The Family Business

Leachman Lumber celebrates 100th anniversary.

1921. Babe Ruth hits his 138th home run. Einstein wins the Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity. Gucci sells his first handbag. And two brothers from Des Moines turn a marsh into a thriving lumberyard.

According to family legend, Bob Leachman, then 21, stepped off the train returning to Des Moines from Grinnell College, looked at the marsh surrounding the train station, and declared, “This looks like the perfect spot for a lumberyard.”

He and his 17-year-old brother, Buck, rented the land from the Hubbell family, filled in the marsh, and established a legacy.

The original building with the old overhead drive-through door visible on one side still stands near the corner of Hubbell and East 19th Street. But the business has grown significantly.

“We now own the entire square block, except for one lot,” says Mark Leachman. “There have been conversations about moving to get more space, but we are a Des Moines company. We aren’t leaving the city.”

That commitment to its roots is one of the keys to Leachman Lumber’s longevity. This month, the firm celebrates a century in business.

Mark and John, Bob’s sons, took over the business shortly after World War II.

John, who retired in 2006, continues to come into the office every day. He insists he’s not checking up on his kids. Daughter Jennifer is President and CFO, son Jack leads new business development, daughter Sarah handles Accounts Payable, and nephew Mark serves as buyer.

“They’ve done a great job, all of them. I don’t come in to check on them. I come in to see my children—and because I don’t have anything else to do,” he jokes.

Mark says, “Our grandfather did the same thing after he retired.”

Jack adds, “He’d lost his eyesight, so Grandma had to drive him down here, but he’d still go out and drive himself around ‘his yard’ to check on things. Everybody knew to give him room.”

The cousins share memories of hearing stories about the early years when their grandfather made deliveries around Des Moines with a horse-drawn cart, of summers working at the yard while they were kids, of Sunday nights watching Maverick at their grandparents’ home while the grown-ups drank Scotch and talked shop on the three-season porch. Leachman Lumber is as much a part of their family as the people are.

“We’re still a family business, and we see our customers the same way,” says Jennifer. “They’re our partners, and our job is to help them succeed.”

The fourth generation of the Leachman family joined the team when Mark’s son, Austin, returned to Des Moines to learn the family business.

“I love this job,” Mark says. “All the people here are like family. Some of the best friends I have are people I’ve met through this or through our relationships in the Northwest Lumber Dealers Association.”

With a current staff of 36, Leachman Lumber is the last family-owned, independent lumberyard in Des Moines. In the company’s early years, there were 27 in the city.

“Each yard had its own delivery area really,” Mark explains. “Since they had to deliver everything on horse carts, they only went about a mile radius from the yard. Now our delivery area averages a 30-mile radius, but we get orders for delivery up to two hours away.”

Jennifer says the biggest change over the years has been the use of technology. She anticipates that will continue to drive the way the company adapts. “Most of the changes we’ve seen are really just the maturing of the industry as a whole,” she says. “Technology has opened up the way we can serve our customers, and it’s led to more consolidation and fewer independent lumberyards. But there’s still a need for companies like ours because we serve the independent, stick-built-home builders.”

When the metro was developing in Leachman Lumber’s early days, the company had a role in some of the city’s landmark buildings, including the Ruan building, the downtown Marriott, and the Principal building. As commercial construction has become more steel frame, Leachman has transitioned to residential builders for its customer base.

Not only has Leachman adapted as the market changed, the company has ridden out some of the worst—and best—economic times in U.S. history, including the Great Depression, the recession of the 1980s, and the housing crisis of 2008.

“For us, 2008 really through 2010 was tough, knowing we had that legacy to maintain, and Dad had just retired in 2006 but was coming in more often then,” says Jennifer.

“Well, I came in, but I wasn’t doing anything,” John insists.

Jack admits, “The pressures of the job have always been way more than the pressure from Dad.”

To hear them talk about the company and argue lightheartedly about who remembers the family stories best, it’s clear that the family legacy is more a strength than a burden. And whether your name is Leachman or not, when you work at Leachman Lumber, you become part of that legacy.

“Our sales team has a total of 126 years of experience,” Jennifer says, “and on average, they’ve been with the company 25 years.”

That sort of loyalty is almost unheard of in any industry these days. And it’s a testament to the attitude the Leachmans have always brought to their business.

“This was my only job, even before I had a professional career,” John says. “It was just my life.”

It seems he’s passed that passion on to his children as well.