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Stetson Building Products eyes new opportunities


Since its founding in 1955, Stetson Building Products Inc. has specialized in supplying construction materials for building exteriors, including concrete forms and additives, waterproofing sealants and rubber roofing.

Now, with a new generation of management recently installed, the company wants to move indoors.

Stetson’s products have been used in some of the most high-profile buildings in Greater Des Moines, including the new Wells Fargo Financial and Allied/Nationwide Insurance headquarters and the John Deere Credit building. Stetson’s sealants and other products are being used to help build the Iowa Events Center and have been used in Dubuque’s Mississippi River Discovery Center and Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Recreation and Convention Complex.

The business of selling exterior building products is cyclical, with sales booming during warmer months and tapering off significantly in the winter. Stetson’s new president, Marte Cook, who took over in February from founder Roger Stetson, and the company’s two other new owners, chief financial officer John Willmore and Omaha office manager Kevin Stetson, are searching for products that will even out the sales cycle and provide a new platform for growth. Acquisitions are a possibility.

“We want to find products that be used during these God-awful winters we have here in Iowa,” Cook said. “We want to grow the business and move into new areas. We’d like to get involved in some products that can be applied 12 months out of the year.”

The company’s sales were between $35 million and $40 million last year, and typically rise about 5 percent annually, Willmore said. Having products that can be sold year-round would boost that growth.

To accomplish that goal, the three owners are looking for innovative products to add to the 22,000 items Stetson currently sells to more than 200 customers. Traditional building materials such as drywall, paint and interior studs aren’t the solution they’re looking for. Instead, they want to find items that can help construction workers build more efficiently and that require less labor to install. The company hasn’t found them yet. Cook said he’ll know his new products when he sees them.

“We’re looking for something that can be used inside that isn’t being used now,” said Cook, who joined Stetson in 1987. “We’re still focused on staying ahead of the curve.”

The company has long relied on finding innovative products or useful materials that aren’t being sold within its region to fuel growth.

Roger Stetson developed the idea for the company in 1955 while he was a student at Drake University. He wrote his thesis on a new product called a Sonotube, which is a type of paper form that is used to help construction workers pour concrete columns and light pole bases.

He started the company two weeks after graduation, distributing Sonotubes out of his house. A year later, the growing company moved to a warehouse.

When Dow Chemical Co. developed the first Styrofoam insulation for home use, Roger Stetson recognized the opportunity and became the first salesman west of the Mississippi to market and distribute it. In 1976, he was the first to bring single-ply rubber roofing material to Iowa and Nebraska. The rubber roof was better at keeping out bad weather as temperatures fluctuate.

Today, the company has 116 employees in eight offices in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. About 95 percent of Stetson’s sales are derived from commercial construction projects, with the remainder coming from residential construction. It employs 45 people in Des Moines and 18 in Omaha, which is its second-biggest office. Its other locations are Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo; Rockford and Rock Island, Ill.; and Grand Island, Neb.

If Stetson were to buy another company or line of business, it would likely be somewhere in the Midwest, Cook said. Stetson executives are considering moving the company out of the nearly 100-year-old warehouse that currently serves as its headquarters and main distribution center. The 46,000-square-foot building is located at the 500 block of Southwest Ninth Street.

There are several factors that could drive such a move. The building is adjacent to the massive River West development project, which promises to build new community of single-family homes and townhomes and commercial space on land between downtown and the Raccoon River, just west of Southwest Ninth Street.

A new building, preferably one that had only one level, would also help the company become more efficient. The three-story structure it currently uses has narrow passageways and small elevators. Forklift operators frequently find themselves driving 400 yards per load when they are unloading delivery trucks, Cook and Willmore said.

The change in Stetson’s management team was a carefully planned process that stretched over the past six years, orchestrated with help from attorneys at the Belin law firm and consultants from RSM McGladrey.

During that time, Roger Stetson gradually sold the three portions of his stake in the company, of which he was the sole owner. On February 7, Roger Stetson handed over day-to-day management to the trio and began settling into a new role as chairman of Stetson’s board.

Outside the company, Stetson is moving into new roles in charity and philanthropy, mainly for children’s issues. He serves on the boards of Youth Homes of Mid-America and the Iowa Health Foundation, the money-raising arm of hospital operator Iowa Health-Des Moines. He is also part of Blank Children’s Hospital’s capital campaign.

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