Whitewater's Home Lumber marks 125 years with state honor

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Kayla Bunge
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
— Geoff Hale would prefer that his customers tell you what makes his family-owned business unique.

"We just kept asking people what they wanted, and we just ran with it," he said. "We want to give our customers the best experience possible when they come here. We want to take their expectations to the next level."

Home Lumber, 499 Whitewater St., recently was named a Wisconsin Family Business of the Year in the small-company category for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Hale said the rigorous application process—crammed into three weeks because of a late nomination from the state Department of Commerce—was the most gratifying experience of his career.

"We didn't think we had a chance of winning," he said. "But we now have something that will be a testament to our business and our family for the future."

Home Lumber this year is celebrating 125 years in business.

The tradition of working with wood has been passed through four generations of Hales: Jack Preston Hale, a carpenter and coffin maker in England; Jack Hale, who was known for building the best homes, barns and churches in Whitewater; Don Hale, who learned craftsmanship from his father; Geoff Hale, who now owns and operates the family business; and Christopher, Michael and MacKenzie Hale, who are heirs to the family legacy.

History of service

The Hale family built its sawmills in the heart of old-growth timber forests and powered them with water that flowed from the Kettle Moraine. The business provided coal and lumber as well as baled hay and straw for the growing town.

The business grew, and the family moved its operations in 1966. The business burned to the ground—one of the largest fires in city history—just before the grand opening in 1967, but the family rebuilt on the same site.

The business continued to expand. The family created Wisconsin's first drive-through lumberyard in 1982. They launched one of the first online shopping outlets in 1996.

Home Lumber now is about more than lumber. The company offers a variety of home-improvement products and services in its downtown facilities and online store.

"We've always been good at throwing mud on the wall," Hale said. "Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't, but we can't change and grow if we don't try."

The main downtown building serves as a museum for family heirlooms—tools of the woodworking trade, photographs and other knick-knacks. The family name is affixed to trophies, plaques and dozens of awards throughout the store. Pride and tradition are as much as part of the décor as power tools and paint cans.

The Hale family long has had a commitment to the community.

The company sponsors Catch-A-Dream, a program that grants hunting and fishing experiences to terminally ill children and teens. It participates in Make A Difference Day, an annual day of volunteer service. It regularly contributes materials, money and time to Habitat for Humanity, and the company has been involved in building seven houses.

Home Lumber also has been instrumental in reviving the downtown.

"You've only got one chance to give back," Hale said. "They say the more you give, the more you get. But it's not about what you get; it's about just being able to give."

Building a better business

Home Lumber is a family business not because it has been run by generations of the same family but because the whole company—from top to bottom—is a family.

"We strive to grow our business from the bottom up instead of the top down," Hale said.

The business focuses on exhibiting a positive attitude and providing personal, professional customer service.

"We hire and fire attitude on the spot," Hale said.

Every employee must go through "the gauntlet," a series of up to 20 interviews, and is expected to complete a required reading list upon their start with the company.

Only nine of the more than 40 employees are Hales, but each has a stake in the company. The employees boast between 600 and 700 collective years of building and construction experience.

"We truly have a family of people, here, who we have the responsibility to take care of and who have given that back," Hale said.


Fontana boat business also named a champion

Gordon "Gordy" Whowell lends his name not only to a lakeside business but also to decades of memories made on Geneva Lake.

Gordy's Lakefront Marine, 320 Lake St., recently was named a Wisconsin Family Business of the Year in the medium-company category for businesses with 51 to 100 employees.

Gordy's has a long tradition of providing fun in the sun and water in the Geneva Lake area.

"You haven't been to Lake Geneva if you haven't been to Gordy's," the company is fond of saying.

Gordy's started in 1955 as a small seasonal boat ride business. Whowell captained the sole boat, "Effie," and charged visitors $1 to take a cruise around the lake and listen to his stories. Families came from all over to experience "a millionaire's thrill for one thin bill."

Gordy's grew in the decades to follow. Whowell and his family added full marine service, boat storage and boat rentals. The business now boasts a marina, show room, pro shop, bait shop and restaurant.

Tom Whowell took over the business after his father died in 1988. He and his wife raised their four children in the hustle and bustle of a resort town and instilled in them the same love for the area that had been a part of the family for years. The kids now run the family business.

The Whowells exhibit one of the benchmark attributes of a successful family business, according to a news release from Smith & Gesteland of Madison, the accounting firm that in part sponsors the award program.

The family meets weekly to discuss the business. They see a recently formed family council as a way to preserve family tradition and ownership and to give structure and guidance to future generations, according to the release.

Last updated: 1:46 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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