The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 17, 2014

Building a family business

Puhlmann Lumber & Design withstands competition

By Heidi Sampson Special to The Free Press
The Mankato Free Press

---- — In 1926, Puhlmann Lumber & Design began when John “Hans” Puhlmann Sr.’s grandfather, Alfred, and his great uncle, Otto, with the help of his great-grandfather, August, decided to go into business together. The Puhlmann brothers primarily handled nails, lumber, and coal, while their building was positioned next to the railroad tracks for easier access to supplies.

Alfred’s son, James “Jim” Puhlman, joined the mix, in 1936. When Jim married Marie, she began working at Puhlmann. By the early 1950’s, the company added basic hardware and paints to its inventory lineup. Jim Puhlmann would become president, in 1958.

Hans Puhlmann started working for his father, Jim, as a teenager. At 16 years old, Hans was handed a piece of paper and told to draw a house. The house Hans drew for his father, was also the first house Hans created for a customer that was built.

When Hans married Bette, she also joined the family business. During the 1990s, Hans became president and his wife Bette, vice president. In 1994, the two contemplated leaving their current location, since many of New Ulm’s businesses were located on Broadway and Minnesota Streets, and not in what was quickly becoming known as the old industrial side of town.

“We thought long and hard about relocating our store,” said Bette, “and then we decided that this is probably still the best location for us.”

During the late ‘90s, Hans and Bette’s son, Jared, joined Puhlmann Lumber & Design. Currently, Jared is yard foreman, handling deliveries and shipments within the yard. Two years later, Kayla, Jared’s sister, joined the family business. Today, Kayla is a designer, within the kitchen, bath, flooring, and paint departments.

Minnesota Valley Business magazine: What’s it like to grow up in a family business?

Hans: When you start out as a child and you are down here all the time, it’s kind of the way it is.

Kayla: I think the business becomes part of you.

Jared: It’s a lot of hours and you do take it home with you.

Hans: Oh yes, you take it home with you. You take this business to bed with you. You wake up in the morning with it. I think everyone who owns their own business kind of goes through that. I have to remember to leave it here.

Kayla: The nice thing about our business is that we all work in different departments. We are all busy doing our own things.

Hans: I also think the chemistry has to be right. Not all families can do what we do.

MVB: How many employees do you have?

Hans: We have 14. A lot of our employees have been with us for a very long time.

Bette: It also helps that our turnover rate is like zilch.

MVB: What’s working for Puhlmann Lumber & Design that has allowed for such longevity among the staff?

Bette: We are very family orientated. If people need time off of work to go to a program, a game of some kind, a school activity, or any other family function, no questions are asked. Period. If your little one is in tee-ball and you have that commitment twice a week, even if it is in the middle of the day, our employees can arrange their schedule so that they can go to tee-ball and come back to work.

Hans: I think the group that we have here, enjoys working for a smaller company. They can come and go because we allow for flexibility. Even when my folks ran the business, family has always come first and our employees back then, stayed here forever too. A lot of them retired from here. I think that says something.

MVB: How do you handle the competition of the lumber and design market?

Bette: We have a very good relationship with the other lumber yard in town, Design Home Center. This past March, Menards came to town.

Hans: At one time, there used to be four or five lumber yards in town.

Jared: Some have also popped up throughout the years and later closed.

Kayla: We encourage people to bring their estimates to us and we will look them over. If the client feels we are more expensive, we can look for hidden costs in the other estimate that a client may not be unaware of. There is also product quality to consider. Is the item the estimate is for of a comparable grade to ours, or is it of lower quality?

MVB: What are some trends within the building industry?

Hans: Our biggest projects seem to be machine sheds, pole barn and shops.

Kayla: Those shops are quite nice too. They have bathrooms, kitchens and showers.

Bette: Kitchens have changed drastically. They aren’t just for cooking anymore. They’ve become another family space. Kids are doing homework in the kitchen and sometimes there is even an office space in there.

Hans: I think another big time saver has been the computer whether it is used for estimating, point of sale or design work.

Kayla: Customers are able to see their projects in 3-D.

Jared: As far as exterior goes, ‘no maintenance’ products in items like windows, siding and decks, is huge. I think people value their time more. They don’t want sit home on a weekend completing projects around the house like painting siding or refinishing a deck.

MVB: What are do you think the future holds for Puhlmann Lumber & Design?

Hans: Hopefully we can remain a family business.

Bette: I think it comes down to our customer service. We will go that extra mile. If somebody calls us at 8 o’clock at night and wants a pound of nails, we’ve delivered nails. Or if a customer calls on a Sunday, many times we’ve come in to work.

Hans: We tell our clients when they buy materials from us, ‘if you run into a pickle, give us a call.’