Fred Schenkel and the Rise of Integrated LBMs
When Fred Schenkel arrived at Builders Supply and Lumber (BSL) to resurrect its component business, it was almost too late. For 18 months, BSL had struggled mightily to include structural components as part of their builder sales. They were up against strong independents, many of whom were part of the prevailing trend to detach from their parent lumberyards. In many ways, BSL’s customers and their lumberyard associates were fed up with the component plant, and the morale in the plant suffered as a result. Fred’s hands were full from the start, but fortunately he had what it took to turn it around.
A Man of Many Skills
It could be said that Fred had a checkered career because he didn’t last long in any of the jobs he held. However, that would be an unfair mischaracterization. Fred’s career was shaped by the turbulent industry in which he had spent his first 20 years, and with each job he took, he added to his collection of skill sets. He started out by working in his father’s homebuilding business during school, and was surely inspired by his school’s motto, “Creating Great Men.”
After college, he got a job in a modular home factory, but it was slow going in upstate New York. After a year, he took a job at Ryan Homes and progressed through several of their component plants, eventually landing at their megaplant in Maryland, where he learned his trade from great teachers. He parlayed that experience into becoming the manufacturing manager at Ryland’s new modular plant down the road, where he earned the role of “Mr. Fixit,” shoe-horning modular boxes onto ill-fitting foundations.
Finally, Fred had the opportunity to run his own factory, taking over Diversified Homes’ captive plant between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It was not without its challenges, however. At that facility, he inherited inadequate equipment crammed into too tight of a space. When the 1990 recession hit, the business and the plant had little work and no credit. Not to be deterred, he improvised by paying cash for raw materials, and by manning the equipment himself with his build crews. In fact, his willingness to jump on a production line would become one of his trademarks. Finally, Diversified folded, but Fred’s work there had uplifted many people.
One example was Mark Chalada, whom Fred had promoted from the shop floor to learn truss design. Mark subsequently enjoyed a long, rewarding career in the truss business. This would become another one of Fred’s trademarks: leaving everything he touched better off than when he arrived. Fred departed Maryland and went back home to upstate New York to work with his brother in his dad’s homebuilding business. After a short stint building houses in Rochester, he moved back to Frederick, where he planned to build houses on his own. But before he started his business, I recommended him to Doug Schweinhart at BSL, and Doug hired him.
Doug Schweinhart was one of a group of former Lowes contractor salesmen who went out on their own in 1987. They came from the Frederick, Maryland store where they had gained considerable expertise in servicing large tract builders. During their tenure, they benefitted from the buying power and long-standing contractor focus of Lowes. However, when Lowes shifted to consumer sales, at the expense of Pro-Builders’ business, Schweinhart and his cadre partnered with their largest builder-customer, Pulte Homes, and created BSL. Although Pulte had been unsuccessful in prior attempts at the component business, they saw the advantage of components in competing with their dominant rivals, Ryan and Ryland Homes, who both operated large truss and panel plants. Pulte saw great growth potential in this part of the country, and they were willing to invest heavily in it to enhance their status as the nation’s largest homebuilder. Schweinhart took this to heart when he equipped BSL’s first component plant in Culpeper County, Virginia, with the latest and greatest truss technology.
Unfortunately, by the time Fred arrived at the plant he encountered a near disaster. The new truss equipment wasn’t working, and neither were the people. He moved into a now-defunct Howard Johnson’s motel near the plant and devoted days and nights during the week to turning the plant around. He addressed its personnel first, taking each of the floor leaders aside individually and carefully interviewing them. One of the fiercest critiques came from Gus Pearson on the nightshift, who related how he and his men had been consistently mistreated and misled, and that he was putting in his notice that very moment. Fred thanked Gus for his honesty and asked him to stay for one more week before he left. Fred made good on his commitments, Gus saw a better future, and today, 30 years later, Gus is the plant’s GM. Fred treated everyone with the utmost respect, but didn’t hesitate to let them know what was expected of them and how they were doing.
