Meuser Lumber Company comes to Elkader

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Meuser Lumber Company recently opened a location in Elkader, at the former Builders FirstSource property along Highway 13.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


“It is the biggest risk I’ve ever taken,” said John Finch, president/owner of Meuser Lumber Company. 


The risk in question is the recent purchase of the property Builders FirstSource once occupied along Highway 13, in Elkader. The closure opened the door for John to pounce on an opportunity he’s eyed for the better part of a decade. The location has changed hands numerous times over the years, a fact John attributed to large corporations not truly understanding small town America and being unable to generate the type of bottom-line revenue that drives corporations. 


But John and his son Alex both believe relating to the local populace and meeting their needs is something their company is completely capable of. Meuser Lumber has been serving the area since 1907, when Joe and Bill Meuser, along with John’s great-grandfather, Fred Frieden, first started the company.


Since the 1930s, Meuser Lumber has been a wholly family operation, and John represents the fourth generation, while Alex, the future of the company, is the fifth generation to find its way into the family fold. 


John’s role in the company began in the 1970s, after a two-year stint at Kirkwood. He tried to branch out, but was always bound for the family business. In 2013, he took over for his father. 


“It’s just what I always wanted to do,” he said. 


According to John, the decision to purchase the Elkader location just made “good business sense.” For Alex, it is a “bigger market and better location,” which will strengthen the company overall. 


The fact that the property was ready to go, meaning it had all the buildings necessary for the business to function from day one, aided the decision. 


Of course, due to the money that was involved, John and Alex did their homework prior to the purchase, having an analysis done to examine the site’s economic sustainability, especially since several other companies had failed. The analysis determined the Elkader market is certainly a viable one, with unlimited potential. 


Given John’s conservative nature in making big purchases, he is cautiously optimistic. While Alex shares that optimism, he noted, an idea “can look good on paper, but it doesn’t always translate.” 


The opening of Meuser’s in Elkader meant closing the location in Garnavillo because keeping it open, in the words of John, “didn’t make sense.” Indeed, running three lumber yards so close together would’ve been a challenging feat. John also remarked on how shutting down Garnavillo “saddened” him, but he also said, “I believe the community understands why we did it.” 


Another major difficulty was opening in the middle of winter, which John described as “probably the worst time to get materials.” But John and Alex felt they couldn’t sit on the location and wait—they had to get the business up and running as quickly as possible because of existing employees sitting idle and the possibility that people would go elsewhere. 


John actually retained several Builders FirstSource employees because of their experience and customer service ability. 


Another difficulty that’s not so much involved with opening a new location, but one that is marring the lumber yard business in general, is how hard COVID-19 has made acquiring materials due to manufacturing being halted during the height of the pandemic. This, coupled with the rising cost of lumber, means supply shortages have been an ongoing problem. 


“It’s been a huge issue,” John said. 


It’s an issue Alex believes will remain for the rest of the year, but he also stated that, while it is a challenge, Meuser’s “can find all the materials” they want to sell and customers want to purchase. 


Finally, Meuser Lumber has dealt with the day-to-day things that pop-up when it comes to setting up computer systems, purchasing equipment and vehicles and getting employees up to speed on how the Meuser brand does things. 


That brand is not just a lumber yard. They’re also a retail store for customers’ hardware needs and a rental company. If you’ve got a construction project in mind, staff will design, draft and procure all the materials needed for it. 


Meuser is also expanding its hardware and paint section at the Elkader location because they want to be, as Alex put it, “an all-in-one stop” shopping experience, keeping business local and the money in the community. 


After 100-plus years in business, they’re well suited for the job. 


“We’ve worked hard at it,” John said. 


“We are competitively priced, have a wide-ranging inventory and offer better service,” Alex added. 


As for how the opening has gone thus far, John admitted there have been some “growing pains,” but mostly because, as he explained, “there is an adjustment period to Meuser’s business model.” 


In general, however, Alex stated “the people of Elkader have been glad that we have taken this on.” 


Both men have high expectations for the location, going so far as to anticipate it doing better than the home office in Guttenberg. 


Part of this expectation is based on the perception that Elkader has a reputation for supporting its local businesses and there is an overwhelming “excitement” to be in the community. 


“We’ve always viewed ourselves as a hometown lumber yard, and we’re looking to get to know our newest hometown,” Alex said. 

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