On a blustery day in February 1975, in the heart of one of upstate New York's most economically depressed regions, Dick Considine, the 42-year-old proprietor of the Paul Bunyan Hardware Store Inc., drew up to his glowing woodstove and took stock.
On the credit side: He owned a house in an area he considered the choicest in the country and about 2,000 acres of Adirondack woodland, he had solid business experience under his belt, and he was solvent. On the debit side: He had sunk just about all his capital into land he couldn't develop and couldn't sell; he was frustrated and bored.
Two and a half years later, Considine was enthusiastically directing a carpenter and two laborers as they stacked logs of fragrant eastern white pine. They were building the North Gore -- Considine's first design for a do-it-yourself log house. By the end of the day -- through word-of-mouth alone -- he'd made his first sale. By the end of 1981, his Lincoln Logs Ltd. had racked up revenues of $4 million on deliveries of about 250 houses, and had an additional $1 1/2 million in sales.
Considine sees his company as the perfect expression of his values, an enterprise that lets him use all his strengths and skills, while giving him the way of life he wants. But he wasn't always so turned on by what he did. His career, until he founded Lincoln Logs, ran a jagged course, though selling of one kind or another always dominated it. He discovered he was a natural at sales when he left a milk route in 1961 for the more lucrative life of an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman. From door-to-door book sales, he turned to insurance, from insurance to real estate.
At the start of each of his ventures, Considine was convinced that it would be the business to bring him both financial success and emotional satisfaction. He'd plunge in with the eagerness of a long-distance swimmer about to brave the English Channel, but, like the swimmer, he frequently found he couldn't go the distance.
The problem wasn't lack of business sense, it was temperament -- Considine simply got bored.After two years, the real estate firm he started was turning a profit, but Considine was tired of the drudgery of running it.
An ad in the New York Times, announcing an auction of Maine land for $10 an acre, sprung him from the office routine. He went to the auction, and, although he decided not to buy, his interest was aroused. So a month later he bought an oceanfront lot for $3,000. He sold it a few months later for $30,000. Then he went to work for the auction agency as chief project negotiator.
Considine loved the adventure of buying huge parcels of wilderness in upstate New York and New England at rock-bottom prices and reselling them -- often the next day -- for a hefty profit. So he moved his family from suburban Long Island to Chestertown, N.Y., a sleepy town surrounded by 6 million acres of Adirondack splendor. He found within himself a deep love for the land. "I'd been a hunter most of my life," he comments, "and I just felt like I was in paradise. I owned about 2,000 acres of woodland, close to springs and streams and lakes and rivers all through the Adirondacks."
At midlife, Considine was reasonably content. He was living as he wanted, hundreds of miles from sprawling suburbs and overcrowded cities; he worked at a profession that challenged him; and he had a measure of security.
Then in 1974 his world was rocked. The Arab oil crisis made people think twice about buying vacation spots in the distant Adirondacks. Worse, New York State announced plans to restrict land development and use inside the Adirondack Park, where Considine owned all his acreage. The land market became depressed; Considine knew he wouldn't be able to sell his property, and that he needed to find another line of work.
That's when he realized that heading his list of priorities -- before financial success or entrepreneurial excitement -- was love of his home. "There was no thought of leaving the area," he says. "I just couldn't. I loved it too much." Buying a hardware store was his temporary solution to fiscal difficulty; he recruited his entire family -- stepfather, mother, and wife -- to help him run it. "In the beginning," he admits, "I didn't know beans from apple butter about hardware, but I figured I could learn."
Business was moderately brisk -- thanks in part to Considine's brainstorm of selling woodstoves during the slow winter months. But Considine's youthful visions had never included retail shopkeeping, and the prospect of eking out a living peddling screwdrivers and nails for the rest of his days struck him as pretty bleak. While he added up prices for pliers and hammers, stovepipes and dampers, he was continually alert for a new opportunity.
"I was leafing through a wood products magazine and saw an article about a man in Blackfoot, Idaho, who'd developed prefabricated log homes," he says. "It excited me. I felt log houses would be a great business for the Adirondacks, because they fit in so well with the environment. Besides, my land and real estate experience helped me spot a trend. Housing was becoming more expensive all the time, and it seemed that log houses might fill a gap for people who were being squeezed out of the traditional housing market."
A few months later, he flew to Blackfoot to investigate for himself. "Lewis Youngstrom was a real country guy.," recalls Considine. "He showed me through his plant where he'd built a machine to make perfectly round logs. He was building houses throughout Idaho. I saw no reason why I couldn't do the same thing on the East Coast." Before he left, he'd signed a contract giving him the right to sell Youngstrom's design in nine northeastern states.
"I was on a constant high from the moment I got the log house idea," Considine recalls. "I just knew it was going to be successful."
His lack of construction know-how didn't daunt him. He'd become convinced that almost anything he didn't know, he could learn.
