Editor's note: The 2018 Genesee County Chamber of Commerce Awards banquet will be held Saturday, March 2, at the Quality Inn & Suites in Batavia.
John Harrower said he recalls a story that his late father, Robert, told him about how Genesee Lumber got started way back in 1928.
“My grandfather, a pioneer in his vision and thinking, shook hands (on the deal) with the former owner of what was Franklin Street Lumber at the time, and he (the seller) said, ‘Good luck, it’s a dying business.’ ”
Today, that “dying business” is alive and well – continuing to serve Genesee County and, in recent years, Erie and Monroe counties – as both a contractor yard and retail outlet.
It’s doing so well, in fact, that it is being honored as the 2018 Business of the Year by the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce and will be recognized as such at the chamber’s 47th annual Awards Ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on March 2 at the Quality Inn & Suites on Park Road in Batavia.
“We are very honored and humbled to receive this award,” Harrower said, speaking for his wife, Leslie; sons, Michael and Eric, who are both in the business, and his employees.
Genesee Lumber was nominated by Batavia John Riter, who praised the Harrowers for their “vision, willingness to bet on the community and commitment to success” as key elements in the company’s ability to expand considerably in recent years.
“Their success has contributed to the community’s success in a variety of ways, not the least of which is an expanded workforce,” Riter wrote in his nomination letter.
John and Leslie purchased the company from Robert in 1994, but John actually worked for his dad as a child before coming on full time after college in 1983. Leslie, an accomplished business person in her own right, came on board in 1987.
Robert Harrower, well-known for his efforts as a Rotarian and on several community boards, passed away last June at the age of 84.
The origins of Genesee Lumber are best captured in John’s words:
“The company was started in 1928 by my grandfather, Harold Harrower, who was a traveling salesman and a lumber dealer. He wanted to own a lumber yard one day, and he called on this place – the old Franklin Street Lumber – and ended up buying it.”
John said the business prospered through the Depression and World War II, and was supported by three big silos, which kept Harold busy during the winter months. “A big source of revenue, and the fuel supply was coal,” he noted.
In time, the coal aspect went away, the silos were removed and the business became known as Genesee Lumber Company Inc.
Robert Harrower worked beside his dad and uncle as a child. In 1963, he bought out his father (who retired) and owned the business until selling it to his son and daughter-in-law 25 years ago.
John Harrower said he sees himself as a combination of the two – a bit of a risk taker like his grandfather and a sense of conservatism, more like his father.
“Yeah, I think I have some of my grandfather in me in that we took a leap of faith about 15 years ago to venture outside of Genesee County,” John said. “We added four or five buildings, and while continuing to be very heavy in the retail business (in Genesee County) we have expanded those avenues into Monroe and, especially Erie County.”
He said the company owns a fleet of a dozen trucks and 10 forklifts, features a large showroom area to “give people a feel of what they could envision for themselves, no matter the size of the project that they have going on.”
The Andersen Windows line has been a key part of the company’s offerings for about 60 years. “They (Andersen) are, if not No. 1, No. 2,” he said.
Genesee Lumber also carries siding, metal roofing, top quality shingles, the Trex decking product, storm doors, windows and more.
“We also do a large amount of interior packages – styles, color, paint grade option or also a stain finish product,” John said, “and a wide array of exterior door options, and patio doors (with a) great selection. It’s quite an expansive line.”
John said Genesee Lumber has several skilled sales and service employees in the areas of kitchen cabinets and countertops – “not our main line, but we can do pre-built or custom cabinetry,” he said.
Much of the expansion has occurred under John and Leslie’s watch.
“We tore down an old building and a house and put up this nearly 10,000-square-foot warehouse – that mostly houses windows and doors,” he said. “We cut lumber, plywood and have a shop for custom painting.”
John said that they take on a lot of lumber by rail, with one railroad car holding more than four tractor-trailer loads.
“Rail helps reduce our costs quite a bit. It reduces the freight tremendously, which we can pass on to our contractor and customer base,” he said, adding that the majority of the lumber comes from Canada or the West Coast.
The Harrower family continues to be active in the community, as both John and Leslie have served on the Genesee Area YMCA board (Leslie is a former president) and as volunteer coaches for a variety of school and youth sports.
Per Riter’s nomination, “John and Leslie have been great ambassadors in that they are always friendly and welcoming to people who are new to the community, including Liz (his wife) and myself.”
John said he embraces what he calls “the hometown spirit.”
“Nothing comes near it,” he said. “We like to see people within the community; we’ve made a lot of friends and have had a tremendous amount of support from the community. And, for that, we’re very grateful.”