ENTREPRENEURS OF THE YEAR: 2017
Meek’s The Builders Choice
LBM Journal Entrepreneur of the Year 2017
Sales Over $50 Million
Meek’s Loyalty Program Promotes Success
Nearly 100 years of growth, from a single store in small-town Missouri to a chain of 34 full-line lumberyards in the Midwest, is only half of Meek’s The Builder’s Choice incredible success story. The other half is nearly 2,000 miles away at Meek’s West division. Though several states separate them, Meek’s Midwest and West divisions have grown and thrived separately.
Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, Meek’s Midwest Division is headed by brothers Charlie Meek and Mike Meek. Carrie Meek-Cuneo oversees the West division. Meek’s will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020.
Charles Meek, Sr. opened the first Meek Lumberyard in Lockwood, Mo. in 1919. Throughout the three decades that followed, Charles Meek expanded his business exclusively in Southern Missouri. In 1951, his son, Charles Meek, Jr. ventured to Northern California in search of timber to sell at Meek’s lumberyards. He found timber to send back to Missouri via railcar, but he also found a business opportunity to set stakes along the West Coast, and would later grow an entirely new division of Meek’s Lumber. By 1980, Meek’s had gained solid footing in both markets with 10 lumberyards in the Midwest and six on the West Coast.
When Charles Jr.’s sons Terry Meek and Bill Meek—the third generation—came along into the business, the lumberyards expanded even more. The Midwest division grew with more yards in Missouri and also moved into Arkansas, and the West Division grew in California and expanded into Nevada.
Now with two separate corporate offices, one in Springfield, Mo. and the other in Sacramento, Calif., Meek’s Midwest Director of Marketing, Eric Sachse, said the arrangement between the two companies has come to benefit Meek’s as a whole, as well as raise each division to the top level of its respective market.
“Me and a couple guys on my team travel from Missouri to California to share ideas. There, we can be open about ideas and talk about success and failure and not worry about letting secrets go in our own markets,” Sachse said.
Sachse’s Midwest division services about 70% pro customers, he said, though that fluctuates based on new construction levels. As housing starts are higher, pro customer counts rise along with the market. The remaining customer base, around 30%, is what Meek’s calls MPro (short for Meek’s Pro) customers, a designation for contractor and subcontractor customers.
“It’s all the trades people,” Sachse said. “Carpenters, plumbers, painters, guys who are in and out of our stores all day long. If you stood at the door for several hours, I bet seven out of every 10 of those customers are buying something that they’re installing in someone else’s home.”
It is the MPro customers who have become a focal point of Meek’s Midwest growth through its company loyalty program called the MPro Advantage. Through the program, Meek’s offers access to exclusive pricing and promotions, dedicated salespeople, delivery discounts, purchase tracking and more.
With up to 850 employees, depending on the season, Meek’s keeps in close contact with customers through its 125 outside sales staff, who drive around in yellow Meek’s trucks, calling on job sites. Another 25 employees are product specialists, who Sachse says are an integral part of the sales team. Product specialists focus on categories such as windows, flooring, and engineered lumber, for example.
“They’re more or less outside salespeople who are helping to create a sale at a retail lumberyard,” Sachse said. “They assist our outside sales people in the field whether it’s doing a complicated takeoff and design on a window package, or doing an estimate on an install.”
In addition to the 34 lumberyards in the Meek’s Midwest Missouri and Arkansas arsenal, there are a host of specialty operations, including four distribution centers, installed sales services and design showrooms. While the original store in Lockwood, Mo. is no longer there, a door plant now stands in its place, where doors, components and stair parts are manufactured.
Total sales volume between the two divisions was $289 million in 2015, which was up about 15% from the previous year. Sachse said the company anticipates an increase in 2016 sales as well. Based on the size of operations between the Midwest and West divisions, Sachse said the Midwest makes up about 65% of the overall company revenue.