In the truss design office, Fred encountered a dedicated group, but one that lacked truss experience. He was immediately impressed when he found that the anchor of the group, Mike Fuss, a PE hired by Schweinhart, had already been inaugurating some innovative systems. They included a uniform method of filing truss drawings and a computer program that automated a number of important tasks both in the design office and on the shop floor. For example, his program verified the validity of building codes, truss loadings, and many other important design parameters within truss files to help expedite his review and sealing of truss drawings. In addition, it also checked the format of truss output files that were being sent to a computerized saw to ensure that they were correctly formatted, which eliminated delays, since saws were not yet capable of being networked. Fred was anxious to expand the capabilities of these programs, especially in production of shop-ready paperwork. To that end, he also established a production processor position in the shop office, whose job it was to batch cutting and sequence the work in the shop to attain optimal output, relieving truss designers of that task.
In order to rebuild BSL’s reputation in the field, Fred became the chief jobsite troubleshooter, ensuring that any outstanding issues were promptly resolved, even if the customer had been at fault. His intervention tasked Mike Fuss with some of the most complicated truss repairs, including, on occasion, replacement of trusses in a roof that had been sheathed. Fred would often be found carrying out the repairs himself with personnel from the design office or plant. Gradually, through these types of extraordinary efforts, he rebuilt the confidence of BSL customers and his associates in the remainder of his business. It didn’t take long for Fred to begin a small wall panel operation with used equipment in an outbuilding on the Culpeper property, upgrade EWP processing in the yard, and add floor machines to the truss plant. With those capabilities, BSL now could go to market with a full complement of structural building components and the associated building supplies, and was ready to broaden its reach.
With Culpeper running well, BSL secured a series of buildings in the northeast corner of Maryland to serve markets extending to southern New Jersey. As had occurred in Culpeper, the site was chosen mainly for its suitability as a distribution center, while the truss operation was relegated to a small corner of the property. When Fred arrived at the location, he found that the proposed truss building was barely 80 feet deep, with minimal yard space to store trusses. To make room for component saws, he enclosed the space under a roof overhang. To gain more table space, he shortened gantry parking areas and located the finish roller outside the building. To mount the lasers, he utilized the underside of a non-functional overhead crane. To conserve yard space, he built vertical stacking stations on either side of the truss output conveyors. And, finally, by doing much of the work with his own staff and hiring a very experienced installer, Tony Grant, Fred created a serviceable truss operation in record time.
The next manufacturing expansion was to the prosperous Charlotte, North Carolina market. Three years earlier, BSL had relocated one of its founders, a one-time Lowe’s salesman named Todd Vance, to the former Fagen’s Building Supply, 20 miles northeast of the city. There, they gained Pulte’s business and benefitted from the closure of Ryland’s component plant in that market. In the time it took to build a first-class distribution center nearby, they bought trusses from other suppliers. While the site included a large standalone component plant, the narrow column spacing would not accommodate a standard double gantry line. However, with judicious placement of the line and by ordering a second gantry head, Fred was able to create a productive operation. As a result, this Greenfield facility was destined to become the model for the large, fully integrated building supply and manufacturing plant of BSL’s future.
In both the Maryland and North Carolina expansions, Fred installed the systems that had been developed in Culpeper. Mike Fuss’s program was expanded into a complete back-office management system by the work of a dedicated developer that Fred had selected from the design office. Sharing work among plants was facilitated by the continued enhancement of the master filing system, in which shop-ready work was expertly organized for rapid retrieval. While these master files were initially maintained at the plant level, BSL was among the first truss operations to relocate them to a central file server for easy accessibility among locations.
A Template for the Future
In just his first few years, Fred established sound systems that he was able to scale up to ultimately service dozens of facilities. At each newly acquired facility, Fred took a deft, hands-on approach and was able to quickly gain the buy-in of personnel in the office and on the shop floor. He respected and inspired all those he encountered, so that they knew what was expected of them, and so that they could take pride in their accomplishments. He fostered a sense of mutual respect between the component operations and the larger enterprise. Therein lies his greatest legacy: he raised the stature of the component business and made it an indispensable part of a successful lumber and building materials operation. Even today, ten years after Fred’s untimely demise, his impact still animates an enterprise many times the size of the one he left.
About the Author: Joe Kannapell began his career in the truss industry with Hydro-Air Engineering over 50 years ago. His final promotion to Senior VP of Sales at MiTek reflected his life-long commitment to serving component manufacturers and bettering the industry. In retirement, Joe isn't slowing down. One of his passions is to record and preserve the history of our industry. This article is the fifth installment in his series on some of the industry's founding fathers that he knew well. If you'd like to contribute to this effort, please reach out to us at email@example.com.