There’s an “About Us” feature on Gold Beach Lumber’s website, describing the history of the company launched four generations ago in that South Oregon town of under 2,500.
But it leaves out the part about when owner Ryan Ringer, 35, steps into the phone booth and emerges in his Superman suit—or at least that’s what you expect when reading his resume. On the phone, however, he sounds like a nice—and vastly smarter—Clark Kent.
Twenty years ago, as the website relates, Gold Beach was the smallest yard in town. Today, it’s the sole one remaining in Gold Beach, and doing so well that two more locations have been added, thanks to Ryan’s superpowers, aka business savvy.
By age six he was already at work with his parents, sweeping floors and bundling trash. But after completing a college business degree in 2000, “I knew there was more out there in the world,” he says, “so I explored different fields,” from Baltimore to Reno. But Reno was a nine-hour commute from Gold Beach, where he returned every weekend to feed his passion for the river.
"Eyeball deep” at work and fielding other job offers, he decided—okay, you’ve guessed the outcome: he returned to his dad’s yard. “Before, I had worked outside. Now, I came inside, working with a tremendous group of people.” But he soon found that none had much of a clue about the information powerhouse represented by that new device, the computer.
Ryan set about overhauling the POS system “to get our first real understanding of what’s going on” rather than operating by instinct. Sensing there was an opportunity for greater margins, he dissected and reassembled the pricing structure of every last department, generating a 3% uptick in margins. Not the walk in the yard it sounds like: “We underwent three different POS systems in 14 months” as his co-op changed systems. “Pretty tough on our crew.”
But they rebounded, just in time for the next big learning curve—a 3,500-sq. ft. expansion in 2002 which Ryan engineered to lure more retail trade (Gold Star’s customers were 75% pro by dollar volume.) And women shoppers were the DIYers he set about enticing.
“We added expressions of color and convenience to spark new trade. Previously, of 200 transactions, five or six were by women; now, it’s 20% to 30%. We made it friendly, changed the flow (including more obvious check-out counters and less prominent contractors’ desks. Paint and Lawn & Garden shot to the front of the store. But, of course, he had no intention of neglecting his pros. Improved product selection helped drive sales from $3.5 million in 2002 to $10 million in 2006; that’s an incredible 186%, when you do the math.
Analyzing the numbers, Ryan became aware that Gold Beach was doing a substantial amount of business with contractor clients in Brookings, 30 miles way. He’d achieved those healthy accounts not through some out-there agenda, but via what he calls “old-fashioned hard work and smiles,” that resulted in Gold Beach’s running close to 40 deliveries a day to Brookings. So, time to launch a second store?
Cautiously, his father, Reed, held back in 2004. In 2006, he again acknowledged it just might be too much for him to handle. In 2008, the plan lay dormant until Ryan, on those daily delivery runs, noticed that a Ford lot in Brooking suddenly was empty. “A phone call later and I started throwing numbers together for my father. I was young! I didn’t know any better! I saw a lot of opportunity. I’d expected six months to work something out and told him that the lot could pay for itself in five years simply as real estate—but it turned out we had to decide fast. The owner (who, by now, had received other, far more lucrative, offers) would sell to us if—if!—we got the sum in escrow within 24 hours and closed within 30 days.” Time to dart into that phone book and pull on the cape.
“Dad wasn’t crazy about the huge challenge, but he did agree,” although (this is beginning to sound even more like a comic-book thriller) he added a challenge of his own: the dealership had to be transformed into a top-notch lumberyard and retail operation in just four months. Ryan flew around the country, securing design ideas that would emphasize the retail set-up he’d steered to success at Gold Beach.
Yes, he made the deadline—and thank goodness, he adds, because Brookings opened in June 2008. (Remember 2008?) That’s the year the recession ripped into town, killing off all its builders of posh second homes for a growing retirement community. “Company sales fell 60% and transactions were cut in half,” Ryan shudders. “We literally had a year’s worth of projects vanish within five days. Gold Beach was suffering—only selling 2x4s. But in the larger community of Brookings, people still needed paint, shovels and light bulbs. That helped us maintain business during the downturn and keep our people employed. I shifted my sights from larger contractors, which I can’t control, to homeowners, which I can influence. It was more important to keep people on than turn a profit.”
One key means of shaping that emphasis was through advertising, Ryan decided. “In 2008, our ad budget went from $20,000 to $100,000—a drastic difference,” he underscores. (And what did Dad think of all this? “Starting with Brookings, he told me, ‘You’re on your own,’” as Reed transferred day-to-day operations to his son. In 2014, Ryan purchased the business from his parents.)
“So I put together our advertising attack, experimenting with TV, radio, direct mail and newspaper inserts. It took us eight months to nail down accurate data, but we found our sweet spot. We found we could get 30% to 40% dollar-wise response to a sale if we spent an extra 20% in direct mail for one community. But with the other, they loved their newspaper, so inserts work best.”
Thus, Ryan and his team have been able to corral almost 75% of Brookings’ building material business. So, why not aim to duplicate that score in yet a third, underserved, market? In Port Orford, 30 miles south of Gold Beach, Ryan surveyed acre after flat and dusty acre of under-developed land. Rather than weeds, he saw an opportunity. His customer surveys showed that people left Port Orford to shop for many of their home-improvement needs. So, when he spotted a ho-hum hardware store in town, he phoned the owner, who jumped at the chance to exit: “Give me an offer! Anything!” After another whirlwind remodel, the store opened in June 2014. Already sales are up 40%, in part by heeding a customer survey that begged for new departments, from sporting goods and L&G to clothing and farm & ranch.
Meantime (he never sleeps, right?), Ryan had spotted another cherry just begging to be picked. He’d heard incredible things about a certain lady who managed a Fastenal store in Brookings. “I was looking for an outside salesperson. I’d never met her, but I just called and we set up a breakfast meeting; she had no clue why. I opened with, ‘I’d like to hire you,’ and—frustrated with her present position—she signed on. She now runs our new InCom department, selling to industrial and commercial clients. InCom developed by accident, but in just a few months, she’d sold $600,000.”(Oh, and Ryan also launched a buying group among colleagues to negotiate better rebates with manufacturers.)
Much of Ryan’s success may be based on his keen awareness that he doesn’t know it all and has no playbook to follow. He listens, he learns, he’s not afraid to make changes. “I wish this industry came with an instruction manual, but it doesn’t,” he jokes. Instead, he found a mentor. When he heard a savvy operations consultant speak at a roundtable, Ryan accosted him with “I want you to visit!”
Well, the pro had heard that one before. So he came back with the proposition he presents to make sure an owner really, truly, was prepared to benefit from his thoughts. He instructed, “Write me a letter by tomorrow so I know you’re serious.” The ensuing three-day visit “changed my whole philosophy,” swears a born-again Ryan. “He dissected everything from employee relations to margins. Talking about margins was the most valuable five hours in this company’s history.” The biggest change, he says, was pricing: “It changed dramatically and gave me a whole new mentality. You know that little devil sitting on your shoulder saying ‘You can’t do that?’ Well, in reality, yes, you can! It’s not against the law to make money. A person walking in here has no clue what a certain item ‘should’ cost, as long as it’s in the ballpark. So in six months, we raised overall gross margins another 4%.”
He pulls it in, but he also gives it back. While the rest of us are sleeping, Ryan eagerly takes on community projects. “I’ll never say no to an organization that helps kids.”
What’s ahead? “I’m always looking for opportunities,” he says, so stay tuned. Time to slow down and smell the sawdust? “Hey,” he reminds a reporter, “I’m only 35!”