Cook County Home Center has deep roots and a bright futureMay 03, 2023 08:29AM ● By Editor
By Steve Fernlund for Boreal Community Media - May 3, 2023
Perched on a ridge on the inland side of Highway 61, just one mile east of the stoplight in Grand Marais, you will find the Cook County Home Center.
The business began in 1983 as D&T Lumber, a retail lumberyard and Ace Hardware store. It was started by Tom Smude and Don Gilmore and competed with the larger Hedstrom Lumberyard on the west side of Grand Marais. In the late 1980s it included a U-Haul and snowmobile business.
In January of 1995 the business was acquired by Cook County native Lyle Spry and he changed its name to Superior Lumber and Sports.
On September 1, 2015, the business was acquired by Nate Sheils and Jeff Buetow and the name was changed to the Cook County Home Center. By then, Superior Lumber and Sports had exited the snowmobile and U-Haul parts of the business.
Gaining experience and friendship
Sheils and Buetow had been friends and fishing buddies for more than ten years when they joined together to acquire the lumberyard and hardware store. By then, they’d both had years of experience in the retail lumber business.
Sheils, Cook County High School class of 1990, went to work as a “yard guy” at the Hedstrom Lumber Yard after graduation. He soon was named Yard Foreman and took on the responsibility of ordering materials and scheduling deliveries. In 2011 he added building materials estimating to help contractors and do-it-yourselfers.
In the spring of 1997, the Hedstrom Lumberyard was hit with a devastating fire. As rebuilding was underway, the Hedstroms sold the yard to an out-of-town firm. Sheils remained working at the yard under the new ownership.
Buetow grew up in Proctor, MN, and graduated from Proctor High School in 1988. In 1987 he’d started working as a “yard guy” at Knox Lumber in Duluth. He soon moved inside as a Department Manager overseeing the paint and lawn and garden products.
An avid fisherman and hunter, Buetow moved permanently to Grand Marais in the winter of 1994 and went to work for Spry at Superior Lumber. There he “did it all” from selling snowmobile gear to mixing paint and ordering lumber.
Buetow and Sheils often went fishing together and were good friends even though they worked for competing businesses. Suspecting intrigue when the two were seen together at a local watering hole after a fishing outing, a local building contractor, in jest, suggested they may be fixing prices. Both guys were a little taken aback by that. Their belief was, and still is, that as long as customers bought from a locally owned firm, then all was good. They never compared prices or customers and have always stressed that the Home Center was locally owned and operated in all their marketing efforts.
Acquiring Cook County Home Center
Spry was thinking about selling his business in 2015 and invited Buetow and Sheils to come out to his house one evening. He offered to sell it to the two of them rather than find a buyer from outside the area.
“Lyle figured we could do good with it,” Buetow said.
Neither man had experienced business ownership, but were game to try. “I realized I had nothing to lose by going into business for myself,” Sheils said.
The two newly minted entrepreneurs formed Cook County Home Center LLC and focused on efforts to increase business with area builders and homeowners. Boldly challenging the market share of Sawtooth Lumber, Cook County Home Center slowly became the dominant lumberyard in Cook County.
Each of them had more than 20 years working for someone else, so a feature of their management style is treating employees like they wanted to be treated when they worked as employees.
Sheils summed up their common philosophy when he said, “As an owner, don’t expect employees to do what you won’t do yourself.”
Marketing the Home Center was a priority. Using coop money for promotional materials from vendors like Marvin Windows, the Home Center began giving away t-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, and jackets branded with its logo to contractors and their employees. Home Center staff all wear apparel branded with Home Center or Ace Hardware logos.
“It’s tough to go into town and not see someone sporting CCHC gear,” Buetow said. “It goes a long way.”
“We couldn’t have built this business without the support of the community,” Sheils said with pride.
To help keep the business front of mind, the Home Center advertises regularly in Northern Wilds, Cook County News Herald, and The North Shore Journal and is a contributing supporter of Boreal Community Media and WTIP North Shore Radio. It also supports many community organizations with money and merchandise. It has even been advertised on Duluth-based television and radio stations.
At a trade show sponsored by Manions Building Supply in Superior, WI in March of last year, Sheils found himself having a general conversation with Tom Junker, the owner of three lumberyards on the Iron Range and Sawtooth Lumber in Grand Marais. In typical small business conversation, Junker asked Sheils to give him a call if the Home Center was ever for sale. Sheils offered the same if Junker ever wanted to sell Sawtooth.
A few months later, Sheils got a call from Junker who said he now wanted to sell Sawtooth and wanted to give Sheils and Buetow first right of refusal. The transaction moved forward from there and was consummated on March 1, 2023, when the Home Center acquired the property and other assets of Sawtooth Lumber.
“If we didn’t have the crew and management that we have, we’d never have been able to pull this off,” Sheils said.
One member of the management team is Dan Fernlund, Director of Operations. Fernlund started at the Home Center on May 30, 2018, as the “yard guy.” Unloading trucks, stacking lumber, and loading delivery trucks, he learned the nuts and bolts of the lumber yard.
When the Home Center’s longtime bookkeeper Crystal Spry retired on August 31, 2019, Fernlund took over bookkeeping duties.
Fernlund automated inventory control and introduced electronic ordering. All focused on efficiency and better customer service. Fernlund and his support staff have revamped all of the accounting systems used at Sawtooth Lumber, and fully integrated them into the Cook County Home Center System.
In addition to managing the ordering, receiving, and delivery systems, Fernlund supervises a 12-person staff. Eight are full-time positions.
Full-timers working mostly out of the west side location are Lucas Sheils, Danny Ford, and Mike Skopec. Also at the west side are former Sawtooth personnel Steve Wick, Mark Pedersen, and Judi Twiest.
Bob Swanson and Jes Rodne are full-time employees at the east side (Ace) location. Anna Hamilton and William Onkka work part-time.
In the summer, Landon Sheils and Oscar Mielke, both in high school, work as “yard guys.”
“Our customer service has improved. We have good staff,” Fernlund said. He added that he gets reminded of that often by other business owners in town who wonder how to do the same.
Nate Sheils is married to Lynn Sheils, a preschool teacher in the Grand Portage Head Start program. They have four kids, all of whom have worked or are working at the Home Center. Natassja worked summers while going to school and now lives in South Carolina after completing nursing school. Levi also worked summers while in school and is looking at his final year at Hamline University in St. Paul. Lucas began working at the Home Center when he was 14 and now works full-time after completing a program at Lake Superior College in Duluth. Their youngest, Landon, is a Cook County High School student and has worked at the Home Center for three summers.
Buetow is engaged to marry Vicki Grafton. Grafton was an employee of the Hedstrom Lumber Yard up until the time of the fire when she was hired by Spry at Superior Lumber.
Buetow is proud of the relationship he and Sheils have with contractors, homeowners, and cabin people. “You know me,” he said. “I try to be on a first-name basis with all of our customers.”
Buetow and Sheils look forward to a prosperous future. “Our goal is to be able to service everybody’s lumber and building needs as Cook County continues to grow,” Sheils said.