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April 9, 2021

Michigan Lumber: A Flint Centennial Business

Michigan Lumber: A Flint Centennial Business
 
Much of the telling of Flint, Michigan history has revolved around the rise of the transportation industry. Flint played a leading role in putting America on wheels. The city also has a rich small history. Many of these businesses helped make General Motors one of the largest corporations in the world.
 
Michigan grants formal recognition to Centennial businesses. Michigan Lumber Company is one such business.
 
Just beyond the heart of the downtown area is a family-owned centennial business. This company has been working from its original location since its founders came to the Greater Flint area in 1916. Observers may easily assume that any business starting about that time was connected to the booming automobile factories. Michigan Lumber Company played a significant role in the building of the Flint area in the 20th century.
 
Michigan Business Centennial Plaque
Holding the distinction of being the oldest lumber yard in Genesee County, Michigan Lumber Company continues the business, keeping its founders' philosophies. Situated at 1919 Clifford Street near the intersection of Saginaw and 12th St., in the City of Flint, this full-line lumber supply house is in the working hands of third and fourth-generation family members.
Nel Olson, the patriarch of Michigan Lumber Company, landed on American shores from Sweden in the late 1800s. Upon his arrival in America, he was greeted by a compatriot who encouraged him and other Swedes to go to Michigan to work in the fledgling logging industry. In those days, there was no source to buy cured lumber, so there was a desperate need for people to log the wood, mill it, then cut it to needed specifications.
Nel eventually set up and successfully ran a mill in the Manistee area with the help of his three sons, Philip, Anton, and Victor. In 1914 he decided to send them to Flint with the hopes of starting a lumber business. Gerald Haan, the third generation of the Olsen family to run the lumber yard, recounts his grandfather's reason for looking to Flint, Michigan, as a potential location for lumbering sales:
 
 "My grandfather heard about the carriage companies in Flint and how the carriage companies consumed so much lumber. So, he sent his boys down there to see if they could start something up with these carriage companies. Of course, as you know, the carriage companies transformed into today's automobile companies.
In the beginning, they were trying to sell lumber to carriage companies.
As GM began, there was more demand for lumber in the area from the industry and from builders of homes built throughout the County".
 
In the beginning, they were trying to sell lumber to carriage companies.
As GM began, there was more demand for lumber in the area from the industry and builders of homes built throughout the County".
With the construction of factories and housing throughout the area, there was a strong natural demand for building supplies and services.  
 
The Olson brothers found an existing lumber supply business run by the Holihan family under Michigan Cedar and Pole Company. They managed to raise the required capital and, in 1916, incorporated their new business under Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company. Gerald Haan said, "they originally started a lumber business and sold coal, fuel, and oil; thus, the business's original name was Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company.
 
The company grew in its early days because of a housing shortage In Flint in the 1920s. As GM grew more prominent, its workers needed homes. Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company was in the right place at the right time to supply lumber to homebuilders.  
 
There were primarily two lumber companies in Flint in the early days. According to Haan, "it was Michigan Lumber Company and the Flint Lumber Company located down by the Flint River that was the two primary lumber supply companies in the booming Flint area."
Michigan Lumber relied on the hustle to make it during its early history. In an interview with Gerald Haan, he describes his grandfather's operating methods and strategies to survive the Michigan economy's notorious economic ups and downs.
 
In the beginning, they were trying to sell lumber to carriage companies.
As GM began, there was more demand for lumber in the area from the industry and builders of homes built throughout the County".
With the construction of factories and housing throughout the area, there was a strong natural demand for building supplies and services.  
 
The Olson brothers found an existing lumber supply business run by the Holihan family under Michigan Cedar and Pole Company. They managed to raise the required capital and, in 1916, incorporated their new business under Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company. Haan said, "they originally started a lumber business and sold coal, fuel, and oil; thus, the business's original name was Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company.
 
The company grew in its early days because of a housing shortage In Flint in the 1920s. As GM grew more prominent, its workers needed homes. Michigan Lumber and Fuel Company was in the right place at the right time to supply lumber to homebuilders.  
 
There were primarily two lumber companies in Flint in the early days. According to Haan, "it was Michigan Lumber Company and the Flint Lumber Company located down by the Flint River that was the two primary lumber supply companies in the booming Flint area."
Michigan Lumber relied on the hustle to make it during its early history. In an interview with Gerald Haan, he describes his grandfather's operating methods and strategies to survive the Michigan economy's notorious economic ups and downs.
Gerald Haan:
Yes, my grandfather tells stories of going out in the afternoons, calling on home builders around town, then getting loads together the following day and delivering them to home builders.
Arthur Busch:
How did the business survive the Great Depression?
Gerald Haan:
I can only say that it was well capitalized and professionally managed. When you look at the last 110 years or whatever we have been around. Incredibly, we have survived all the different things in Flint. I think the people we got working for us played a huge part (in surviving).
Perhaps the most significant part (of surviving) was that businesses did not leverage themselves much back then. They did not take out much debt.  
They just believed in slow and steady progress. This mentality prepared them for times that, of course, they did not expect. Their natural management style, I think, prepared them for those times.
Arthur Busch: 
The business had diversified itself. Historically, your company has catered to General Motors and local home builders. Do you think that ability to work with GM and to supply materials for housing was a factor in its survival?
Gerald Haan:
You know we did.
Michigan Lumber Company found a location next to the Grand Trunk Railroad freight tracks. This allowed the business to bring in boxcar loads of lumber back in the day. Today, the train tracks are not used for lumber delivery as much as they once were. In the early decades of the business, nearly all inventory came in by railcars.
 