With big box stores in all but about a half dozen towns that hold Meek’s locations, Sachse and the management team has grown accustomed to competing with neighboring yards that have access to a seemingly endless marketing budget.
“The big box stores are a formidable force in just about every market we’re in,” Sachse said. “We’ve got Menards (with five locations new to the area) but mainly it’s Lowe’s and Home Depot.”
While there aren’t a lot of national independent lumberyard chains in Meek’s Midwest market area, there are several strong local independents that bump up against some of the Meek’s markets. There are also smaller independent chains that add to the competitive market.
“Here, there are a lot of independents and a lot of one-step specialty retailers. That’s probably the biggest competitive trend that has emerged in the last five to 10 years,” he said. “Specialty distributors are the biggest competitive force with us today. We compete with big boxes, but the customers we cater to are different than most of their customers. Our biggest emphasis today is on the shoulder trade customer. We want to show him the same attention and service that a homebuilder receives. We can out-sell in product quality, service and merchandise selection.”
Meek’s The Builder’s Choice still focuses heavily on merchandising, Sachse said. In an era of increasing online activity, Meek’s still focuses first on product selection and retail advertising. In doing so, two things happen, Sachse said. “We’re able to retain, in a traditional lumberyard setting, a significant portion of retail business. We’re also maintaining a significant amount of walk-in traffic from the trades.”
With that focus, Meek’s retail business has grown each year over the past five years. Through an aggressive merchandising team and a strong collaborative partnership with Do it Best Corp., Meek’s keeps up with product selections and store layout trends, updating their locations with targeted retail performance programs. Sales in those updated stores have exceeded initial projections.
“It keeps our retail sets and our product selection really sharp,” Sachse said. “If you don’t keep up with that, you don’t have the best product selection. Selection has been our biggest investment in time, energy and capital, and has been growing our customer base now with our big assortment. That’s been a lot of fun for us, and we’ve seen a lot of growth. It’s better margin sale than 2x4s and OSB, and it makes us a better retail destination.”
|The Meek’s leadership team monitors and anticipates their customers’ product needs and store layout trends, updating locations on a regular, rotating basis. “It keeps our retail sets and our product selection really sharp,” explains Director of Marketing Eric Sachse.|
Even with a customer base that is predominantly pro-oriented, Meek’s places special emphasis on merchandising and retail marketing to help it stand out against both big-box and specialty competition.
The desire to be the strongest retail destination in their markets keeps Meek’s managers in tune with product trends and shopping habits. Knowing that the store’s performance is dependent on economic conditions and the best focus is to out-perform housing and remodeling growth, Meek’s has also turned their focus to competitors online.
Meek’s research shows that LBM dealers have lost some market share to the Internet in categories such as power tools and home décor items. Spec builders are sourcing products online and buying it by the pallet and bypassing building supply stores entirely in some cases. While most of the products Meek’s sells are difficult for companies like Amazon to stock and ship, the Internet is certainly worth watching, Sachse said. As a result, Meek’s has focused attention to social media and search sites such as Facebook and Google .
One way to be prepared for changing trends in customer purchasing is to make sure a store’s sales force is up to date, he added. Meek’s has an extensive training program for outside and inside sales, both from internal trainers and outside experts. Training includes everything from customer service, to sales and answering the phone correctly.
“The better you take care of a customer, the more he trusts you with his business,” Sachse said. “We’re not about hard selling to close a deal. It’s about being a partner, knowing the products, what makes them better and how to install them.”
Customers continually turn to Meek’s because of the relationships developed inside the stores and on job sites, Sachse said. Solid and steady growth over nearly a century has come from understanding customers and being a part of their value proposition.
“For a plumber, for example, you have to have those pieces he needs and you need to be open when he needs you to be. For him, it’s common for us to have it boxed up and ready to go so he can get in, get out, and on to his job. That’s one of the things that has made Meek’s successful for nearly 100 years. We work to make our customers more successful so that we’re more successful.”