How Vassar Building Center Hired Its Way to Success
When Mike MacKay hired three outside salespeople instead of just one as he was supposed to, it helped that the owner of the company was on vacation. It also helped that the owner was his father in-law.
Hiring those extra sales people changed the company in a big way.
“We didn’t have any outside sales at that time,” MacKay says. “I was in charge of hiring someone. I interviewed three candidates and I liked them all. My father in-law was on vacation. He called back and said ‘you can’t hire them all.’ I said ‘why not?’ and I hired them.”
The timing was just right then back in 2003 to hire all three candidates because the next year, Vassar Building Center in Vassar, Mich., went from $5 million in sales to $12 million.
“All three said [in the interviews] that they could bring in sales, and they did,” MacKay says.
Those two extra outside sales reps put the company into “super fast growth mode,” MacKay says. While it’s hard to complain about growth, he added, the amount of growth the company experienced was almost equally as challenging as a fast decline.
“We doubled our company in two years. It was too fast. But we’ve corrected and settled down. Our policies and procedures are solid now and we’ve improved because of it.”
As quickly as things improved for the company, the Great Recession was just around the corner. In 2006, the economy was hit hard with declines in the nearby auto industry. In 2009, Vassar Building Center was going through what MacKay calls “Some of the worst times in our history.” The country was in the grips of recession, MacKay’s father in-law—and owner of the company for the past 25 years—was battling cancer. MacKay, who had known for some time he would eventually take over the business, was forced to make the jump from the sales floor to the lead role of a company that had gone from almost 50 employees down to 24.
“We’re getting good at niches,” adds MacKay. In particular, Vassar has found success growing its power tool and lawn and garden categories, as well as adding popular brands like Yeti.
It was almost an accident how MacKay got into the business. He was working across the street at his father’s auto body shop, when another business opportunity arose. He had grown up at that body shop and had married the girl whose parents owned the lumberyard across the street. When it came time to send his resume off to another job, he had to use the fax machine at the lumberyard, because the body shop didn’t have one.
MacKay’s father in-law, Larry Putman, saw his resume on the fax machine at the lumberyard and called him up across the street and said, “does your father know about this?” MacKay said that he had his father’s blessing to pursue the other job opportunity, and that’s when Putman said, “You need to come work here.”
MacKay took a job driving truck for his in-law’s company and has been there ever since.
While MacKay took on the role of President early in his lumberyard career, he has always had the support of his inlaws, Larry and Shirley Putman, he says. MacKay and his wife Brenda purchased the company outright from Brenda’s parents in 2011.
Vassar Building Center has held its place at the top of a hill in Vassar, Mich. since 1962. Larry and Shirley Putman purchased the business in 1985. While the company’s core business is lumber and building materials—pro contractors make up 80% of the company’s business—hardware and kitchen and bath products also contribute to Vassar Building Center’s SKU mix. The only building supply store in a town of about 3,000 residents, MacKay says that anyone in the area that is doing a build project tends to at least consider Vassar Building Center, though there are also competing lumberyards and big box stores in neighboring towns.
“All we want is a chance to show them what we can do,” MacKay says. “In my opinion, our service level is a lot higher and so is our quality of lumber. Service is why people come. A lot of people say that, but here it really makes a difference.”