Many retail stores start from modest beginnings, but few can compare to the story of Star Ag Lumber & Hardware in Middlebury, Ind. Here’s how one of the owners, Lavern Yoder, describes the early days of the business: “For the first year we had no building. No one knew we existed. All we had was a tiny shed with four phone lines and a fax line, mainly doing outside sales.”
Star Ag started up two years ago after a close-knit group of friends and family members who ran building-related businesses kept running into the same problem: the area needed a good, reliable source for lumber and building materials.
Yoder, who was doing vinyl fencing work at the time, though there was an opportunity, as did Jay Graber, who operated Michiana Equipment, which sells poultry and farm equipment and supplies. Other partners include brothers A.J. and Jake Lambright.
The new retailers encountered a number of obstacles early on. The lack of a physical location put them at a decided disadvantage, but their hands were tied. It took 1-1/2 years to get a business permit because Star Ag’s location (adjacent to Michiana Equipment) is literally in the middle of the country. “Everything was stored outside or we borrowed space from Jay,” explains Yoder, who didn’t work full-time at the business until this past June.
They tried to join the lumber buying group PAL (Progressive Affiliated Lumbermen), but their membership was refused. A second buying group, ENAP, had never heard of an LBM outlet that didn’t have a physical location, and they also turned down their membership request.
When Yoder placed a call to House-Hasson Wholesale Hardware’s headquarters they put him in touch with regional manager Dave Baumberger. “He said we have a new guy, A.J. Hughes, starting up a new territory in Indiana. I talked to A.J. at 10 a.m. and by 2 o’clock he was at my house. We became his third customer,” he says.
Yoder enjoys lining up vendors and sourcing products. “I had just about everything sourced and House-Hasson was the last primary supplier we sourced. Connecting with them is the best thing that ever happened to us—it gave us a whole new dimension,” he says.
Hughes formerly worked for Lehman’s Hardware, which caters to Amish customers in Ohio, so he knew the type of products Star Ag needed to be selling in Middlebury, which has a large contingent of Amish and Mennonite residents.
“I knew we needed hardware and A.J. understood our needs. He spoiled us. He was very aggressive, but in a good way,” Yoder says. “We couldn’t have asked for a better rep. I had a vision for the business and I’d run ideas by him and he’d say yes or no.”
Yoder says Hughes has gone above and beyond his expectations for service. “A.J. spent the better part of two weeks here helping us set up the store and get situated. I guess he figured it was a long-term investment because I’m sure there were other things he could’ve been doing. House-Hasson is definitely there for their customers.”
Star Ag held a grand opening September 16-17, and the store was ready…barely “We were stocking shelves the night before. We didn’t have any hardware presence until the grand opening,” says Yoder, who adds that neighbors were surprised a hardware store was open in their midst—“they had no idea what we were up to.”
A month after their official opening one finds a steady stream of customers coming into the store—a Mennonite farmer looking for an odd-sized fastener, a contractor with a list of items and even customers phoning in large orders.
The vast majority of sales are currently in lumber, but the hardware side is just getting going. They bought the Gray Seal paint display and the Wooster Brush assortment at a recent market, and the merchandise mix is still being fine-tuned.
Yoder goes with House-Hasson Wholesale Hardware’s suggested retails on pricing and has adopted the Priced Right Everyday!® program to project the right price image. Big boxes are six miles away and there’s another hardware store in downtown Middlebury, so they know they are not immune from tough competition.
“We offer quality products at a fair price,” says Yoder, who adds that they only sell #1 Southern Pine and their dimensional lumber is the highest grade. “We don’t want to be known as the ‘seconds’ yard.
“To continue growing we’ll have to do something different. But it’s kind of fun to see where we can go with this,” says Yoder, who appreciates that the days of operating out of a shed are finally behind him.