Facing big-box competition, small town lumber business finds its place
NORTHWOOD, N.D. — After an EF-4 tornado ripped through Northwood in 2007, leaving one man dead and destroying the school, as well as heavily damaging churches, businesses and houses, a local lumber company stepped up to help the community rebuild.
For the next two years, business boomed for Meland Lumber, a local fixture since 1949 that occupies most of one city block in downtown Northwood.
But the building renaissance ended.
“Now, everybody in town has new shingles, new siding,” said Rick Meland, who owns the business with his brother, Randy. “We had a tough year, that third year.”
And because the business devoted so much time and effort to Northwood’s recovery, it lost some longtime customers, he said, many of them moving on to other suppliers.
So, the Meland brothers found themselves faced with the same challenges that confront lumber stores in many smaller communities within an hour’s drive of Grand Forks or Fargo — how to compete with the big box stores.
Many of them have closed their doors over the past two decades.
The latest was Simonson Lumber and Hardware in Grafton, N.D., a Walsh County community of 4,300. Simonson officials say they will continue to serve Grafton with local salespeople working out of the Grand Forks office and from their homes.
Like Grafton, Northwood is about 40 miles from Grand Forks.
“There used to be 15 lumberyards between here and Devils Lake,” Meland said.
Northwood, with 925 residents, is one of the smallest cities in the northern Red River Valley that still has a local lumberyard. Only a handful of communities of fewer than 1,000 residents still have a stand-alone lumberyard.
Finding a niche
After the post-tornado rebuilding surge ended, Rick and Randy Meland studied the business landscape and made a decision — to concentrate on the multi-family residential construction market, not just in Northwood, but throughout the valley and beyond.
“You find a niche and carve out some business, something the big boxes won’t touch,” Rick Meland said. “It’s busy. We built 300 units in south Grand Forks last year.”
The company currently is working on Silver Waters, a 96-unit, 55-and-older housing project along South Washington Street in Grand Forks.
The company also is building a 54-plex apartment complex in Fargo and a 66-plex in Bismarck.
It has expanded into building single-family homes, with five houses currently under construction in Fargo, as well as single-family houses in Minnesota’s lakes region east of Fargo. The company also has completed a commercial project as far west as Minot.
The company has just five full-time employees, including the brothers. Meland said a sixth employee will join the firm soon.
To handle the growing housing business, the Melands work with a stable of a dozen contractors around the region, including two in Grand Forks, who handle the construction.
Rick Meland does all of the drafting work, while the rest of the staff work as project estimators along with other duties, such as unloading trucks.
“If guys are out of trucks, I’ll go back on a forklift,” he said. “We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty. We grew up in this business.”
Foundation in 1949
Their grandfather, Nils, started the company in Northwood in 1949. Before that, he worked for lumberyards in Pelican Rapids, Minn., and Bemidji for nearly a half-century, according to the company’s website.
Nils’ son, Noren, joined the business in 1951. Randy and Rick took over management in 1982.
Today, Randy’s son, Tom, also is in the business, which includes a Do it Best hardware dealership, the only hardware store in the community.
Rick said one key to the company’s longevity is its ability to change with the times.
“You just have to find your niche. And that can change,” he said. “For years, it was the Grand Forks Air Force Base.”
However, that business has dwindled as the base changed from missile and refueling tanker missions to unmanned aircraft systems.
The other key is customer service.
“You can’t get that from the big boxes,” he said.