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Wood Work

Anaheim-based Ganahl Lumber Co. dates back to 1884, when Austrian immigrant brothers Christian and Frank Ganahl bought $1 tickets from St. Louis to Los Angeles to get in on Southern California’s building boom.

Flash forward to today, and brothers Peter and John Ganahl run the lumber business their great great uncle started more than a century ago.

Peter is Ganahl Lumber’s president. John is chief financial officer.

Their company was honored with the longevity award at the annual Family Owned Business Awards lunch hosted by the Business Journal and California State University, Fullerton’s Family Business Council on Nov. 18 at the Hyatt Regency Irvine.

The company’s founders “saw past the orange trees and into the forest,” Peter said as he accepted the award.

Ganahl Lumber runs eight home improvement stores in Orange County and Corona. A ninth store is planned for Pasadena next year—a bit of a throwback for the company, which at one time counted several lumber yards in the L.A. area.

The company has 525 workers, including four Ganahl family members

The story of the company goes something like this.

After moving to Los Angeles, Christian Ganahl bought a lumber company and called it C. Ganahl Lumber Co.

After several years of product additions and ownership changes, the company became Ganahl Lumber Co. in 1964.

Peter and John, two of eight children, grew up in the business, sweeping floors and doing other chores.

John, who’s known as John Jr., said he started just before he was 12, making 25 cents an hour doing all kinds of jobs from cleaning up piles to straightening up the store. As he got older, he and Peter unloaded rail cars.

John Jr. joined the company full time after their father, John Sr., died in 1973. He became chief financial officer in the late 1970s.

No Pressure

John Jr., who has a degree from Stanford University, said he never felt it was assumed he would get into the business. After Stanford, he joined the military and did other things that interested him, including a stint as ski patrol.

“My dad would always ask me if I wanted to work for the business,” he said. “I always said, ‘Give me one more year.’ He definitely wanted us there. But it was never expected. We knew the opportunity was there if we wanted it.”

For Peter, who earned a degree in forestry from Oregon State University, getting into the family business fell in line with having a wife and baby.

Peter, 64, joined the company full time in 1968 and became president in 1973 after his father’s sudden death. He was young, in his late 20s, when his dad died.

Peter’s two sons, Peter D. Ganahl and Mark Ganahl, also are in the business.

They too grew up in the business, sweeping floors and such as kids. Again, there were no expectations.

“My parents didn’t expect me to get into the business at all,” Mark said. “I came to fall in love with it and continued working in the business after college.”

He recently was promoted to general manager of the Anaheim store. Previously, he ran the Corona store. Now he’s working directly below his father’s office. And that’s just fine by him.

“I’m super close with my dad,” Mark said. “I count him as one of my best friends. We live close to one another, we get out and play golf, talk about our families, my kids, his grandkids. We’re a really close family.”

He calls his dad the “smartest guy around” who gives his employees the opportunity to make their own decisions.

Brother Peter works at the Los Alamitos store. The brothers are close, according to Mark.

Of course, the topic of succession comes up. The family has active discussions about it, Mark said.

“There are definitely family members involved in the business for the next generation,” he said.

Don’t expect big Sunday family dinners. Every quarter or so, there are Ganahl family meetings. Family members get together and talk, sometimes throwing a little business in those conversations, the elder Peter said.

Ganahl Lumber stores sell lumber, windows, siding, doors, hardware, tools and other building products.

With the difficult economy, the company has had to pull back.

At a high point in 2006, Ganahl Lumber counted a little more than 900 workers, almost double what it has now.

Sales in 2006 were $295 million versus $160 million now.

“We’re in a highly cyclical business,” the elder Peter said. “When you’re in a highly cyclical business, you always have to think about the next turn of the cycle. When things are high flying, be ready for when they are not, and when business is down in the dumps just remember it won’t always be there.”

Rivals

The company has an advantage over big rivals such as Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos., according to Peter.

Ninety percent of customers are professionals or contractors, according to Peter. Ten percent are homeowners.

“Contractors are constant repeat buyers,” Peter said.

They either are in Ganahl’s stores or on the phone with the company constantly, he said.

Home Depot and Lowe’s “are highly successful companies that have achieved a lot,” Peter said. “I have a lot of respect for them. But we know our customers, and they know us. That’s a huge advantage.”

Employees are loyal, with some at the company for more than 40 years. In 1976, the company began an employee stock ownership plan, in which workers are part owners.

Employee anniversaries are called “Ganahlaversaries.”

They’re published in the company’s biweekly newsletter, The Woodstock. Those that mark anniversaries every five years (at five, 10, 15 years and so on) are given plaques engraved with their hire date.

Something else employees can expect for milestone anniversaries: handwritten letters from Peter.

Gomez is a former Business Journal editor and freelance writer based in Long Beach.

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