Three generations take Lumber Company to 100.
This is a true lumber yard. Through all of its incarnations over the past 100 years, Mechanics Lumber Co. -- now One-Source Building and Home Centers -- has kept the essence of such a place. OneSource caters mostly to home building contractors -- stocking lumber, doors, windows, hardware and other supplies.
The North Little Rock company has been a family business for the Pfeifers of Little Rock since the Depression era. Three generations of Pfeifer men built the business into a profitable enterprise that has evolved from from less than $100,000 in sales in the 1930s to $25 million last year.
Today, Eugene Pfeifer III -- friends and employees call him Gene -- runs the business, which employs 150 people in locations in west Little Rock, North Little Rock and Heber Springs.
The company history is a crazy quilt of acquisitions, expansions, relocations and even a name change. But the core business always was and still is lumber and millwork.
"We are available to the consumer market, but because of the proliferation of the 'big box' home improvement business, we have done some retrenching and niche marketing," Gene said. "We've ultimately gone back to our original base of contractor supply."
Founded in 1902, the company is the oldest lumber company in Pulaski County. The business began in a small brick building and open yard at 600 Main St. in North Little Rock. (OneSource's main facility is still located in North Little Rock, though the address is now 400 E. 13th St.)
Eugene Pfeifer Sr. began working at the company in 1908 as a bookkeeper and later became manager. During the next 15 years, he acquired a large portion of the firm, agreeing at times to take a portion of his salary and bonuses in shares of company stock.
Pfeifer's son, Eugene Jr., joined the firm in 1926 at age 19 During the Depression era, junior and senior forged a partnership by buying the remaining shares of the business and turning Mechanics into the Pfeifer family business.
"They bought it on credit," said Jim Pfeifer, 85, a cousin to Eugene Jr. "We were not a wealthy family, but Eugene Sr: wanted to build a family business."
Shortly thereafter, the company branched across the river into Little Rock with the Pfeifers' purchase of the Hale Lumber Co. at 10th and Spring streets -- the first of several acquisitions to increase market share.
"It's probably true in most industries that some companies are tied to the life span of their founder, and at the end of that life span a good business is waiting there for someone," Gene said. "It happened several times that we were in an acquiring mode when our competitors got ready to sell."
In the beginning, the company delivered lumber to customers by mules or horses. "I don't remember them, but I was told they kept mules on the property for deliveries," Jim Pfeifer said.
The company's mules died in the first of five fires that have struck Mechanics, twice burning the business to the ground.
"Sometimes adversity can be a good thing," Gene said. "When the fire burned the original building, grandfather got a truck and rebuilt, adding a covered shed to keep lumber dry."
Jim Pfeifer, who retired in 1998, worked for the company his entire adult life in various capacities. He started at Mechanics in 1936 doing bookkeeping at age 20 and was manager when he retired.
"Eugene Jr.'s sister Elizabeth [Levy] had been keeping the books, but when she found out she was expecting a child she wanted to get away from the business," Jim said. "I had no business experience at all, but somehow I managed to learn how to use the ledger cards and gradually worked my way up to become manager of day-to-day operations."
It was, for the most part, a man's world. Elizabeth Levy was the only female Pfeifer to work for the company. The son for whom she gave up her bookkeeping careen Gene Levy, is now an architect in Little Rock.
"We're not a big family to start with, and the few women in the family just weren't interested in the lumber business," Jim said.
War and 'Piece'
When World War II began, home building came to a standstill. To keep the business going, the Pfeifers bid on and won an Army contract to build ammunition crates for shipping bombs.
"They were very rough crates -- simply to provide protection for incendiary bombs during transport," Jim Pfeifer said. "We rounded up all the able-bodied carpenters we could to build them and paid them by the piece. We were producing 2,000-3,000 a day at our peak."
Mechanics kept pace with the postwar surge in home building by adding custom architectural millwork to its line in the 1950s. Moldings, trim, doors and wood siding are one form of millwork. The other is casework and cabinetry.
"We always had a carpenter around who could build things, and one day a man named Earl White came to see Father and convinced him that he could develop our little shop into a full-fledged millwork area," Gene said.
Pfeifer Jr. hired White, who in turn hired five cabinet makers and began aggressive bidding for contractor jobs.
It was only an unhappy quirk of fate that enabled Gene Pfeifer to become the third generation of Pfeifers to continue the business. Gene had gone to Yale on a Navy scholarship and then to Harvard where he earned an MBA. As a young man, he had his heart set on taking a job with a brokerage firm.
"I never thought I would take over the company," he said. "In 1964 I had a job lined up to go to work on Wall Street, which was my goal. But while I was home that summer my grandfather passed away. Then my father had a heart attack, and my mother became ill and was hospitalized. They needed me to stay on."
Gene stayed and "little by little got more excited about the business," he said.
In the early days, most of Mechanics' lumber was Southern yellow pine. By the 1960s redwood, white pine, fir and spruce were becoming popular with builders, as were exotic woods such as mahogany.
In 1965 the Pfeifers bought the Wrape Industrial Lumber Co., also of North Little Rock.
"The acquisition involved the company heavily in redwood and other West Coast species just when architectural trends were making them popular," Gene said.
The Pfeifers acquired various other lumber and hardware stores in Little Rock and North Little Rock over the years, usually continuing operations at that store's location and absorbing previous employees.
In March 1971, a bolt of lightning struck the company's main distribution facility, causing a fire that destroyed a large amount inventory. Within two weeks the Pfeifers were back in business at a new location.
"The fire and the move it caused proved fortuitous in that it enabled the expansion of the dealer sales department and distribution facility," Gene said.
Mechanics Lumber was an also-ran behind two other local millworks firms for many years, Gene Pfeifer said. But in 1973, Mechanics bought. the W.R. Rhodes Millwork Co. in North Little Rock and was suddenly the largest architectural millwork company in Arkansas.
The company recently constructed a new millworks division at the North Little Rock facility.
In 1991, Gene changed the name from Mechanics Lumber Co. to OneSource Home and Building Centers "to better describe our ability to serve our customers," he said.
Management of the business by family members ends with Gene, he says. His two grown sons were not interested in working for the company.
"We've run out of Pfeifers," said the 64-year-old Little Rock resident. "But I hope the present management of the company will at some time have the desire to buy out the Pfeifers and continue the business."
Doug Van Schoyck, president, has worked for the company for 17 years, starting out as a forklift operator He, along with several other investors, are ready to consider purchasing the company from Gene, should he want to sell.
"We've been discussing this for the past three years," he said. "One of the reasons I was made president is that Gene wanted everyone here to feel comfortable that someone would be there to take over the business if necessary."
Gene admits the lumber business is competitive, but he's optimistic about OneSource's future. "There's always going to be a home-building industry, and we're going to continue to structure the business and inventory to serve that market," he said.
"The story of our business is one of survival. We have adapted to changing market conditions, and I think we've provided a service to customers and gainful employment to a bunch of really nice people who are loyal to the company.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of OneSource, Gene and his wife Linda donated money to put up information kiosks along the Millennium Bike trail on the banks of Arkansas River in North Little Rock and Little Rock. The bike trail eventually will link the two cities with a bike/pedestrian path across Lock and Dam 7.
"We have roots in both cities," he said "And we believe that rather than separate cities, we have one community."
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|Title Annotation:||Mechanics Lumber Co.|
|Comment:||Three generations take Lumber Company to 100.(Mechanics Lumber Co.)|
|Article Type:||Company Profile|
|Date:||Jul 29, 2002|
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