Yesterday & Today... Building A Better Way

By+Bill Moor

During the summer months, 15-year-old Jay Williams makes his pocket money by working around his dad’s Niles business, Williams Lumber & Hardware.

“We make sure to give him the most grueling jobs possible _ hopefully in the heat of the day,” Bruce Williams says with a smile. “That way, he will really want to go to college.”

And that might keep him from joining the family business. And, then again, maybe it won’t.

Bruce himself grew up sweeping the floors and stacking shelves at Williams Lumber when his dad and two uncles were running it. “I knew I didn’t want to work there after high school,” he admits. “I wanted to see what else was out in the world. So I tried college, drove a semi-truck all across the country and lived in California.

“That was OK with my dad. He encouraged me to make my own decisions.”

But then he returned to Niles and the family business at the age of 25. “The company was going through some hardships,” Bruce recalls of that time two decades ago. “It looked like my dad and uncles could lose it. I thought how bad I would feel if that happened on their watch. So I came back to help for a while.”

His return was more about bloodlines than business.

Bruce is the sixth generation of the Williams clan to own the company. His dad, Larry, and his Uncles Skeeter and Chris were fifth generation. His grandfather, Dick, who lived to be 93 and was a walking encyclopedia of the history of the store, was fourth generation.

Son Jay would be the seventh generation if he so chooses. But that is yet an unwritten chapter.

For now, it is Bruce and his wife Jennifer who continue the Williams legacy over on South 15th Street _ battling the big box home improvement stores while trying to combine an old-fashioned feeling with modern technology.

“Right now, I think we have an ugly store with a great story,” Bruce says.

That story started back in the 1878 when Welsh immigrant James Williams, Bruce’s great-great-great grandfather, started a sand, gravel and concrete block business at the site of the current company. He supplied materials for some of the original buildings at Notre Dame, using horse and buggy for transport.

Then his son, John Williams, bought the first concrete mixer in Niles. John’s sons, David and Henry, followed by purchasing the town’s first flatbed truck and eventually started the lumber business.

“They used the railroad spur that the French Paper Company had built for the lumber,” Bruce adds. “The first building was built in 1924 and is still part of our present store.”

So, yes, the roots of Bruce’s family tree run deep at this location a few blocks east of Thomas Memorial Stadium at the corner of Silverbrook and South 15th streets.

Six generations of family ownership … more than 100 years of continuous service … a same-site tradition since 1878.

“I really don’t want to mess that up,” Bruce admits.

Like many hometown businesses, Williams Lumber & Hardware has had its ups and downs over the last 30 years and expansion stores in South Bend and Edwardsburg have had to be closed. But its biggest challenge came four years ago when Lowe's and Home Depot announced they were coming to Niles.

“I was working with my Uncle Chris then,” Bruce says. “With those stores coming in and with him close to retirement age, he figured it could be someone else’s battle.”

So Bruce, 45, and Jennifer, 36, had a decision to make. Fight or fold.

They decided to go to a leadership summit at their church, Granger Community Church. That night, Bruce says he received a clear vision of what to do _ buy out his uncle, continue the family legacy and bring more focus and a facelift to Williams Lumber & Hardware.

About a week later, Home Depot backed out of its plans to build a store in Niles and so the Williamses figured they had a fighting chance.

They trimmed some fat off their payroll, began plans to slowly but surely renovate their store and came up with a mission statement and slogans that were to be more than catchphrases. They are currently tearing up carpet, adding to the nuts and bolts section and revamping the store one area at a time.

“We know some people like the nostalgic feel of the old wooden floors _ and that will stay _ but we also are trying to modernize some of the way we do things here, too,” Jennifer says.

She and Bruce have been married for four years. Besides Jay from Bruce’s first marriage, they have 18-month old Zoe. They actually met in the Granger Community Church parking lot when Jennifer was trying to take the removable soft-top cover off her jeep after an evening service. Bruce sauntered up and innocently asked, “Can I help you take your top off.”

They still laugh about that. Originally from Mishawaka, Jennifer’s story is similar to Bruce’s. “I hightailed it out of the Midwest as quickly as I could and have lived in California, New York and England. When I came back, I thought it was going to be temporary.”

But she fell in love with Bruce, the little house in the woods he built himself and his energy and innovations to keep the family business going. She helps more with the ideas than the items on the shelves. “I readily admit that I don’t know anything about hardware or lumber,” she says. “But I do know how you should treat people.”

Bruce, also a Niles city councilman, wants to take his business beyond just getting the right tool or piece of wood in a customer’s hand. “We’re in business because of them and so we not only want to help them build things but help build their lives through their projects, too.”

Besides many loyal customers, Williams Lumber also has its share of longtime workers among its staff of 15. Pat O’Toole, the store manager and business partner, has been with the business for 28 years _ even longer than Bruce. Handyman and mill guru Joe Fox has more than 30 years under his tool belt and deliveryman Harley McCully has never missed a day in 25 years, even driving in from Edwardsburg during the recent ice storm. “Once I got going, I was too scared to turn back,” he says.

Bruce and Jennifer aren’t turning back, either, on their plans to keep making Williams Lumber better.

On an old schoolhouse blackboard in Bruce’s remodeled office _ copper-top desk, diamond-plated floor, stone fireplace _ is the three-parted mission statement: 1. Serving people; 2. Solving problems; 3. Strengthening relationships. “And then somebody came along and wrote a fourth thing under those: ‘Selling stuff,’” Bruce chuckles.

Selling stuff is pretty important, whether it be a little thingamajig that came from the innards of a toilet in the hardware aisles or a truckload of 2-by-4s on the lumber side of the business.

“We realize that the people who come in our front door could have gone to Lowe’s,” Bruce says.

“We’ve even gotten some customers in here because Lowe’s has sent them to us, knowing we might have a part or piece they don’t have,” Jennifer adds. “And competing against these big box stores has made us become a better business.”

“They have made us sharpen the saw,” Bruce says.

“So are we successful?” he continues. “It depends if you measure it strictly on profitability. If that’s the case, then we aren’t as successful as we would like to be. But fulfillment should count for something and I think we do have that by helping our customers and continuing to improve our business.”

Twenty years ago, Bruce left California to come home. “I guess I was meant to be here.”

This sixth generation owner just hopes he has a sixth sense about his company’s success.