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If I had a hammer: Stan and Gen Ingalls.

photo credit: Alicia Solsman

Thinking Outside the Boxes
Faced with an impending invasion of corporate retailers, a small-town, family-run lumber store gathers resources to fight

By David King

The original home of GNH Lumber sits vacant on Route 81 in the Norton Hill section of Greenville, with a brown and battered For Sale sign leaning against its facade. Unless told very specifically what to look for, someone driving on 81 wouldn’t notice that they had passed by a lumber store, let alone that they had passed a local fixture that had been a longtime major player in the economy of the community. The large trees that stand on the corners of the property hide the now-empty building, concealing from passersby evidence of the sizeable lumberyard that was added as GNH thrived. And, of course they’d have no way of knowing that the business had been family-run since Stan Ingalls’ grandfather started it at that location in 1930.

Gen Ingalls remembers growing up as the daughter of a lumber-store owner: “Everyone in the family worked in the business in some way as a kid. I started at the cash register.” In 1997, with the whole family involved and business booming, Ingalls opened a home-
planning center, equipped with computer design and capable of handling custom projects. As recently as the winter of 2004, Ingalls was considering further additions and renovations to keep up with his customer base.

As easy as it is to miss GNH’s location on Route 81, it is even easier to miss the Italian restaurant across the street, the Green Hill Café. “Yeah, it was good to have them over there.” says owner Frank Muttari. One of the reasons it was good, besides the traffic from contractors, was that GNH would advertise on Green Hill placemats. People sitting down for a piece of pizza would wander their way across the street to GNH with a slice still in hand and a plan for a house, a garage, a barn or a kitchen scrawled on the back of a placemat ad or a napkin.

However, despite the fact that business was good and despite the strong ties the family business had established in the community, GNH had a problem. The fact that companies such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart had sent out feelers to different building sites in Greene County was a common topic of discussion among Greenville residents. The big boxes were coming.

It’s not surprising that Gen Ingalls left Greenville. Like many youths from this town of 3,800 who envision living someplace bigger and more exciting, Gen took off to attend SUNY Plattsburgh. Plattsburgh may not seem like a bustling metropolis to some, but compared to Greenville it seems almost cosmopolitan.

There is no New York Thruway exit for Greenville. If you start from Albany and follow Route 32 toward Greenville, you pass through Delmar and Feura Bush, past the CSX rail yards and the GE Plastics plant. Beyond Feura Bush, there is little but trees, a reservoir and a lonely troopers’ barracks housed in a suburban ranch that looks like it was thrown out into the middle of nowhere by a tornado. As you approach the center of Greenville, the town’s main plaza, Bryant’s Country Square, crops up like a scarecrow in the middle of a field of religious resorts and barns.

The plaza is named for a prominent local family who gave the name first to a landmark grocery, Bryant’s Country Store, which has since been bought out by a long list of corporate supermarkets. The plaza is also home to two banks, an optometrist, a liquor store, a computer shop, a dollar store and a pizza place. There is no mistaking that this is the center of Greenville.

A business like GNH takes hold in a small town over a period of years. It grows roots, gradually forming close relationships with customers, particularly local contractors and businesses, and provides jobs for an area that otherwise might be employment-starved. The Ingalls have been a prominent Greenville family for so long they have a street named after them: Ingallside Lane. Their name draws a sense of pride from members of the community, as if they are as much a part of Greenville as the very earth upon which the town sits. But this is not what brought Gen back to Greenville.

After college, Gen had bigger things in mind than working around her father’s store; it was almost by accident that she found herself back in the business. But once there, Gen quickly put her communications degree and her knowledge of advertising to use to bring attention to her father’s isolated store.

It was that very isolation that made it so hard on Greenville when, like the other 326 Ames stores in the country, the Greenville Ames, which had an entire side of Bryant’s plaza to itself, shut down. At the same time, business was still good at GNH, and an expansion of the store’s original location was being discussed. The picture changed, however, when talk about companies like Lowe’s and Home Depot moving into the area changed from rumor to

“Yeah, we felt the boxes bearing down on us,” says Stan Ingalls. It was January 2004, when, as Gen, puts it, “We either had to move or they we’re gonna bury us.”

Anyone who has met Gen and Stan Ingalls can sense the great respect they have for each other. While Stan, with his gruff white beard and focused stare, can seem a no-nonsense, stubborn businessman, Gen comes across as forward-thinking, full of life and ready to act. It’s quite possible that the combination of these two personalities, the father-daughter dynamic, is what fueled the risk-taking determination it took to move GNH into the old Ames building.

As the snow melted away last spring, construction began in and around the Ames building and, like birds building a nest in an abandoned mailbox or a discarded tire, the Ingalls began to bring the building back to life. Buildings went up around the plaza; inside, remodeling began. Offices were installed in the former backroom warehouse, a home-design area took shape where the arts-and-crafts section of Ames had once been, and workers put hammers to nails in a building that some had assumed was doomed to be forever abandoned.

But as word spread of Ingalls’ investment, the regulars at the Green Hill Café, many of whom were leading local businesspeople, wondered if he was spreading himself too thin. They doubted any family operation’s ability to go head-to-head with the big-box stores, with their corporate backing and access to inventory. Some foresaw the end of another community fixture.

