If you don’t know much about Lyman Companies, one of of the area’s oldest homegrown businesses, you're not alone.
Lyman Companies was founded in 1897 and is one of the highest-volume lumber facilities in the country, serving Twin Cities commercial builders. The Chanhassen branch opened in 1980.
Branch Manager John Zirbes recalled when then-U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen toured Lyman Lumber of Chanhassen. Paulsen was a taking a tour promoting the importance of the Twin Cities & Western Railroad in Carver County. The lumberyard has a spur off the main railroad, as the Twin Cities & Western railroad delivers 800 carloads of lumber a year to Lyman Lumber.
"'Wow. This is really cool. I grew up a mile away and never knew you guys were here,'" Zirbes recalled Paulsen telling him.
"Absolutely. The railroad is essential to our business," Zirbes replied. "We’re big proponents of the railroad. If the railroad went away — and we were a little worried about that, we’d probably move."
But Lyman Lumber doesn't mind being under the radar. Since it sells to commercial builders and not retail customers, it has a low profile among the general public.
The newspaper sat down with Zirbes recently to learn more about this company that very likely supplied the construction materials for the very home you’re sitting in.
The business is now owned by U.S. LBM Holdings, LLC, a private equity firm. But the business has roots with brothers Albert and Frank Lyman, Chanhassen pioneers who went into business in 1895, initially selling wood, lime, feed and machinery in Excelsior, with Albert officially starting Lyman Lumber in 1897.
As the railroad moved west, towns were built every 12 miles, the distance a farmer's team of horses could pull a wagon. "Every town had a granary, a lumber yard and other businesses farmers needed," Zirbes said.
In the 1970s, Lyman Lumber consolidated its businesses and quit retail. Its customer base is 95 percent Twin Cities builders, big builders like Lennar, "They're our biggest customer," Zirbes said, "and local builders."
Did the business have any historic photos of the original Excelsior lumberyard? Or construction of the Chanhassen facility? Zirbes wasn't sure, but did some digging. He came up empty.
"We don’t blow our horn too much," Zirbes acknowledged. We’re not really good about keeping company history in scrapbooks. We’re builders, not historians."
Lyman Companies employs 1,200 people. Of that number, 120 employees work at Lyman Lumber in Chanhassen.
Its division next door, ABC Millworks, employs 180 employees. Its carpentry division is in Montrose. It employs 450 who frame houses, install windows and trim.
Lyman has a separate roofing and siding division in St. Louis Park and a truss plant in Chetek, Wisconsin.
Lyman Lumber would like to hire more. “Make sure you put in that we’re hiring,” Zirbes said. “We offer very good wages and excellent benefits. We’re looking for and operations manager, drivers, forklift operators.”
Employing enough workers has been challenging, Zirbes said. “With Minnesota’s unemployment rate at 2.7 percent, we have a hard time finding enough workers. “It’s demanding and not easy,” Zirbes said, “but we pay really well.”
Blame the economic downturn of 2007 on the current shortage of skilled tradespeople. “Housing permits went from 20,000 a year to 4,000, an 80 percent decrease at that time,” Zirbes recalled. “Because of that, a lot of trade schools dried up. But now we need framers, trimmers, electricians, and we really need more HVAC people. The market is really tight."
Seventy-five percent of the lumber comes from Canada, mostly British Columbia, and most of it by rail. "To buy lumber competitively and ship it that far," Zirbes said, "you have to bring it by railroad."
What's with the small company sign on the frontage road?
Zirbes laughed, but agreed.
"It’s pretty small considering we’re one of the biggest lumberyards in the country. We just don’t want the general public to think we do retail. I think we've lasted so long because we're really good at managing costs and schedules. We provide the builders a complete solution," Zirbes said.
"We do the lumber and the trusses, the millwork, roofing, siding, we provide the labor. We work together as a team and turn around and say, 'Here’s the whole package.' All our different divisions make it easy for the builders."