Taking a leap of faith can be a big risk, but when you’re chasing your dreams, it’s worth it, say Joe and Leah Van Walbeek. The couple reopened Akron Lumber Co. in Akron, Iowa, this past May.
Over the weekend, the couple hosted the store’s grand reopening celebration, which included a ribbon cutting, on-site product vendors to answer questions from customers, delicious food and door prizes to celebrate the new chapter of the decades-old business.
The business, which has been a part of its small Iowa community since 1892, was shuttered last October, but the Van Walbeeks wanted to revive the historical business and use it as a source to help neighbors build their dreams.
Family Fulfills Purpose Through New Business Endeavor
After graduating college and getting married, Joe and Leah Van Walbeek were busy chasing their dreams. Joe learned the ins and outs of the home improvement industry by working for Menards in a variety of roles for nearly five years. During that time, they left Iowa and made a life for themselves in Minnesota and later in Wisconsin.
Before they had their second son, the couple made the decision to return to Iowa to be closer to family and pursue new opportunities. Leah became a stay-at-home mom and Joe worked for a plumbing and heating wholesale business.
When Akron Lumber Co. was listed for sale by its owner, Joe says he jumped at the idea of owning and operating his own lumberyard.
“I have always enjoyed construction and contractor work,” Joe says. “I have done that on and off since graduating college. I appreciate the flexibility of the business and that the work falls on you for better or worse. I thrive off that.”
In January, the Van Walbeeks took a tour of the lumberyard and learned more about the history of the store from the previous owner, who had owned the business for nearly 30 years.
“When Leah and I announced we were buying the company and getting it stocked and ready for business again, the entire community was very excited and receptive,” Joe says. “Our arrival would also greatly increase the days and hours the business would be open to the public, with us being open six days a week.”
For many locals of Akron, Iowa, and surrounding communities, the reopening of Akron Lumber Co. was a big deal because it would allow locals to get the items they needed for home improvement without traveling far.
“Our customers have told us how happy they are that we reopened the business,” Joe says. “It’s much more convenient for them to head here from town rather than drive 20 minutes away to the nearest lumberyard and 40 minutes away to the nearest big-box store. That warm welcome from the locals helped us finalize our decision to move forward and buy the business.”
Currently, Joe and Leah are running the business together and bring their sons Ethan and Levi with them, finding unique ways to balance family life and professional success.
“Joe is the one who opens the store at 7:30 a.m. and then after the kids get up and are ready, we head to the store,” Leah says. “They like playing in the office area of the store and I’m able to help Joe, while also taking care of the kids, putting them down for naps and learning the business as we go.”
Bringing Home Improvement Back to Town
Joe and Leah made the decision to return to Iowa when their family began to grow.
“I think Leah and I are similar to many other people our age,” Joe says. “We wanted to return to a smaller community to raise our family. For us, it’s a safe community and the ideal way to raise our family. Plus, we’re excited we get to help the local community by providing an independent option for home improvement shopping.”
According to Joe, more consumers prefer the local retail establishment over big-box competitors, where they feel they’re likely to get overlooked and not receive the level of service they require.
Before opening to the public, the Van Walbeeks and their family members got together to paint the store’s interior of the store, clean the products and add a breath of fresh air to the location. In addition, they’re getting a POS system up and running, which is a first for the business, which has been in operation for more than a century. Prior to the Van Walbeeks, the store’s sales transactions were managed by hand.
After painting and brightening the store, removing clutter and old inventory and opening up the salesfloor, Joe says customers are constantly remarking on the positive changes.
“People who shop here constantly tell us how nice and clean it looks now,” he says. “There still is a lot we need to do to the outside of the building, which is a part of our long-term plans. Now we are providing quality products and lumber, great pricing and we strive to offer the best possible service.”
Having spent many years working for Menards, Joe says he learned lessons he is able to apply to his own home improvement business.
“When I worked for Menards, I did a lot of designing of displays and I also worked with vendors a lot, which are all things that have helped me now,” Joe says. “The things I learned from visiting more than 100 Menards stores and other big box and independent retailers has been very beneficial for our business.”
Just as Joe did when he worked for Menards, running Akron Lumber Co., gives him the chance to help community members complete the projects that mean something to them.
“We named our corporation ‘Making Dreams Happen,’ which is what our business is all about,” Leah says. “We want to help people and help them make their dreams happen. Showing them the things they can do to transform their space and then seeing the final project when they return with photos is very rewarding.”