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Northwest Ohio’s “150-year-old start-up” celebrates its sesquicentennial

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    Jerry Kimble, left, and Corey Yontz load lumber on to a forklift Thursday, May 17, 2018, at the Gordon Lumber Company in Genoa, Ohio. Gordon Lumber is celebrating its 150th anniversary in business.

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    Dan Jett waits on a customer Thursday, May 17, 2018, at the Gordon Lumber Company in Genoa, Ohio. Gordon Lumber is celebrating its 150th anniversary in business.

    THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
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    Tate Maurer, manager of the Gordon Lumber Company Genoa Branch, Thursday, May 17, 2018, in Genoa, Ohio. Gordon Lumber is celebrating its 150th anniversary in business.

    THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
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GENOA — A century and a half after a young farmer from Elmore broke with family tradition and founded a sawmill in Oak Harbor, his great-great-granddaughters celebrate five generations of business in the lumber industry.

Since Gordon Lumber’s founding in 1868 by Washington Gordon, the Ohio-based lumberyard has become a versatile employer in northwest Ohio. With 122 employees and six locations, each with a home center and lumberyard, the company has grown in recent years, despite the rise of national chains like Home Depot. 

WATCH: Gordon Lumber celebrates 150 years

Dan Jett, rental manager at Gordon Lumber’s Genoa branch — the second youngest of the six branches, founded in 1964 — has worked for the company for 34 years. Many of his customers are former classmates from his student days at Genoa’s public high school.

“You know everybody who walks in the door,” Mr. Jett said. “Everybody out this way is like one big family.”

In fact, many customers aren’t just “like family” — they’re literally family. Working the floor at Gordon Lumber in Genoa means serving several generations of local families.

“You get grandfathers of people coming in, and ... their sons, following in their footsteps,” branch manager Tate Maurer said.

Jennie Gwilym, 61, one of the founder’s great-great-granddaughters and a member of the company’s board of directors, attributes the company’s resilience to its rural location, which has “allowed us to build deep relationships with customers,” she said.

Because chain stores are sparse in the areas that Gordon Lumber serves — Genoa, Bellevue, Bowling Green, Huron, Port Clinton, and Fremont, where its corporate office is located — the company’s emphasis on customer service and community ties have supported it through economic downturns, Ms. Gwilym said.

So has innovation. Pamela Goetsch, 65, chairman of the board and Ms. Gwilym’s sister, said her time leading Gordon Lumber has made her “less risk-averse.”

"What has worked for us well over the years we don’t want to eliminate,” Ms. Goetsch said.“But we’ve not been afraid to reinvent ourselves.”

From a brief stint in basket manufacturing in the early 1900s to its robust components division today, Gordon Lumber has weathered hard times, including the depression of the 1930s and the recession of 2008 — when the company’s worth plunged from $65 million to $23 million — by “trying new things,” Ms. Goetsch said. Today, the company is worth about $40 million, Erin Leonard, Gordon Lumber’s president, said. 

Committed to tradition but eager to adapt, Mses. Goetsch and Gwilym both feel a “strong obligation” to safeguard Gordon Lumber’s future. That means keeping the company “fresh and young,” Ms. Goetsch said, despite its age — a goal that motivated the board’s recent decision to institute a maximum age limit of 75 for board members.

As the sisters near the end of their tenures, it soon will be time for the next generation of Gordon descendants to “step up,” Ms. Goetsch said. Ms. Gwilym has two children in their early 20s, one in the health care field and another in finance.

As a child, Ms. Goetsch didn’t pay close attention to the family business, but she understood that it would be hers to lead someday.

“It was always something we were expected to do,” Ms. Goetsch said.

For now, Gordon Lumber will remain northwest Ohio’s “150-year-old start-up,” a family nickname for a company that has had to evolve to survive.

“We’re thrilled to death to be celebrating our 150th,” Ms. Goetsch said. “And we hope there’ll be someone to talk about [Gordon Lumber] in another 150 years.”

Contact Lily Moore-Eissenberg at lillianme@theblade.com, 419-724-6368, or on Twitter @LilyM_E

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