Nevertheless, the Ingalls family forged ahead, and not without support: “It’s such a great thing that GNH could move in. It’s gonna help with taxes, with jobs and it’s gonna help the kids get their sponsorship for their sports teams. People forget how much a business like this does for a town,” says Tom Buscher, a local contractor who has been a loyal GNH customer for 10 years. Cristal, a GNH employee who has been with the store for about a year (and who declined to give her last name), also has a stake in the company’s success: “It’s great to see,” she says. “It’s especially good ’cause I helped put the store together.”

That sense of investment in the town is a large part of the reason that GNH was able to make the move in the first place. Stan Ingalls admits, “The people from Skylar, the guys who owned the property, approached me and were very convincing. We were going to add on to our location in Norton Hill, but after some deliberation, I knew that I owed it to myself and to the community to make the move.”

The Greene County Legislature, aware of the need to maintain a tax base and increase employment opportunities, approved a Quantum Fund loan to help with the near-million-dollar cost of upgrading and renovating the old Ames facilities. “It was very easy to approve the funding for GNH,” says Irene Northsworthy, economic developer for Greene County. The Quantum Fund is a federally funded program that provides low-interest loans to local businesses in the expectation that they will create one job for each $20,000 doled out. “Stan has a vision for the future,” says Northsworthy. And Northsworthy must not be the only one to think so, as Stan Ingalls was named Greene County Businessman of 2004. “All you have to do is mortgage your home and spend a million dollars,” jokes Ingalls about the award.

Since making the move, Ingalls estimates having 1,600 transactions per week, and seeing a 30-percent increase in revenue compared with the old store. While things have gone quite smoothly, the very rumor that led people to believe that Ingalls’ move was foolhardy (or award-worthy, depending on perspective) has become reality.

On Aug. 12, Home Depot had its grand opening in Catskill, a town less than 20 miles southeast of Greenville. In a town where you have to travel at least a half-hour to Albany, Hudson or Cobleskill to get a pair of underwear, the Home Depot seems very close to GNH employees, including Kevin Ingalls, who watched his uncle Stan build the company up to where it is today. “I couldn’t wait to go head-to-head with the boxes,” he enthuses. “What we’re doing is exiting. It was exciting to hear that Home Depot’s research determined the county is worth investing in. They can see it’s gonna grow.” In fact, Stan Ingalls estimates that Aug. 12, the date of Home Depot’s grand opening, probably was the busiest day GNH had seen at its new location.

The day was a big one for Home Depot, too, not just because it was their first day of operation but also because, as Michael Dougherty, the Catskill Home Depot manager says, “We had traffic jams coming from all over the place. There was news coverage of it. The community has welcomed us with open arms.”

“The research that Home Depot did is encouraging,” says Northsworthy. “But I’m sure it just confirms what Stan already knew.” From Stan Ingalls’ point of view, it is easy to see the potential in Greenville and its surrounding communities. The window in his office provides a view directly over a rolling green field separating the plaza from a recent development of clustered townhouses and 10 single-family homes. Country Estates was built by a contractor who has a strong relationship with GNH Lumber. “Albany is starting to move south. The economy in our area is growing. Home Depot must have seen the potential, but we are a different kind of business than they are,” says Stan Ingalls.

Tom Buscher agrees: Of stores like Home Depot, he says, “You go in there and you never talk to the same person twice. A different kid will be there depending what time of day you go, and they won’t handle big jobs.” Lou Searing, a 35-year GNH employee, adds: “They won’t even deliver to your door. They drop your order on the curb. I know guys who have offered to tip the driver but policy won’t let ’em bring it up to the house.”

GNH does 65 percent of its business with contractors and 35 percent with individuals who do it themselves. This is in stark contrast to Home Depot’s predominately walk-in customer base. According to Gen Ingalls, this does not mean that GNH isn’t there for the individual. “For us, this is about creating friendships and working on a first-name basis. My job at GNH doesn’t end when I leave the building. Work travels with you into town with this business. It happens all the time. I will be in Albany and I’ll run into someone I have been working with personally, and we’ll get to talking about the project, and I’ll have notes to take back with me to the office the next day.”

Even Greene County economic developer Irene Northsworthy thinks that GNH is in a different league than the big boxes: “GNH has a design department and contractors who really work with you, and they stress quality products. They also don’t work from catalogues and templates like the other guys.”

As far as Stan Ingalls can see, the future is very bright. With a total of 40 employees, the majority of whom work at the Greenville location—the rest are at the store’s location in Windham—Ingalls is providing Greene County, which ranks as one of the state’s poorest counties, with a wealth of jobs and taxes. Ingalls is also helping to build what Northsworthy sees as the future of Greene County: “Stan’s success is inspiring other business, but besides that we are seeing a migration from the city. People come up to build summer homes and sometimes they stick around. In fact, housing prices are on the rise.”

As for advertising on placemats, the Ingallses have not have given up on the tradition, but you are just as likely to hear an advertisement on the radio on the way to work or see one on local TV as you are sitting down for lunch at a Greenville pizza parlor. Despite the store’s growth, if you visit GNH Lumber today, it’s not likely you will find the family in their offices in the back of the store. You’re more likely to find Kevin Ingalls in the lumberyard making sure contractors get their orders, Gen Ingalls on the sales floor helping a customer,
and Stan Ingalls on location of a construction project that his company helped actualize.

Whether or not the investment will continue to pay off is unknown. The Ingalls may prove to be the model for other small businesses who find themselves being crowded out by national chains. Or GNH Lumber may end up just one more mom-and-pop buried by the boxes. For now, though, Stan and his family are optimistic, and there is
nothing on the horizon to tell them they should be otherwise. “This was a great vision,” says Gen Ingalls, “but it has proved to be an even better reality.”

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