But he didn't anticipate a two-year research and development stint or that the first phase of his research would nearly torpedo the entire project. In his exuberance, he'd signed the contract without checking costs. To transport Youngstrom's logs, he soon discovered, would be prohibitively expensive. "And, as if that wasn't bad enough, I found out that Youngstrom's perfectly round logs couldn't meet New York State insulation standards.
"I was angry and frustrated," he says. "But I was determined to go ahead with my idea." He climbed the hill behind his house and sat on his favorite tree stump to think.
"The urgency and pressures were lessened," he says, "and I could see my problem more clearly. It was just a matter of opening my eyes to the resources around me. I looked at all the beautiful white pine and thought, I'm sitting here in the middle of all this raw material. Why do I have to bring logs in from Idaho? If I couldn't use Youngstrom's logs, I'd design my own."
On evenings and weekends, whenever he could get away from the hardware store, Considine sat down and played with shapes. "I knew the circle wouldn't work, because when you place two round logs on top of each other, their contact point isn't thick enough to meet the state's insulation standards. And who was going to buy a log house with rectangular logs?"
To give himself a break from the browing board, Considine visited neighbors who lived in log houses. "I learned tht people don't like rounded logs on the interior of the houses. It's hard to dust them and to hang things on them." He also spotted beetles scurrying out of the curves between the logs. The result of his doodling and poking about was a design that met his own and the state's criteria -- a log rounded on the outside, flat on the inside.
Considine wanted his designs to appeal to unskilled, first-time home builders, so he searched for a plan of a house "a six year old could put together." He ransacked the nearby Glens Falls library for information on building log houses and sent away for material on ones already on the market. Poring over the books and brochures, he realized that the project was not just another business venture; it totally absorbed him. This realization made him all the more confident he would succeed.
"During that research period, I was totally happy," he recalls. "I'd always been fascinated by the pioneer era, when people were independent, facing dangers and hardships, creating new lives. Now I felt just like them, that I was building a new life for myself. I'd picture myself in a building up on a mountain, overlooking a lake, and think to myself: If I were really in this building, where would I want the living room to be? The kitchen? Where would light be coming in?"
Considine designed 10 houses on his own before hiring an engineer and draftsman.
In May of 1977 he started construction on the North Gore. "Since I'd never built a house before," he says, "I took a portable tape recorder to the construction site and taped all the problems. There were unexpected bonuses, too. I learned, for instance, that our system was more flexible than other designs, because you could put doors and windows almost anywhere you wanted. This became a big selling point." When the shell of the house was completed, Considine had taped enough material for several pages of instructions.
Considine knew that to turn his one North Gore house into a business, he couldn't depend only on himself. He had to find someone who knew about building materials and about trusses, interior partitions, doors, and windows. Tom Vesce, then the 23-year-old owner of the local lumber company, filled the bill. The two became partners in 1977, with Considine as president and chief executive and Vesce as executive vice-president. They also hired two local machinists, Albert Paul, Sr. and Jr., to design a production system for machining the logs. Considine now had an entirely self-contained operation.
In June of 1978, Considine watched the first logs roll off the line of his manufacturing plant. "It was one of the happiest moments of my life," he says. "Without really being conscious of it, I think I'd been searching for a way to enter the construction business all the time I was involved with real estate and land. I always wanted to take care of myself and my family with a business that would be permanent. Finally I felt I had real roots. Before, everything passed through my hands. Now I had my own manufacturing plant and a business with an unlimited future."
Considine realizes that his success with Lincoln Logs rests on his belief in what he's doing. The log houses he sells reflect his ideals of self-sufficiency and independence. When he decided the key to growth was building a network of distributors, he chose people who would share his commitment. He requires distributors to purchase and build their own log houses, which they use for models as well as for living. By the beginning of 1982, the company had 80 distributors across the nation.
In 1979 Considine and Vesce replaced the North Gore with a larger model and made it their headquarters. Considine knows that his customers want the challenge and savings involved in building their own homes, but that most also want modern comforts. The bathroom of the new 6,500-square-foot Mill Creek has floor-to-ceiling ceramic tiles. He's furnished the model to show that log houses can be modern as well as rustic. He makes available optional packages for room partitions, plumbing, electric kitchens, and bathrooms. If the customer wants, Lincoln Logs will even provide construction services to help build the house.
Considine remains far from cynical about his business. As he talks, the manufacturing plant hums with the sound of timber being turned into logs. The crisp smell of fresh white pine is everywhere. "I think my greatest satisfaction is knowing that hundreds of people are living in these houses today, people who in many cases didn't think they could afford their own homes. We've done surveys," he adds, "and found that the typical log-home dweller is a romantic. I really feel that by channeling my own romanticism into a practical direction, I've made it possible for a lot of people to lead better lives."