The Flintstone Culture and Resilience
Michigan Lumber is no longer a purely local supplier to GM but a regional supplier to commercial and end users. Its business is regional.  
 
Haan acknowledges that Flint's business culture has shaped the company's adaptability.
Flint's storied history contributes to the ways people look at problem-solving. It is hard to quantify people's social identification with a city. The evidence shows people have deep feelings of loyalty to the beleaguered city. The affinity people share for Flint centers on its incredible values, such as loyalty, hard work, and toughness.  
 
 The people of Flint often refer to themselves proudly as Flintstones. Gerald Haan, not surprisingly, also calls himself a Flintstone. He describes himself and his hometown as follows:
Arthur Busch:
Are you a Flintstone?
Gerald Haan:
I identify as a Flintstone. Arthur, yes.
Arthur Busch:
What does it mean when you say you identify as a Flintstone? You have an affinity for the city.
Gerald Haan:
 I do. I mean, Flint's been good to my family and me. You know, I've got great friends from Flint. It's in me. I want that feeling to be passed along to Katie, and I think she also gets it.
 
You know you hear about the history, you find yourself with a tie to it. And now, with my daughter working there, even more so. I can't explain it. I don't know exactly what it is.
Maybe it comes from going through those struggles with other people. I'm just not sure by that tie. It seems like it is something like that.
Arthur Busch:
You have come to see Flint's economic difficulties and experienced them yourself. How would you describe Flint, MI, to an outsider?
Gerald Haan:
They are survivors. People in Flint can survive. There's an extraordinary talent. The workers in Flint have immense talent. Going way back, some results would be different to this day. People hang in there and keep on swinging, and it pays off.
Arthur Busch:
One of the words that have been used a lot in the interviews I've conducted is the term "resilience." Flint and its people have a remarkable resilience to overcome the difficulties as if that's everyday life.
Gerald Haan:
I agree. I think I used the word survivor. I told the guys early on during the COVID-19 shutdown, " Listen, we've survived two World Wars and a depression. This flu is not going to stop us. I didn't have to say that many times to the guys. They get it. It's natural to them. You know they're resilient, or they are survivors.
 
We're focused on the positive side of things and how we can keep going. I y to stay away from the negative side of it.
 
Over the years, it would have been relatively easy to get bogged down with all the reasons why we can't be successful, and unfortunately, many businesses did that and didn't make it. It's great when I go back to Flint and see some family names around town that you know are still here.
 
The city has transitioned from carriages to cars and many other things. In any instance, it was overcoming daunting economic downturns. Flint's small business community has many examples of businesses that understand how to adapt and change. Sp king with Haan, it became plain to see that Michigan Lumber Company embodies the adaptability to an economic crisis that has come to define the Flint area. It is worth examining  why:
 
"When I got a call from my cousin to come back to Flint, he had problems. He is considering locking the gates and giving up. I st wouldn't have anything to do with that. I wasn't going to let it happen; you know it was time to change and modify things so we could stay in business and keep those gates open.
 
That's the nature of the people in Flint. I don't know many people that have just quit. I own a couple who might have sold their businesses and retired, but none said, "forget it, I can't do it anymore; it's too difficult."
 
Michigan Lumber Company Survives GM Plant Closings
 
General Motors closed all but two of its Flint auto factories in the 1980s and 1990s. Many auto workers lost their jobs. Flint's GM employment dropped from approximately 80,000 to 7,500 employees.  
Michigan Lumber Company is a good case study of what happens in a company town when the company pulls out and closes its doors. Ha describes the impact factory closings had on his company and the strategies the business took to remain viable:
 
Gerald Haan:
As you mentioned, we used to do a lot of business with General Motors, and it was a great business, and we did it for years and years and years. In the late 80s and early 90s, that business tapered off. To his day, I do not think there is any GM business or little that we do.  
Arthur Busch:
General Motors never made wooden cars, so why would General Motors need wood?
Gerald Haan:
Yes, good question. GM used wood in maintenance and ongoing temporary structures, shoring, and things like that, which are needed in factories, so we supplied standard 2 x 4, 2 x 12 boards, and plywood. They built temporary walls along an assembly line or something like that. The other things that we supplied a lot of were specialty hardware and commercial things we would deal with.
Back then, we did some exciting things with soft pattern pine boards. The sugar pine is exceptionally soft. They (GM) would carve it and then use it for molds for the templates of the car's body. They were in the design phase of the automobile.
We also would cut plywood to order. They would use it for shipping between car components when they ship them to Mexico or wherever they were going. It was a big part of their packaging materials. It keeps the load sturdy during the shipping process.
We paneled the executives' offices and cut plywood to ship parts to Mexico.
 
