Marcus Lumber: Building dreams in the fields of Iowa
There is a certain movie quote that once recited, will remind anyone who has seen the film of exactly where the story is set. “If you build it, they will come.”
The Kevin Costner classic, “Field of Dreams,” is set near Dyersville, Iowa, some four hours away from Marcus, Iowa, where the Leavitt family operates their own dream in a small town among the cornfields of the Hawkeye state.
For 98 years, the Leavitts have served the town of Marcus, in Cherokee County, and its surrounding area. The third-generation owner brothers Bob and Jim Leavitt, and cousin Tom Leavitt and the fourth-generation brothers Grant and Clay Leavitt now make up the 100% family ownership group. The company was founded in 1880 as the Thomas Patton Lumber Company, and then purchased by Roger T. Leavitt in 1920.
In a town of 1,100 people, located in a county with a declining population, the Leavitts have their own “If you build it, they will come” story, and it’s paying off by drawing in customers from farther away than Marcus Lumber has ever seen.
In the fall of 2017, the home improvement center hosted a grand opening event to celebrate its completely remodeled and expanded facility. The expansion created an additional 7,500 square feet in the retail showroom and added 6,000 square feet of storage space in the lumberyard. Today, Marcus Lumber’s facility spans 25,000 square feet and features a completely new kitchen and bath center including more than a dozen exhibits, 50 bathroom vanity displays, as well as several full-size walk-in showers. Many of the more than 60 Delta faucet exhibits are fully functional to demonstrate spray options and pressures. The space also features a completely operational kitchen used for cooking demonstrations, and for baking cookies and pastries for customers and staff.
The expansion plan itself was partly born of necessity. In 2004, a fire caused the company to move to a new store it built in 2005. As an ownership group then welcoming the fourth generation into the company, the decision was made to add on to the store. “We saw the merit of displaying new products,” says Grant Leavitt, who along with his brother, Clay, make up the latest generation of Leavitts at Marcus Lumber. “We wanted new products to be a constant driver of getting people to see us.”
The desire to be one of the best stores in the nation drove the Do it Best member-owned Marcus Lumber to swing for a home run when it was time to expand in 2017. The company worked with Do it Best on the plans for the store.
“We’re a wow factor now with our new showroom,” Grant says. “People are traveling from bigger towns and cities to see us, and we’re giving them something to see that’s impressive.”
While the expansion focused on the showroom, its effect has been felt throughout every department of the store.
“WE’RE A WOW FACTOR NOW WITH OUR NEW SHOWROOM. PEOPLE ARE TRAVELING FROM BIGGER TOWNS AND CITIES TO SEE US, AND WE’RE GIVING THEM SOMETHING TO SEE THAT’S IMPRESSIVE.”
– GRANT LEAVITT
“You do the showroom, and you still get increased traffic for nuts and bolts type things,” says Clay. Today, Marcus Lumber is drawing from a 60-mile radius to its store. Before the redesign and expansion, the grasp was a 45-mile radius. Customers who used to drive five miles to Sioux City to shop at big box stores are now driving 50 miles to Marcus Lumber. The goal was to increase the company’s footprint, says Tom Leavitt. In the process, the company has improved efficiencies throughout the organization.
“We did a lot of work in our yard to make it more efficient before we worked on the store. We built two new sheds for special orders. We looked around and knew we needed to be faster, and now it’s part of our process.”
With the expansion and process improvements in place, the Leavitts anticipate strong growth at Marcus Lumber, both among the 75% of its customer base who are professional contractors, and the increasing amount of walk-in retail customers.
“The changes at the store focus on the end user,” says Grant, “but that brings in contractors too.”
Already the store has seen kitchen and bath sales up 25%, as well as millwork and windows up 13%. The flooring and composite decking categories are also up double digits. Invoice counts are up slightly and the new store has only been open since Nov. 15, 2017.
The redesigned and remodeled Marcus Lumber features more than a dozen exhibits, 50 bathroom vanity displays, as well as several full-size walk-in showers. Many of the more than 60 Delta faucet exhibits are fully functional to demonstrate spray options and pressures. The company also added warehouse space and increased storage and delivery capabilities to handle the 50 deliveries it averages each day.
A major part of Marcus Lumber’s success has been the introduction of new product categories. Since Clay’s and Grant’s great grandfather first bought the lumberyard in 1920, the company has focused on providing quality and varied products to its customers. Most recently, Marcus Lumber and its 35 employees have adapted to product offerings that have been innovative and first-to-market in the area. The innovative products include Onyx showers, ZIP System panels, Versetta Stone, LP Smartside, and more.
“Those are things that we were ahead of the curve on,” says Grant. “Once we get into something we go head first. We take a stocking position and we improve our showroom to display the products.”
While product trends change (for a time in the 1950s, the company sold corn dryers in five states), the team at Marcus Lumber has kept up with the trends over the years. With lengthy staff tenure, one of the company’s core values is its ability to adapt to change.
A number of Marcus Lumber staff, including management and owners, has experience working in the trades. Both Clay and Grant spent time working for other companies before joining the family business. Each of the company’s sales team members has field construction experience, and there is an interior designer on staff in the showroom.
For more than 70 years, the company has had its own plumbing and heating department that offers installs. There are now five full-time HVAC service technicians. Marcus Lumber staff also installs furnaces, showers, and air conditioners.
“It’s important to know the trades,” Grant says. “It helps us understand the customers from their standpoint.”
As such, the company utilizes 11 delivery vehicles of varying sizes and functions. Nearly 90% of sales are delivered goods. On average, the company serves 50 delivery stops per day. Marcus Lumber has continually adapted to changes in technology as well. The employees who once wrote out paper tickets now operate a sales system that is completely electronic. The showroom features video boards announcing product information and promotions.
The company’s fourth generation of leaders is heavily involved in social media, and uses it as a recruiting tool to reach an entirely new generation of employee. The company has active Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Houzz, and LinkedIn profiles.
“We’ve recruited people through Facebook,” Grant says. “We found a truck driver that way. Facebook was a lowkey way to start a conversation. Now he’s here and we hope to keep him a long time.”
Grant says the company is always in recruitment mode. When they meet someone in the community, or continually witness or hear positive things about someone, they proactively approach that person. They let them know they’d be a good fit and ask if they have interest in a meeting.
“People are impressed when you call them and say you’ve heard positive things about them. They’re intrigued. They may not be hearing that where they are currently working,” he said.
Grant and Clay are leaving their own marks on the company. They’ve introduced a business book club to the sales staff in which staff members read and discuss a book. They’re also introducing business and sales podcasts and they’ve appeared on a recent episode of Bradley Hartmann’s Behind Your Back podcast.
While the fourth generation helps the company focus on the latest technologies and business processes in smalltown Iowa, the Leavitts say their focus is ultimately on sustainable growth. In the company’s 98-year history, there has never been a layoff or reduction of hours at Marcus Lumber, and the ownership team intends to keep it that way.
The succession plan from third to fourth generation has been in the works for a while, Clay says. As a family business, it was clear when Clay and Grant came back after school and work at other companies that they would soon buy into the business.
“The succession plan, in a broad sense, has been going on since we came down here and used to pretend to drive trucks at night when my dad worked here,” Clay says.