ROTTERDAM — These are busy times for Bellevue Builders Supply — and not just in the way a business likes to be busy.
It’s far from the first challenge the company has faced since it was founded in 1937, but the two-year pandemic has created an unlikely mix of opportunity and difficulty.
The operation is enjoying huge demand for its products amid a building and remodeling boom, but it has to work harder to keep those products in stock amid supply chain shortages.
Factor in the need to bring in new employees from a tight labor market in a region that ended 2021 with just 2.6% unemployment and you’ve got a trifecta.
“We’ve never been busier than the last couple of years,” said Ken Feiden, remodeling sales manager. “People stuck in their homes have [been] given an opportunity to do some projects. [COVID] shifted spending. The money went from vacations and, unfortunately, restaurants, to their house.”
Bellevue is based on Duanesburg Road, where the public will be familiar with its walk-in retail hardware store and drive-thru lumberyard. But it’s much more: A nearby fabrication shop and warehouse bring the enclosed space to 500,000 square feet on 22 acres on both sides of the road.
Bellevue has 130 employees and enjoys a surprisingly long reach in a landscape dotted with hardware, lumber and building supply retailers and wholesalers. Bellevue’s retail shop typically draws from a 10- to 15-mile radius, but it delivers to builders as far as 60 miles away for some types of construction and up to 150 miles for others.
COMPETITIVE EDGETo make those longer deliveries, Bellevue’s trucks are driving past competitors who are closer to the job site.
In one cringeworthy instance, a Bellevue truck pulled up and began unloading at a Poughkeepsie-area worksite right across the street from a local lumberyard.
There are a few reasons Bellevue is able to make those distant sales at the expense of local competitors, general manager Mike Catalina said:
Feiden recalled one recent example of this firmly established yet nimble dynamic coming into play amid the continual scramble for supplies: When a carload of pressure-treated lumber became available unexpectedly in Cortland, Bellevue reached out to a customer it knew needed it, the customer was interested, and the lumber was bought and sold in rapid order.
The lumber almost certainly would have been snapped up by someone else in a matter of hours.
“The industry’s still very personal and localized,” said Catalina, who started at a Connecticut lumberyard as a teenager and has never worked in any other field.
The backing of the largest privately held building product supplier in the nation is a big advantage for Bellevue.
“There’s a lot of buying power. We’re able to procure a lot of mill contracts,” Catalina said. “We can contract for 50 rail cars while the guy down the road contracts for one.”
INDUSTRY SHORTAGESDespite all this, some things just weren’t always available in 2021. Everyone has his or her anecdote.
“Around this area, fiberglass tub and shower units were definitely issues,” sales manager Billy DeOrazio said.
“Caulks and adhesives are really kind of bad, too,” said Lisa McDonald, marketing director.
“We install gas fireplaces. It’s actually a pretty good business for us. We bought them, we just couldn’t get them,” Catalina said.
Windows went from a two- to four-week delivery time to as much as 32 weeks. The lead time for cabinets reached 24 weeks. Shaftwall disappeared from the market for a while.
Ace Hardware, which supplies about 12,000 unique inventory items for Bellevue’s retail store, dropped from 99% order fulfillment to as low as 68%.
“That was the problem,” McDonald said. “One day it could be paint, the next it’s PVC, or the next month it’s door locks. It’s just like a constant moving target.”
On and on it went — manufacturers stopped production of less-popular colors to maximize output of more-popular colors; factories suffered infection clusters; finished goods sat waiting to be loaded onto trucks for delivery to retailers and wholesalers.
That was a saving grace, Catalina said: Bellevue’s delayed orders were neither unique nor, by themselves, terribly impactful. The builder waiting for something from Bellevue was probably waiting for at least some of his other supplies, as well.
“The build cycle for the builder also extended significantly last year because of all these lead-time issues, so they may not have felt the effect the way they would have if it was a traditional build cycle and we were out of product,” Catalina said.
“Everyone was struggling with supply chain issues and they still are. We didn’t have to exit a category and I don’t think we had cancellations because we were out of product,” he added.
LOCAL AND NATIONALThe source of Bellevue’s buying power, US LBM, requires its local branches to post good financial results but gives them autonomy in achieving those results.
Bellevue was among the first crop of 16 companies in three states acquired by US LBM in 2009. Bellevue and the 400-plus other divisions now owned by US LBM retain their original names, with only a small-print footnote in certain instances indicating they are “A Division of US LBM.”
“We try to make everybody here feel like part of this big Bellevue family, still,” DeOrazio said. “All the decisions are made here by the management team. We don’t have to email someone in Wisconsin or New York City.”
The legacy names also help maintain the divisions’ familiar profile in their communities and help sustain the relationships that Catalina says are so important to success.
“We try to get involved in the community,” McDonald said. “We do a lot with [the nonprofit] Things of Our Very Own in Schenectady,” including donating materials and adopting 10 to 15 families in the holiday season. And just recently, Bellevue was part of a Make-A-Wish reveal.
Looking forward, the outlook is bright for Bellevue in 2022, though not entirely clear.
Many contractors are already booked solid through 2022, some through 2023, and they’ll all need deliveries from the big warehouse on Route 7. (Only about a third of sales are to do-it-yourselfers; the rest are to commercial operations.)
PANDEMIC CHALLENGESBut COVID continues to be a disrupting force.
Bellevue never mandated vaccination, but in preparing for the federal vaccine mandate that never came it discovered its employees were vaccinated at a rate higher than the state and national levels, Feiden said.
“We have the mask police and the cleaning police,” DeOrazio said of in-house efforts to keep staff and customers healthy.
“We didn’t have to test positive,” McDonald said. “If we had one symptom that could be a symptom of COVID, we worked from home. We were quarantined.”
And it all worked pretty well, Catalina said, yielding a low infection rate up until the December omicron surge reached upstate New York.
The struggle to find new employees amid the pandemic’s Great Resignation continues, Catalina said, and Bellevue has boosted wages to try to keep up.
“We’re not a captive audience,” he said. “The industrial park is across the street, Price Chopper is across the street. There’s a lot of blue-collar jobs. If somebody doesn’t like what they’re doing here they can probably walk across the street and drop off five applications and get three job offers.”
Recruitment was a challenge before the pandemic and will continue to be a challenge when it’s over, DeOrazio said, because too few young people are pursuing construction trades and related industries as a career.
Catalina said it’s not only a good job but an important industry to work in.
“I started in a lumberyard when I was 15. This is all I’ve ever done,” he said. “This is a great industry, but we’ve got to communicate that. It’s a handshake, it’s a relationship, it’s a personality industry. It’s not sexy, but I always say we’re building America — that’s what we do.”
Bellevue Builders SupplyFOUNDED: 1937ADDRESS: 500 Duanesburg Road, RotterdamBUSINESS: Retail and commercial sales of hardware and building suppliesEMPLOYEES: About 130
Categories: Business, Outlook 2022, Rotterdam