BELFAST, Maine — A TV ad for Viking Lumber features David Flanagan, who runs the business with three siblings, using the tagline, “Call us old-fashioned, and we’ll say thank you.”
The history of the business, begun by Flanagan’s father and uncle in a tiny sawmill in downtown Belfast, bears out the truth of that slogan. Launched in the 1940s by Jud Flanagan and his brother-in-law Gene Rich, Viking now has nine lumber yards, in Machias, MIlbridge, Hancock, Blue Hill, Holden, Belfast, Lincolnville, Vinalhaven and Warren.
Though the last several years have been among the toughest the business has experienced, Flanagan, 58, and his siblings have kept the business afloat without having to resort to layoffs.
Last month, the Retail Lumber Dealers Association of Maine honored David Flanagan as its person of the year, an honor Erin Flanagan, his sister, earned in 2001 and their late father earned posthumously in 1990.
It’s no coincidence the company’s yards are mostly on the coast, Flanagan said. Population growth has been steady in most of the areas Viking serves, and that growth has led to new home construction and renovation.
But such corporate calculation is less of a guiding principle than relationships, Flanagan and his sisters Erin, 52, and Maureen, 54, said in an interview at the Belfast yard. The three siblings typically dress in flannel shirts, homespun-looking sweaters and blue jeans as they work around the yard and store.
David’s stock line to new employees is, “no executives, just co-workers,” his sisters said. The three siblings don’t even have job titles, though Erin and Maureen acknowledge that David is “the big boss.” That admission elicits a bit of a glare from their older brother, followed by his deadpan response: “Until they don’t agree with something I do.”
But for all the good-natured repartee among the siblings, the last several years have been among the toughest. The tight housing market led Viking to cut the pay and hours of its employees, who now number 194. When some people left, they were not replaced, but the Flanagans were pleased to have avoided layoffs.
“This is the toughest downturn I’ve ever seen,” David said.
Catherine Robbins and Jimmy Robbins, grandchildren of the founder of Robbins Lumber of Searsmont who now run the company, said the two families have been colleagues in the lumber business for decades.
“They’re very humble people,” Jimmy Robbins said of David, Erin, Maureen and Gene Flanagan. “They’re Maine people through and through.”
The family also treats their crew well, he said.
Catherine Robbins said her family holds the Flanagans “in the highest regard.”
Another telling endorsement came in 1987 when part of the Belfast store was destroyed by fire. A week later, contractors who were regular customers showed up to volunteer their labor to help the Flanagans rebuild.
GROWTH BY RELATIONSHIP
Their father and uncle started the business as Pine Tree Products and then, in 1945, began calling it Viking, operating near Kirby Lake in what is now a residential part of Belfast.
“My uncle had the idea, and he talked father into it,” David recounted. The partners moved to the intersection of Route 1 and Main Street, where an AutoZone store is today. After a fire, the men switched from milling to retailing lumber in the early 1960s.
The business moved to Route 1 east of the downtown in 1969 when an expansion of Route 1 took much of the storage area.
The Flanagans’ mother did the books for the business at home in Camden, while caring for her seven children.
“We all worked for our father in high school and junior high,” David recalled. Erin began working at Viking in 1979, then joined full time in 1982. Maureen returned to the business as an adult in 1983.
For all their old-fashioned values, the Flanagans say adopting new technology has helped push Viking forward. In the early 1980s, a few years in advance of a building boom that swept the midcoast, the Flanagans computerized the business, ending what had been a tedious, by-hand accounting of sales and stock.
“It probably gave us one of the biggest boosts our business ever had,” David said. Maureen headed up the transformation to electronic records. Each time 20 sheets of plywood, 50 2-by-4s or 30 bundles of shingles were sold, the inventory was updated, expediting the ordering of new stock.
“Instant inventory,” David explained. “It allowed us to grow our business with the same amount of personnel.”
Other growth came through new locations.
In 1994, Bill Munroe, who operated a lumber yard in Lincolnville, approached the Flanagans about selling, and the family agreed to take over.
That same year, a real estate agent friend of David’s approached him about a piece of land on the newly improved Route 90 in Warren, and a deal was struck over drinks at a Camden restaurant. A large, new yard and store were built there.
Maine was still climbing out of a deep recession that hit the housing market hard in the early 1990s, but the Flanagans say expansion came through opportunity, not strategy.
Over the years, Viking purchased Island Lumber on Vinalhaven, the L.A. Gray lumber yard in Hancock, the Granville Lumber stores in Holden and Blue Hill, and H.F. Pinkham stores in Milbridge and Machias.
David characterized this growth as “sticking our necks out,” but it has paid off.
The Flanagans stress that employees also develop relationships with customers, most of whom are building contractors. If the wrong load of lumber is delivered, the driver makes it right and is apologetic, so “it’s a comfortable transaction” for the customer, David said.
“The employees have been great,” he added. “They buy into it.”
The building and renovation boom of the last decade was good to Viking. “We rode that wave,” David said, and after the crash, the company now is holding its own.
Sales in the Warren and Belfast stores have begun to grow again, he said, after a growth streak that began in 1977 ended in 2008.
The family believes Viking is well-poised to return to steady growth as the housing market improves nationally and locally.