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Progress Edition 2022: Mattson Lumber faces change together

The company started when Bill Mattson Sr. purchased Gull Lake Lumber in the spring of 1986

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The Mattsons -- Bill Sr., left, Bill Jr. and Lori -- have been operating Mattson Lumber since Bill Sr. bought the business in 1986.
Dan Determan / Echo Journal
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NISSWA — For 36 years, Mattson Lumber has served Nisswa and the surrounding Brainerd lakes area, and the owners have fought through good times and bad.

They have done so as a family-owned business the whole time.

The company started when Bill Mattson Sr. purchased Gull Lake Lumber in the spring of 1986, opting to put his surname on the side of the building.

Now, Bill Mattson Jr.; his wife, Lori; and Bill Mattson Sr. run Mattson Lumber together, along with several non-relative employees. Though much has changed in 36 years, they enjoy the fact that Mattson Lumber has maintained its “local business” mentality.

“If you have a problem, we're small enough where you don't get a run around,” Mattson Jr. said. “There's no phone system. Somebody is going to answer the phone and it will be a real person. There are no departments or ‘Press 9 for this’ sort of thing. We have tried to make things as easy as possible.”

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A wood sculpture of Bill Mattson Sr. stands outside the shop of Mattson Lumber.
Dan Determan / Echo Journal

Mattson Jr. started stocking lumber there at age 14 — of course, now that is done by forklift — and worked part time during his summers off.

“I started by stacking lumber, then I did some driving, worked the counter and did some estimating. Now, I don’t know what you would call what I do, but I started here the same way everybody else did,” he said.

From his early days as a teenager in the lumber yard, he has made himself a career in the family business, working under someone he respects and who respected him back.

“I enjoy it — I won’t say I enjoy every day and I won’t say all the time for my entire life, but my dad is in the office right now and, quite honestly, I enjoy working with him the vast majority of the time. We get along pretty well, and he has been really easy to work for and with,” Mattson Jr. said. “He let me make my own mistakes, even though he knew they were mistakes … I had the support of my father and my boss at the same time, and I was able to learn and grow at my own rate. I don’t know if you get that in a more rigid corporate structure, and it has been a blessing.”

In addition to working with his dad, Mattson Jr. relishes the opportunity to work with his wife as well.

Some people say, ‘I want to get away from my spouse (at work),’ but it works for us and it’s actually nice,” he said. “Sometimes, you bring a little more work home than you’d like, and you just have to get over that mindset.”

The family-owned business brought a tremendous amount of pride for the Mattsons, but Mattson Jr. admits the operation is not without its challenges.

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Bill Mattson Jr. helps a customer in the shop at Mattson Lumber on Friday, July 15, 2022.
Dan Determan / Echo Journal

“Someone once told me that a family business is like a sister – you love them to death because they are a part of the family, but sometimes you hate them,” he said. “A family business is a member of the family, and just like any other relatives, there are frustrating times and you never get away from it … That is a blessing and a curse at the same time.”

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There is still a lot in stock, but things have definitely changed.
Bill Mattson Jr., Mattson Lumber

In the 36 years Mattson Lumber has been serving the lakes area and beyond, Mattson Jr. said the greatest change to the business has been in what they can sell and how they go about selling it.

“There are so many more choices now,” he said. “I’d say 25 years ago, aside from windows, everything else was a stock item. There were flush oak doors and six-panel pine doors. There were bright brass and antique brass knobs, and maybe five colors of soffit, and we would stock all five. Now there are 28 colors and we can’t stock them all. … Now, dollar-wise, I would say the slight majority is special-ordered.

“There is still a lot in stock, but things have definitely changed.”

More changes came, of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused prices to fluctuate wildly at times. For Mattson Lumber, however, high prices were not nearly as problematic as product shortages that are still creating issues in 2022.

“The prices are what they are, and we don’t have a lot of control over them,” Mattson Jr. said. “The problem was if I want to sell a 2-by-4, I have to have a 2-by-4 to sell.

“More challenging, for me, is that I would have two or three sources where I would normally get most of that, but now they are out — the material shortages were far more challenging. We overcame it for the most part, but we had to be a little more creative. We had to plan further ahead and increase our inventory levels, because if we were used to being able to get a product four or five days a week and now it is going to be three weeks out, I am looking at stocking a three-week supply.”

Someone once told me that a family business is like a sister – you love them to death because they are a part of the family, but sometimes you hate them.
Bill Mattson Jr., Mattson Lumber

A product shortage is perhaps manageable when one item is delayed, but during the pandemic, when one shortage was improving, another was around the corner.

“That was the worst of it,” Mattson Jr. said. “It was nails for six months, and now subfloor adhesive is the new thing that is tough to get. I had some ordered for a year ahead of when it came.”

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This constant struggle to stock certain items, and the unpredictable nature of what will be available, has made for an increased workload for the Mattsons and their employees.

“A lot of contractors, builders and people here just get tired, because instead of making one phone call for a product, you’re making 10,” Mattson Jr. said. “There is no extra money in making 10 phone calls. It’s the same sale with 10 times the amount of work. … There is nothing we can do about it. We just overcome.”

Mattson Jr. believes the supply chain is getting better overall, but he fears it may be due to the housing market slowing down.

Of course, the shortages of the pandemic are not the first major challenge Mattson Lumber has faced since the 1980s. The recession that began in 2008 created plenty of issues for the industry at large, but it was nothing like the issues faced in 2022, Mattson Jr. said.

“That was different. Then, you were looking for sales, and you had to be creative to find sales. In fact, in Crow Wing County then, there were a few more building supply dealers that are just not here anymore. It was a war of attrition. That is not the case now. Now, it’s finding people (to employ). We have some good, long-term people here, but I would still like one or two more.”

In the bad times of 2008 or 2020 or in good times, Mattson Lumber has been able to get by thanks in large part to the support of its regular customers.

“It means everything to us, even without the pandemic,” Mattson Jr. said. “We thrive on that. I would hate to have to go out and search for customers over and over again. … You get used to how somebody works, and you can anticipate what they want a little more. We like new customers too, but when you work with somebody for a few projects or a few years or 10 years, you get to know what they like and what they don’t.”

While he is unsure if the next generation of Mattsons will carry on the family business — and he is OK with them pursuing their own dreams — Mattson Jr. hopes to simply continue serving the lakes area to the best of his family’s abilities.

“I'm pretty comfortable where we're at. We will not become the next Home Depot, and I have come to terms with that. Our goal is to do better, and I want to grow like everybody else does, and we will seek that out,” he said.

Mattson Lumber, on Highway 371, is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The COVID-19 pandemic created plenty of issues for Mattson Lumber, from price hikes to product shortages to understaffing.
Dan Determan / Echo Journal

Related Topics: NISSWAPROGRESS EDITION 2022
Dan Determan has been a reporter for the Echo Journal since 2014, primarily covering sports at Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus
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