Vern Ziegler keeps a list of local companies that have come and gone since he began selling building materials.
It’s a long list, filling one page and two columns of another.
“The problem was their inability to adapt to changing conditions,” Ziegler said. “The only thing that’s constant is change. We’ve adapted.”
Ziegler Lumber opened in 1965 – 14 years before anyone heard of Home Depot – when Ziegler saw a business opportunity in serving the needs of do-it-yourself home remodelers.
“Traditional lumber yards worked mainly with contractors,” he recalled, “and they charged individuals excessive prices. So we became kind of a mini-Home Depot for anyone building a fence or a deck or redoing a kitchen.”
Before long, Ziegler Lumber became Ziggy’s Building Materials and expanded to 13 stores. Today, six Ziggy’s serve Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and the chairman of the board shows no sign of slowing down.
Ziegler, whose grandfather homesteaded on the Little Spokane River in 1882, discussed his career and the challenges businesses face during a recent interview.
S-R: How did you get into the retail side of construction?
Ziegler: My dad was a logger. When my brother got out of the service in 1945, he and my dad opened a business called Francis Avenue Supply. So I was raised in the business.
S-R: And then you went out on your own?
Ziegler: Yes, I started building houses on Easter 1954 when I was 19. My partner, Bob Taylor, was 18, and he’d worked summers with his dad, who was a foreman for one of the large construction companies. Between my knowledge of materials and his background in construction, we figured we knew enough to build a house. So we bought a lot, and every night we’d go see Bob’s dad, and he’d tell us what to do next. In 58 days, we built a two-bedroom house and sold it for $8,650.
S-R: How long did you build houses?
Ziegler: For about 12 years. Meanwhile, I got married and started having kids and wanted to get back into the merchandising end of things. With construction, it seemed like the bankers made all the money and I did all the work. So I bought some property on North Market in 1965 and built our first store.
S-R: Where did the nickname Ziggy’s come from?
Ziegler: I was always Zig or Ziggy my whole life.
S-R: How about your dad and your brother?
Ziegler: They were Zig, too. My kids are all Zig today. The Ziggy character was created by an artist named Harry Deuber in 1969, and that’s when we became known as Ziggy’s rather than Ziegler Lumber.
S-R: Were you successful right away?
Ziegler: Yes. We started out as a cash-and-carry store but very rapidly got into delivering product. And we worked with my brother, who had a store in Billings. Eventually we had 13 stores in four states – his, mine and ours – and combined some of our buying and accounting services.
S-R: How has the business changed?
Ziegler: It’s only been in the last 20 years that we accepted credit and debit cards. Now, that’s 60 percent of our sales. And there’s been a lot of change in people’s habits. But the biggest change and the biggest challenge has been building codes and government intrusion. It’s to a point where it’s almost impossible to operate with all the regulations and requirements.
S-R: How about the introduction of Home Depot and Lowe’s superstores?
Ziegler: Those definitely affected people’s buying habits. When I started out, small, locally owned stores were the norm – not just for building materials, but drug stores and grocery stores. We weren’t challenged that much when Home Depot arrived. Still aren’t. What’s hurt us in the last few years is the economy. That’s hit everybody, including the big-box stores.
S-R: How many family members are involved with the company?
Ziegler: My wife and I and our four sons own the company, but only my youngest son is still active in it. Two have retired, and the other builds houses here in Spokane.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Ziegler: I love being productive. I think I would be lost without the business. I’m 77 years old, and I have absolutely no interest in retirement.
S-R: How many hours a week do you work?
Ziegler: Probably 60, 65. I’m usually here at 7 in the morning and go home at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I crave physical work.
S-R: How do you relax?
Ziegler: I don’t relax a lot. Flying is my escape. I have a couple of small planes, and over 5,200 (pilot flight) hours. And I like to hunt and fish. I was chairman of the Washington State Game Commission from 1983 to ’85.
S-R: What advice would you offer older workers?
Ziegler: Older workers? I don’t know that I can relate to that. (Long pause.) They need to keep up with changes in technology. And I’m one of the worst offenders, because I hate computers. But I recognize the need for technology, and I make sure we have people who understand it.
S-R: What are you good at?
Ziegler: I get along with people. I have two guys who have been with me over 40 years and others who have been here 35, 38 years.
S-R: When was business best?
Ziegler: Probably during the tremendous boom in 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06, where everybody was just going crazy and pocketing the money.
S-R: Are you optimistic things will turn around again?
Ziegler: Nope. I think the country is in deep trouble.
S-R: Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?
Ziegler: There are things we could have done differently. We almost went through a franchise thing back in the early ’80s. But we didn’t want to reach out too far and get our arm cut off. And we’ve been pretty successful. We’re not Lowe’s or Home Depot, but we found a slot that we’re comfortable in. We’ve always made money.