When her grandfather Stan started a Rhinebeck business in 1946 that eventually became Williams Lumber & Home Centers — now a fixture in the Valley — he discouraged family members from making it a career, recalls Kimberley Williams.
“When I was in high school, we would work there in the summer, doing things like cashiering or changing price tags,” she says. “At that time, my grandfather had the Rhinebeck store and another one in Salt Point, but he didn’t want it to be permanent for us. He believed that with a family business, hiring family members or friends is sometimes not the best idea.”Williams, 49, grew up in Rhinebeck and later went off to Simmons College in Boston to study retail management. She did an internship with Filene’s department store in Boston, then worked at Macy’s — training first in New York City, followed by a position at the Macy’s store in Colonie.Eventually, though, she found herself working back at home.“
At one point, my dad realized they needed to hire some people, including a purchasing agent for lumber and building materials. And with the education I’d received, he convinced my grandfather it would be a good idea to have me come back to work in the store,” Kimberley Williams says.
Williams Lumber has since become a strong, three-generation family affair. Today, her dad Sandy serves as president of the company; her sister Kelly is senior vice president of contractor sales; and Kimberley herself holds the position of senior vice president of retail operations. That means she’s in charge of advertising and purchasing materials. Anything you see in the store, she’s responsible for getting it there. She also takes great pride in creating the giant Christmas display in the Rhinebeck store.The business, part of the Ace Hardware network, has expanded over the years to eight locations throughout the Valley. The sites offer building, do-it-yourself and contractor supplies, as well as home repair and improvement items and services, and employ about 260 associates.
Working in the male-dominated lumber and contracting world can sometimes be a challenge for women, says Williams — even in your own family’s business. “But it’s getting easier, being female, even though there are still pockets of resistance at times.” For instance, “Once in a while, a customer might come in and say, ‘I need to connect two pieces of pipe,’ and I’d tell them they need a coupler,” she says. “Then they say, ‘Thanks, but let me talk to the plumbing manager.’ Who then tells them they need a coupler,’ ” she laughs.“Our dad taught us to be well-rounded in the business; that we should be able to answer a customer’s question, anywhere in the store,” Williams says. “Not that we need to know how to rewire an entire house — but to get the customer to the proper area for what they need.”She adds, “In our business, you have to know at least a little about a lot. And I think it’s important to be honest if you don’t know the answer to something a customer asks. People don’t expect you to know everything. If there’s something you can’t answer, as long as you head them in the right direction, and get someone who does know the answer — I think they’ll respect you for that.”Along with product knowledge and honesty, top-notch customer service is another quality to strive for in a successful business, she says.“That term is thrown around so much. But how do you know you’ve provided good customer service? Repeat business is one factor,” according to Williams. “It sounds corny, but we still have people coming in our stores who did business with my grandfather. People know they can trust us if something goes wrong; they can come in and find one of us and get an issue resolved. In big-box stores, you won’t find the owner there. Here, you can go straight to the top.”
Williams, who lives in Rhinebeck with her husband and their two dogs, has been hailed for her business know-how — including being named 2008 Lumber Person of the Year by the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association. “It was a huge honor, especially because my dad had also received the same award several years before,” she says.
Kimberley Williams is especially proud of her family business’s commitment to community. “We interact a lot with the Eagle Scouts, helping with their projects; and donate to groups like the Little League, the Children’s Miracle Network, the heart and cancer associations, and the ASPCA — we also have a huge love for animals. We try to cover a broad spectrum of the community. Giving back feels good, and it puts your life into perspective when you help others.”Williams has sound advice for women trying to break into a traditionally male-dominated industry: “Never let your guard down, and stick to your guns. If you believe in what you’re doing, then you’ll succeed.”
A family affair: Kimberley Williams of Williams Lumber
Photograph by Michael Polito