Before Owner Eli Bliffert got involved in his family's 119-year-old company, Bliffert Lumber, as a member of the fifth generation of leadership, there wasn't a lot of growth happening with the business. However, in an example of how things have changed, Eli told attendees at the 2023 Milwaukee Smart Business Dealmakers Conference that he recently acquired a three-yard, 125-year-old chain in Madison called Chase Lumber. It's just one example of the 11 deals the company has done in 19 years, which helped the company add 11 locations, double its headcount and grow its revenue exponentially. Still, he says growth is growth, whatever form it takes.

"I don't think there is a preferred method of growth," Eli says. "I think you have to do them all. We try to grow organically. Lumber companies are a little different; your lumberyard needs to be local. So, we try to grow organically and maximize operational capacity while all the time looking for geographic areas to move into. The most important thing to us is the people — I'd be scared to death to start a business from scratch. We look at the growth of an area and other people involved there, and we try to grow that way."

When considering an acquisition, he says he looks at regions, preferring areas with population growth, whether there are housing shortages or surpluses, and the long-term growth of an area. Then he looks at the business and its people to see if it has what the company needs for a complementary fit.

"We want to know do they do something better than what we do? We want to grab somebody who's stronger in an area that we aren't, and then weaker in an area that we're strong in so that we can organically grow once we merge them in," he says. "That's really the most important thing to us is geography and people. The lumber industry is really small, so everybody kind of knows each other. And you just keep in touch with everybody because everybody is a potential acquisition."

Further, communication with the acquisition target is key. He says all of the company's acquisitions have been multi-generational family businesses, which tend to be concerned about what happens to their people in a deal. That means reaching a deal can necessitate extra attention in that area.

"I spend a lot of my time trying to make the family who's selling comfortable about how we're going to take care of their legacy, how we're going to take care of their people," Eli says. "A lot of them have relatives in the business and [want to know] how we're going to make a role for them, make a future for them. And that's really important. The key to any acquisition is the good people. And that's the most important thing I do."

Whether an acquisition is a success for Bliffert hinges on employee retention and long-term growth of the company.

"We're all very long-term focused," he says. "In the 11 deals I've done the ownership was always invited to stay. Some of them wanted to work another five years, some another 10 years. I've never had an owner who sold to us leave before he wanted to, or she wanted to. And I think that that's really important about that sort of culture."

He says he wouldn't do a deal if wasn't able to meet with most of the employees ahead of time and reassure them about what would happen if the company they work for was bought.

"That is the most important part to us," Eli says.