber yard manager
Feb. 1973: Gerald Koehn begins working full-time for Foster Lumber.
1973-78: Steve Hutchinson was lumber yard manager.
1976: George Wray begins working for Foster Lumber.
1977: Foster Lumber relocates from 111 W. 4th Street to its current location on south US83 Highway.
1978: Koehn becomes the lumber yard manager.
1979: Foster Lumber was purchased by Diamond International Corp.
1982: Sharon Roemer begins working for Foster Lumber.
1983: Scott County Lumber was purchased by three private individuals (former Foster Lumber executives).
1997: Koehn becomes the owner of Scott County Lumber.
2010: Koehn acquired another building to the south and converted it into a 24x150 ft. display room addition.
"good to hear of people in scott city (my town for 24 years) doing well,way to go gerald,sharon&george"
"Gerald, I will never forget that day Kendall gave you a big hug. He loved you so much and would be so very proud of everything you have accomplished."
"This is a great story...way to go GK!"