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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Longtime customers Jeff and Barb Studebaker talk with store co-owner Andrea Wolf, right, about the future of Brueggemann Lumber Do it Best, which is closing April 12.

New Haven hardware business calls it a day

Brueggemann’s goes out with head held high

Don’t think of it as the death of a retailer that’s been serving the New Haven community for almost 100 years.

Rick Wolf instead wants to celebrate the legacy of Brueggemann Lumber & Builders Supply – even as he closes the hardware business he has owned since 1983.

“We want to go out and be able to say, ‘Hey, we had a great ride,’ ” said Wolf, who also hosts a weekly radio show on home improvement.

Brueggemann Lumber has built strong ties with the community, serving as a polling place, collecting donations for charities, lending tools for school roofing projects, hosting fundraising events and participating in the annual Fort Wayne Home & Garden Show. Last year, the retailer helped area Amish families raise about $50,000 through fundraisers, Wolf said Friday.

The store’s final day will be April 12.

The Do it Best franchise at 7147 Ricker Road is closing almost in the corporate offices’ backyard. The headquarters is 8 miles southwest of the store at 6502 Nelson Road, Fort Wayne.

But Do it Best officials said Brueggemann’s demise doesn’t indicate systematic problems at the cooperative organization, which has 3,800 member-owned stores throughout the U.S. and in 53 foreign countries.

Bob Taylor, Do it Best president and CEO, said the members who adapt most easily to change – in product mix, location and advertising approach – are the ones that survive.

“The only constant out there is change,” he said.

Taylor emphasized that his comments weren’t directed at Wolf or the Brueggemann situation. The CEO was speaking in general terms, including the fact that owners of more than one location are often better able to withstand a downturn at one store.

The few stores that close and leave the cooperative each year tend to be smaller operations, Taylor said. New members tend to be larger and stronger, including a 10-store Georgia chain that recently signed on, he said.

Despite the recession, which crippled the construction industry, Do it Best stores have prospered, Taylor said. The cooperative has rebated more than $100 million in profits to members each of the past 10 years for a total of more than $1 billion, he said.

Randy Rusk, Do it Best spokesman, noted that robust commercial development has happened on the west side of Interstate 469, leaving Brueggemann Lumber all but alone on the east side of the intersection.

But Wolf doesn’t want to grab for easy answers. His store was built in that location in 1993 because it was easily accessible to his customer base in Milan Township.

Wolf was so sure it was a prime location that he spent three years gathering voter signatures to force zoning officials to allow the 8-acre commercial venture to be built on land previously zoned for agricultural use.

“What’s the reason a company that’s 97 years old decides to go out of business? It’s a lot of things,” Wolf said.

Among those, he said, are the lack of a successor, customers’ efforts to save money by buying cheaper materials, competition from big-box stores and the difficulty in finding employees who are equally skilled in working with lumber and with the store’s computer system.

“We don’t choose to look at this as blame,” Wolf said.

After the store’s final day in two weeks, any remaining inventory and fixtures will be auctioned in early May by BND Commercial Real Estate. BND is also handling the sale of the 25,000-square-foot store and numerous outbuildings.

Brueggemann employs 25 people, including about 12 full time. The rest were close to full-time status, Wolf said.

While his wife, Andrea, will continue working as a registered nurse, Wolf, 56, isn’t sure of his next career move. It’s too soon for retirement, and he didn’t want to line up anything just in case they were able to sell the business and the new owner wanted Wolf to work during the transition.

The Wolfs tried to find a buyer for the store until the eleventh hour, he said, but an agreement couldn’t be reached before they decided it was time to close.

Their three children have pursued other career paths, and the store had grown too large for an employee to have the resources to buy it, Wolf said.

“We were breaking even some years, losing (money) others,” he said. “If it was a gold mine, I wouldn’t want to sell it.”

Wolf plans to continue his weekly radio show, however. “House Calls” is broadcast from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays on WOWO 1190 AM.

The call-in program was never about driving business to Brueggemann Lumber, he said. Many callers might be unaware that Wolf even owns a hardware store.

But he’ll never forget. Just like he’ll never forget customers’ stories about buying penny candy at Brueggemann’s when they were kids.

“It’s just been a whirlwind, certainly, after the decision,” Wolf said. “Right now, we’re kind of in shock and acting on adrenaline.”