Excellence in Innovative Thinking

Bolyard Lumber Changes with the Times
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE | Strategies & Practices
The Bolyard Lumber team has embraced change with out-of-the-box thinking, evolving to better serve its long-time customers. The company transformed its hardware store into a specialty showroom to better compete against big box retailers.

It’s tough to remain nimble as a company. When you’ve spent years making decent margins on what you’re good at, you sometimes wake up to realize the market has shifted and you didn’t go with it. Kodak kept making film long after digital cameras showed up on the scene and lots of recording companies scratched their heads for a while when folks started downloading music from the Internet.

Bolyard Lumber Co. could have easily been one of these companies, blinded by its own success. Founded in 1937, the Rochester Hills, Mich., served custom homebuilders and contractors for decades as an anything-you-need-we-have lumberyard—the company was an Ace Hardware franchise in the front and a lumberyard in the back. But in walked big box retailers and the family-run Bolyard Lumber Co. knew that big changes would be required to keep providing customers with value.

“It’s simply a matter of looking at your numbers, your sales, to see where trends are going,” says John Monigold, vice president and great-grandson of the company’s founder. “Looking at the amount of customers coming in on a Saturday as the big box stores entered this market, we could see that every weekend our traffic was diminishing over time. For us, the handwriting was on the wall and we could see where this was all headed.”

In the last 15 years, Bolyard managers have cleared paint and power tools and faucets off the shelves to transform the company’s “hardware store” into exclusively a showroom. “We have completely transformed our 10,000 square foot space,” Monigold explains. “Ten years ago, you would have called it a hardware store because we had paints and tools. Now, it’s just a showroom.”

Monigold says the Bolyard team recognized with the onset and increasing popularity of big box home improvement retailers that it needed to carve out a space for the company. Whereas some companies were content to throw up their hands in the face of national chain competition, the Bolyard team thought outside-the-box to make adjustments to the business model and remain viable.

“We see it every day from our competitors. Change is very difficult for most people and they really resist it,” he says. “They get set in their ways and get into that rut and sort of stay there. But everything goes in cycles and everything changes and if you aren’t ahead of that curve, I don’t think you can ever really grow and prosper.”

Today, the rows and rows of hardware, tools and paint have been cleared out to make way for interior door displays, windows and French doors mounted into walls and a specialty molding display. A Weather Shield and Marvin dealer for windows and a Masonite, TruStile and Harring rep for doors, the company commits a considerable amount of floor space to fenestration products, despite the fact that as a full-line lumber dealer, Bolyard sells products like rough lumber, engineered floor systems, roof trusses and cabinet systems too. “We try to make it a one-time-shop as much as possible and we try to hit on every major product category within a home,” Monigold explains.

Bolyard’s showroom overhaul was a project five years in the making. The team would select a focus for the year, donate all of the products in the way to Habitat for Humanity and tarp off a chunk of the room to begin the renovation. “We took it in stages and bites,” Monigold says. “At this point, our 10,000 square feet is completely, 100 percent finished. It’s exactly what we wanted.”

Formerly an Ace Hardware store affiliate, Bolyard Lumber has changed in its four generations of family ownership to stay competitive and add value to its builder and architect customers.

In moving from a hardware store model to a designer showroom model, Bolyard has become an increasingly valuable component of the custom home building scene in its region. Architects and builders rely on Bolyard to guide their clients through the product selection process. “The transformation of the showroom has really caught the eye of all the local architects and designers,” Monigold says. “It allows us to have the architects come in here with their client before they have even selected a builder and walk the showroom and check out the products that we have. Then the architects go back and spec the products, so we really have a jump on the game.”

In some instances, Bolyard serves as a match-making service between end customers—the homeowners—and the building professionals—the architects, builders and/or contractors. Homeowners come in to the showroom to shop and Bolyard can point them toward the professional that can help them accomplish their vision. This value-added matchmaking service comes from years and years of serving some of the same builders and architects and knowing which of their customers are best suited to a particular type of job. “A lot of the time, we’re in the showroom talking with the architect and the client before they’ve even selected a builder. Sometimes we can direct them toward a builder that we know is good and we’ve worked with,” Monigold says.

The longevity and knowledge that Bolyard offers is what the family members hope will distinguish the specialty retailer from the level of service big box stores are able to offer. “What we want people to feel is that they’re more in tune with the product leaving our showroom than when they came in,” Monigold says. “They have more knowledge and know the difference of what we have and the benefits of those products versus what they might be looking at with one of our competitors down the street.

“We want them to go home and add all those factors up in their equation,” he continues. “We want them to say, ‘Well, we’ve got to go back to Bolyard Lumber; they’ve been here 70 years, they know what they’re talking about, and they’re not going anywhere.’”

This approach is resonating with Bolyard’s customers. “When I bring a customer in, we’re prepared,” says Bob Deneweth, a custom home builder in Michigan who has worked with Bolyard for about 10 years. “I tell Bolyard what we’re going to be looking at (with the customer), and we go through everything and use their nice conference room. We’re a complete partnership.”

In the four generations that the Bolyards have operated the business, the company has gotten pretty good at changing. Starting with the second generation (Monigold’s grandfather) to the third generation (Monigold’s uncle, Jake Bolyard), the hand-off came with some bumps as the new generation of Bolyards and employees approached the business with new techniques and new ideas. So when Jake Bolyard started transitioning the business to the fourth generation of Bolyard men—Monigold, his two brothers Nick and Steve and their cousin, Brian Bolyard (Jake’s son)—the family was prepared to expect that the new leaders would bring some new ways of doing business to the table. This transitional experience is yet another reason that Bolyard Lumber can confidently tell its customers that, although the company has deep roots, the leadership is willing to pursue innovative avenues to evolve the business. “In our area, the large volume lumberyard is going to be a thing of the past,” he predicts. “You’re going to have to specialize in a niche and you’re going to have to make your business smaller.”

All 10,000 square feet of Bolyard Lumber's showroom is now dedicated to helping builders' and architects' customers make better decisions about windows, interior and exterior doors, trim, cabinets, and other building products.

Monigold and the rest of the Bolyard family won’t be resting on their laurels anytime soon. The team knows it must continue to think outside of the box to evolve with the requirements of the marketplace and the needs of its customers. “We have builders that we have dealt with for 40 or 50 years,” he says. “If you don’t change and evolve, you get lost in the shake-out of the cycle. For us it would be personal. We don’t want to let our builders down that we’ve sold to for years, and we don’t want to let our employees down.”

Most of all, being innovative is a critical component of the company’s longevity. “This is important to us, because we want to pass it on to the next generation.”

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Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.