Although he is only 24 years old, Elmer Sensenig believes in “old school” values. Those values, combined with what he calls a “new school” product, have turned into a successful business, Richland Laminated Columns.
Sensenig’s old-school values are part of his overall lifestyle. A Mennonite who has lived in the Greenwich, Ohio, area since his birth in June 1984, he has never had a driver’s license. Instead, he drives a horse-drawn buggy.
“With all the employees I have, I don’t have any trouble running around to do business,” he quickly adds.
He also grew up on a dairy farm where, he says, “I learned how to work.”
However, he also learned that, while he doesn’t mind farming, he doesn’t like dairy farming. He recognized early in his life that he wanted to go down a different career path.
Sensenig’s brother is a builder who specializes in post-frame buildings, and at age 16, Sensenig went to work for his brother.
“I built pole barns with my brother for three or four years,” he explains, “but I noticed there were no laminated columns in the area.”
A new idea is born
He thought there had to be something better than the columns that his brother was using when an opportunity arose to open his own shop in 2004. He did a lot of research, spending his evenings looking at a potential customer base for a laminated pole business.
“If you don’t have any sales, you don’t have any business,” he says.
Also, while working for his brother, Sensenig married Ruth Ann, and her family owned a lumberyard. “They did a lot to help me get started in my business,” he says.
He got machinery set up, and after working for his brother during the day, Sensenig and his wife would make poles in the evening.
Sensenig made samples of the columns, and then set up appointments with lumberyards to show off his product. He made his pitch, told them why he believes in his product, and left them to their own decisions.
“We built this business up from scratch,” he says. They worked for six months to build an inventory, but without any customers. Eventually, he got the notice of a few lumberyards, and slowly, he began to build a client base. Soon he was busy enough to be able to leave his brother’s construction business.
Sensenig’s business really took off when he brought a salesperson on board. The salesperson, someone Sensenig had met while building with his brother, saw the potential in the laminated poles and wanted to sell them.
“He wanted to come in and work for us,” Sensenig says. “I didn’t think I was ready for that step, but we brought him in and he’s done a lot of good for us. Basically, the product sells itself, but we had to get our name out there.”
Growth and progress
Today, Richland Laminated Columns products are in over 50 lumberyards in six states. The company has grown a bit, too, from those early days.
Sensenig employs two full-time and four part-time workers. His wife is still very involved with the business, taking care of the administrative side (and keeping track of their toddler, Travis), while Sensenig works with the customers. The company is looking to add employees in the near future.
“I had to pull my salesman off the road,” he says. “We could barely keep up with the work coming in.”
Sensenig thinks the reason for the success of his business has to do with those old-fashioned values, like using the best lumber and meeting deadlines.
“If we perform on time, the lumberyard performs on time, and the builders perform on time; in the end, that makes the homebuyer happy,” he says.
He admits that his age has made some customers uneasy at first.
“My salesman, Bill Dunn, is in his 60, and I usually let him make the introductions,” Sensenig says. “When he says that I’m the owner, they sometimes get a ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this outfit’ look on their face.”
While Sensenig’s youthfulness caused a lot of questions up front, as customers get to know him, they quickly come to realize that his youth is unimportant. “No matter what your age,” he adds, “you still have to prove yourself.”
Lumberyards and more
Richland Laminated Columns sells wholesle to lumberyards, which then sell the columns to individual builders. But about 1 percent of the customer base comes from individual clients with whom Sensenig deals directly.
One such client is Ohio State University, which is constructing a new research pavilion. “We donated the poles for that,” Sensenig says.
Another major project is the Holmes County Flea Market, a 54,000 sq.ft. building. Richland Laminated Columns is supplying all the poles. The poles have also been used in churches and houses.
“I’m pretty excited about what post-frame has to offer,” he says. “With this construction, they are building fancy churches and houses.”
How far has post-frame building come? Sensenig says that one of his clients has bid on the opportunity to build NBA star LeBron James’s personal gym. If the bid comes through, Sensenig adds, his columns will be used on the project.
“I told my employees that if we get this job, we’re doing a job-site visit,” Sensenig laughs.
The chance to have his product used in such high-profile job is just one of the things Sensenig loves about his business. The lasting friendships and the opportunity to work closely with his family are other things that he finds appealing.
What frustrates him, however, is when customers compare his laminated poles to more traditional poles. He also doesn’t like it when some lumberyards try to get him to lower his prices.
“We have to keep every customer fair,” he says.
Life-long learning process
At 24, Sensenig knows he has a lot to learn about the industry as a whole. He plans to be in the post-frame business for the rest of his career, so he wants to learn what else is out there, how to better improve his machinery, and look at the best way to use expansion while not letting the job take over his life.
One effort he’s made in that direction is to create a relationship with Perma Columns. They sell his product; he sells theirs, and as he says, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
He sees a good future, for both the industry and himself. Sensenig has plans to expand his product line, and sees nothing but success down the road because he knows the product he puts on the market is very good.
“If you believe in your product, that will make others automatic believers,” he concludes.