Vern Ziegler slept with a tape recorder beside his bed and carried it with him nearly everywhere he went. That way, if he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, or had one while driving down the road in his truck, he could ensure it wouldn’t be lost.
“Dad always had so many things going through his mind, he had to record them to keep track of it all,” his son, Karl Ziegler, recalled on Wednesday afternoon while looking back with his brother, Neil, on their father’s life, which ended last week.
But being a practical man whose passion was work, “who loved putting on his boots,” Vern’s ideas wouldn’t get trapped on tape, forgotten. Every morning, Karl said, his father would come in early to Ziggy’s, the regional chain of building supply stores that he started in 1965, write down those ideas as notes and start turning them into realities.
The idea that started him down the path to what is now a regional chain of six home improvement stores in the Spokane area came in the 1960s, when the Rogers High School graduate was working as a homebuilder with his close friend, Bob Taylor.
Building houses, he spent a lot of time in lumber yards, where he would sometimes see homeowners buying boards for house projects. While those buyers were small fish compared to contractors who made up a bulk of the lumber business, Ziegler saw an opportunity, Karl said, to sell wood products “at or below contractor prices to do-it-yourselfers.”
It was that idea that spurred Vern Ziegler to open the first Ziegler Lumber retail operation on North Market Street in 1965. That venture flourished over the next few decades.
“Ziggy’s was serving that segment of the market for 30 years before Home Depot or Lowe’s even showed up,” Neil said.
During that time, Ziegler Lumber expanded to form a network of stores that spanned the Northwest. The company changed its name in 1969 after an artist named Harry Deuber created an enduring drawing of an overall-wearing, lumber-carrying character with the name “Ziggy’s” emblazoned in cursive on his cap.
While Vern Ziegler was a pioneer in the building supply business, his roots in the region’s lumber industry were deep. He grew up in Hillyard and worked in his family’s sawmill business. He was able to do “every job in that sawmill” by the time he was 13 years old, Neil said. Then, in 1945, Ziegler’s father started the family’s first building supply store, Francis Avenue Supply.
“So I was raised in the business,” Ziegler told The Spokesman-Review in 2012.
When he struck out to start his own store, Ziegler took the same approach as the customers he was trying to serve, applying “his do-it-yourself concept to running the business as well as to the customers,” Neil said.
That concept meant Ziggy’s didn’t outsource work it could perform in-house. From owning its own trucks to hiring a freight dispatcher to creating its own advertising department with a staff of artists (it still has two), Ziggy’s did what it could to be as self-reliant as the homeowner remodeling his own bathroom.
And Ziegler worked hard himself, personally opening and closing the store every day, six days a week, for the first seven years he was in business. He also kept the contractor’s license he’d had has a homebuilder and used it to guide construction of new Ziggy’s facilities himself.
While Ziggy’s has had its ups and downs, and not all of its locations have survived fierce competition over the years, the company continues to thrive, according to Neil and Karl, with six stores in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
In 2012, Ziegler told The Spokesman-Review he considered trying to compete on a larger scale by franchising Ziggy’s locations in the 1980s.
“But we didn’t want to reach out too far and get our arm cut off,” he said. “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.”
That comfortable slot has kept Ziggy’s going even as retail businesses face serious challenges and the lumber business struggles.
“Our dad used to keep a list of lumber yards that had gone out of business,” Karl said. And that list of businesses located just in Spokane was “in the high 40s,” he added.
In the same 2012 interview, Ziegler said he attributed his company’s staying power to his adaptability.
“The problem was their inability to adapt to changing conditions,” Ziegler said of that long list of defunct businesses. “The only thing that’s constant is change. We’ve adapted.”
Proof of Ziegler’s adaptability came in 2010, when he was forced to close the Market Street location to make way for the North Spokane Corridor.
But his sons say their father’s business success was also a result of a steady, hands-on approach focused on the customer and built on establishing trust with people.
“He was one of the last handshake men that you knew,” Karl said. “He was the guy with the hammer in his hand, not the guy in the pickup truck barking commands.”
That approach didn’t only pay off with customers. It also resonated with employees, a number of whom stayed on for decades and some of whom spent half a century with Ziggy’s.
“The family atmosphere – that was always something that was very important to my parents,” Neil said.
While Vern Ziegler was hard-working and devoted to the business, his sons said he also found ways to spend time with his family, give back to the community where he spent his entire life, serve as a mentor and pursue his various passions, especially hunting, fishing and flying airplanes.
He served six years on the Washington State Game Commission, including a year as chairman, and was active for years with the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
Ultimately, though, Vern Ziegler “would’ve loved to have died with his boots on,” Neil said.
While he was still stacking lumber, picking up trash and doing the other unglamorous jobs of a hands-on building supply business owner into his 80s, that didn’t quite happen.
In August 2017, Ziegler was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After that, he “started winding down,” Neil said. “He couldn’t juggle as many balls as he once did.”
His last years were spent in the care of his wife, Mary.
“He spent 80 years working and two years resting,” Neil said.
Vern Ziegler died on Feb. 6. He was 84.
A public memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. on March 14 at Life Center Church, 1202 N. Government Way.
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