So, we would sell a wide variety of things the General Motors then in specialty hardware and things like that.
 
How One Company Adapts to Survive the Brutal Flint Economy
 
Michigan Lumber Company turned toward the home remodeling and home building sectors for new opportunities when its GM business disappeared. Genesee County experienced a housing boom shortly after Buick City closed its doors. 
 
Like many Flint area businesses, the lumber yard has successfully adapted to its new economic reality. Flint has seen many economic downturns during the lumber company's 115 years. They have paid a hefty price for being part of a one-horse economy with GM.
 
Gerald describes how his business morphed from being primarily a local supplier to GM to a more stable and sustainable business model. 
 
 Michigan Lumber Company's story is remarkable considering the threats it confronted from "big box" lumber chains. 
 
Arthur:
Michigan Lumber has a different feel today.
Gerald Haan:
Yes, and you know when the big box stores came to Flint. Builders Square was the 1st. We emphasize that we provide service, and we know because we could not compete with them with pricing. I do not think their pricing model either worked well since they are no longer in business.
You know, the one thing we had to do was set ourselves apart. We addressed the materials' quality and the service we supplied our contractors and walk-in retail customers, as the big box stores could not compete with that type of service.
Builder Square was able to get more people involved in doing their repairs. People such as yourself have a different profession than carpentry. The e folks might need a little more guidance than a normal Carpenter, so it led people to us.
They needed a little aid in their project, and they ended up finding us and seeing what we could do and usually had a valuable experience. They would even drive out of their way to come to our yard to buy.
 
Who are the customers of Michigan lumber today?
 
 According to Haan, the customers are primarily residential home builders. They cater primarily to those building custom and semi-custom homes. They have also developed a niche with do-it-yourself home improvement customers whose needs range from fixing the door, screwing it on the hinge, or building an addition to a home.
 
Gerald gleefully points out that his company now serves crafters! People are building a birdhouse, shadow box, or other craft projects.  
 
Michigan Lumber supplies wood components to local window and cabinet manufacturing companies. 
 
Haan's company distinguishes itself with custom wood milling for remodelers and new home builders. They manufacture custom moldings. Custom woodworking is also used by people renovating older properties to match moldings.
 
Michigan Lumber Turns to Technology and Its Employees to Shape its Future
 
When Gerald's turn arrived to take the helm of Michigan Lumber Company in 2016, he succeeded his cousin Chuck. 
 
Gerald describes his return to Michigan Lumber, "The company seemed like everybody was looking on the bad side of things and why we cannot make it. My focus has always been on, "What can we do"?"  
 
The evolution of Michigan Lumber is continuing, and Gerald interestingly takes a swing at predicting Flint's future:
 
Gerald Haan:
When you're doing 30 or 40% of your business with one customer, that's not a good thing necessarily, because when you lose that one customer, you're losing 40% of your business. That's ironic. That's what Flint did with GM, right?
 
Well, when Flint invested their everything in satisfying General Motors, GM eventually left the City of Flint, which meant Michigan Lumber too.
 
Do you know what Flint is going to be in the future?
 
Indeed, education will play a role in that, and at some level, manufacturing will play a role in what it looks like 10 or 15 years from now. I'm not sure exactly what it is going to look like.
Arthur Busch:
Well, we're sure of one thing. It is going to look different than it does today.
Gerald Haan:
Yeah, and I think it will look better than it does today.
Gerald is leading the company to use new technologies to bolster the company. 
Almost 90 years after the founders incorporated Michigan Lumber, the internet came into existence. In all its glorious history, the company never launched a branding campaign to define itself to customers, suppliers, and the community at large. This is now the job of Katie Haan, Gerald's 23-year-old daughter, a graduate of Georgetown University. Ka e is the 4th generation family member to take part in the family business operation.
The new strategy emphasizes the millwork capabilities of the company. Thbusinesscompany uses both new and old tools. Laser-enabled tools are employed to make precise measurements and cuts. The company has always promoted its talented employees to create a competitive advantage. All of this has been a selling point. 
 
Katie has modernized the company's website. It also uses social media for marketing itself.   There was a need to incorporate technology and the internet to allow customers to order and buy products. Appeals to Influencers are new ways to grow a customer base. Katie explains:
 
"We had a YouTube influencer visit our business. He has a YouTube channel about woodworking. His name is Billy Newton, from the Detroit area, we showed him the mill and he took some videos, which was a wonderful experience.
 
We have another person come too, so we are trying to get more eyes on our mill and all these capabilities. This is just one example of how we reach out".
 
 There has been an emphasis on training and grooming employees for higher positions at the company. The company acknowledges generational influence on its business.
 
Hahn has big plans for Flint and the future.
 
Gerald described the neighborhood surrounding his 115-year-old business as "tired" and needing revitalization.   He and his daughter Katie have their sights on a new project. They want to develop single-family housing in the downtown area. He calls this a big, slow-moving project to revitalize that neighborhood.
 
Michigan Lumber Company is now run by Gerald Haan and his daughter Katie from Michigan Lumber. They are their family's third and fourth generation to run the centennial business. Many thanks to the Haan family for supplying information and photographs for this article.