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Building, rebuilding 130 years of history

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by Diane Rarick

SBJ Contributing Writer

Few family-owned companies in Springfield will soon be able to brag that they have done business in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, but Springfield Mill & Lumber is one of them.

Founded in 1868, the company has played a large part in literally building Springfield from the ground up. Rebuilding itself from the ground up after a devastating 1994 fire "turned out to be kind of a blessing in disguise," according to president and owner M. Lloyd Wright. "We took some lemons and had to make them into lemonade." Springfield Mill & Lumber has been located at 216 W. Central St. for 64 years.

Proving that not only circus people have sawdust in their veins, Wright has long been a part of the lumber and hardware business his father, Malcolm Wright, took over in 1958.

Lloyd Wright started in the delivery side of his dad's business while still a teenager. He graduated from Parkview High School, attended Drury College, served in the Marine Corps, and then managed two True Value Hardware Stores in Carthage and Joplin. In 1979 he came back to Springfield to work with his father, who died nine years ago.

In a market filled with "big box" lumberyard/home improvement stores, Springfield Mill & Lumber has carved a unique niche, catering to construction trade professionals and serious individual home builders.

A hospitality center in the showroom offers builders and contractors a place to sit down and enjoy free coffee, soft drinks, and popcorn. Customers can even ice their coolers before heading out to a job site. The store is open 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is not open on weekends and holidays, in order to provide family time for its employees, according to Wright.

"Our people are our best asset," he said, noting that his staff of 36 has a combined total of more than 300 years' experience in the Springfield lumber industry. General Manager Leon Nutt has been with the company 30-plus years.

"Service is the key word taking care of your customer and doing it on a daily, hourly, weekly basis. You have to be aware of their needs, listen to the customer, and make yourself accessible to the customer," Wright said. "We've got mobile phones and pagers, and home telephone numbers on business cards."

The company's mission is to "provide sudden service to our customer, paying attention to the little things, so that the big things are inherently taken care of." The company buys lumber products directly from the mills. Springfield Mill & Lumber's continued alliance with True Value Hardware Stores offers a buying organization for hardware and building supplies.

Springfield Mill & Lumber also carries windows and doors made by companies such as Marvin, Andersen and Caradco, and offers computerized design and estimate services. Sales in 1997 totaled $8 million, while 1998 sales totaled $8.5 million, according to Wright.

An act of charity during the Christmas Parade in November 1994 led to a fire that destroyed the company's 2,500-square-foot office and showroom. "We had allowed the Lassies and band at Central High School to hook into our power through a plug-in in the office downstairs. They dropped an extension cord out a window so they could run their chili pots and hot plates for the Christmas parade. There was an extension cord coiled up that started the fire on top of a file box in my office. The rest is history," Wright said.

Although the company's computers were destroyed, backup disks of financial records were safely at the home of an office worker for the weekend, so the mill was able to open for business and make deliveries the following Monday. Wright asked family friend John Hulston if the company could use an empty building across the street for a temporary office.

"The staff worked out of the lumberyard office for three days until the small building was ready to use. Our customer base stayed with us and was very loyal. There was disruption for three or four days, but after that we were back rolling. It was harder on my employees than it probably was on our customers. They had to work a lot harder and keep everybody in the basket and assured that we were going to be able to take care of them," Wright said. "We lost very little business, other than walk-in business from our windows and doors, because we didn't have a showroom.

"I made my decision while the ashes were smoldering, sitting out in front in my truck. I just decided that I was going to stay where I was and that I was going to build a new facility," Wright said. He sat down with a piece of brown wrapping paper and sketched his idea for a new two-story office and showroom that was 8,500 square feet in size. Morelock-Ross built the new building, which opened about a year after the fire.

Noting that his company is a well-kept secret that quietly takes care of business, Wright also acknowledges the many ways his company has supported the Springfield community. Wright serves on the board of trustees of the Lester L. Cox College of Nursing and Health Sciences and is a member of Springfield's Best, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Northside Community Betterment Association, Southeast Rotary Club, and he is past potentate of the Abou Ben Adhem Shrine.

On a smaller scale, Springfield Mill & Lumber also sponsors everything from American Legion baseball teams to his employees' children's school activities,

Will Springfield Mill & Lumber remain a family-owned business into the 21st century? Wright's two daughters, who live in other Missouri cities, have chosen careers in teaching and counseling.

"I would love to lure a son-in-law into the business someday," he said. "But it will probably take care of itself. Hopefully we'll be able to continue to provide the goods and services through a family-type operation as time goes on. But I'm just a kid I'm just 55 years old and I really have no interest in doing something different," Wright said. "I love to get up in the morning and come to work. I enjoy doing what I do very much, and I enjoy working with people on a daily basis. Looking for a time to retire is not something I've even given any thought to. I plan to be here when I'm old and crotchety."

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