About a 90-minute drive up I-95 from Casco, Maine, is a slightly larger town (population: 4,300) called China. And that's where Kevin Hancock's story begins. "When you go back to the time I was born," says the 53-year-old, "probably no one in China, Maine, had ever heard of Hancock Lumber, or bought a product from it. Two generations later, we were selling products to China, the country."
Hancock Lumber is testimony to the way the globalized economy seeps into the deepest corners of America--and how a 172-year-old family business accelerated by successfully adapting to it. "So," Hancock explains, "we went from being a super kind of localized, small-town family business to a regional company and, as a manufacturer, a global company over the course of a couple of generations."
Though five generations on his father's side had run the lumber business before him, at first Hancock didn't see his branch on that tree. He was content teaching history and coaching basketball with an eye on going to law school. But when cancer hit his father in 1991, he answered the call and joined the business.
Established in 1848 by Nathan and Spencer Decker--and then inherited by Nathan's stepson Sumner O. Hancock (Nathan Decker married Kevin Hancock's widowed great-great-great-grandmother)--the company currently operates three sawmills and a truss plant and manufactures wall paneling. It has eight retail lumberyards and seven kitchen design showrooms in Maine and New Hampshire. Retail drives 70 percent of revenue.
Feeding those mills are the century-old Eastern white pines, the kind lauded by Henry David Thoreau in 1857--"like great harps on which the wind makes music"--that the company grows on 12,000 acres in southern Maine.
The business began to expand under Kevin Hancock's grandfather Kenneth, who opened three retail stores, and grew further after Kevin's father, David, took over in 1976 and added five more. But up until that time, Kevin says, "the company was quite small, and I think that probably helped its agility."
Such agility has helped Hancock Lumber withstand 11 major economic downturns, from the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust failure in 1857 through the Great Recession just over a decade ago. "It really hit our industry in a big way," Hancock says. "From around 2006 to 2009, the volume of construction activity in Maine fell by 66 percent and our sales by 50 percent. The size of our company got cut in half in about four years essentially without losing a customer."
But he had to lose employees, and Hancock took it personally, telling himself, "Well, if we'd been sharper as a company going into the downturn, maybe we could have handled it better, and it would have been less painful."
With sales now approaching $200 million, the company is back up to 550 employees, and Hancock is making them his priority. "A few years ago, I stood in front of a room full of our biggest customers and said, "You know that old saying, 'The customer comes first.' I don't believe that's true anymore."
He went on to explain that the people who are taking care of the customer rank first. It's a sentiment that has gained traction in recent years. The idea is to create a culture that enhances employees' lives and makes them feel valued. Results then follow. "What I like to say now," Hancock says, "to borrow a piece of Maine slang, is that the customer comes a wicked-close second."