Paul McKoon to retire after 47 years at Building Materials
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Paul McKoon can tell some stories about four and half decades as a customer service rep at what is now Building Materials, Inc. in Fort Madison.
The 47-year veteran is stepping aside from helping area families rebuild their homes, spruce up a kitchen or dining room, add windows, or replace a bathroom.
A retirement sign over his desk reads, “The Man, The Myth, The Legend.”
He won’t call himself an expert, but says he knows enough to maybe even be dangerous. One of his favorite stories is about a lady he was consulting with about restructuring her living area.
“She was talking about taking out a wall and I said we could take out this wall and brace it up there and there and put a beam across there, probably have to be three 2×12 and we’ll probably have to have a couple double studs on both ends,” McKoon remembered.
“And then she looked at me said ‘how do you know these things you didn’t go to school for these things’, I said, ‘Well, after two or three fall down you figure out what didn’t work.’ Her eyes got real big and we both started laughing.”
He said the industry and learning is trial and error and just being observant.
Customer service has been the mantra of his days and his success in helping people. A bit apropos as McKoon was talking in one direction, a customer left to his left and he just waved and said, “Thanks, Monica”.
“Thanks!” she replied without even looking up – the norm and not the exception in this hardware store.
A reception is being held on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Building Materials at 619 1st Street in Fort Madison with snacks and beverages.
Amy Merschman, who has owned the business with her husband Tom for the past 16 years, said Paul is almost irreplaceable. She said she hopes the house is packed. But McKoon had a quip.
“A lot of people have died in that time, so there may not be as many as you think,” he said with a laugh.
“Nothing lasts forever.”
Merschman said she was happy to get a two weeks notice, because she was afraid he was going to just decide one day it would be his last.
“Stopping Paul cold-turkey would have just been like…” Merschman said. “There’s going to be tears tomorrow anyway.”
McKoon had reduced his schedule to just two days for the past year and had slowly started shrinking the work week prior to that. He has joint family farming operations and said it will be nice to be able to check on the cattle in the daylight now.
His plans include working on smaller projects, continuing to help with the family ag businesses, and maybe squeezing in a little travel.
Merschman said she won’t find another Paul McKoon.
“I work with Paul sporadically, because I’ve only been here the last four years, but I would come down to visit. We’re going to miss him. His orneriness for sure. He’s invaluable and I was just teasing him about what he was going to do with all that knowledge in his head,” she said.
“He knows everything about everything. Tom asks him for advice. There’s never going to be another Paul. We wish we could clone him somehow,” she said.
“Unfortunately not everybody has that opinion,” McKoon said.
He said despite being in the same location for the past 47 years, he’s never really found the work mundane.
“There’s really a lot of variety here in what we do in the fact that once you do get started you are helping people and it’s a different situation every time,” he said. “If you put out the effort to work with their best interests at heart, as well as yours, and try to make the transaction more of a partnership and not just a one-sided deal, everyone comes out ahead. That feels good.”
McKoon said the company has always been very service-oriented and that was pounded into his head from the beginning.
“If the customer didn’t walk inside the door, then there’s no reason for us to be here. And if we don’t give the customer a reason to walk in the door, he may be here once, but he won’t be here twice.”
After a year of junior college, McKoon joined the lumberyard in October of 1947. Prior to that, he was a tag-a-long with family members on the way to the Storms and Stiefel lumberyard, which was the early predecessor of Building Materials.
McKoon said his family is full of carpenters and the trades came easy to him. After junior college, he started picking up some spare jobs with his father and was in the lumberyard for some materials when Pat Koellner offered him a job.
He said a lumber broker, who would bring up lumber in railroad cars to disperse at smaller area lumber yards in the area, finally set up shop. The man’s daughter grew up and married Ray Stiefel and they started Storms and Steifel Lumber Yard.
A young man named Pat Koellner took a job at Storms and Steifels’ and had a lot of “moxie”, worked hard, and asked a lot of questions.
“When he came back from the service, he was able to get a partnership and then started Building Materials in 1946,” McKoon said. “He’s been the dominant force in making the company what it is today and keeping the company going some of those lean years.”
Koellner, at the time of his death, and Bill Merschman owned Lee County Bank.
McKoon said he has had very few thoughts about doing anything different considering his ties to the area and his family connections. He still lives in Nauvoo with family all over the region.
“I’m a homebody at heart, I guess. I’ve had family in Nauvoo in some form or another since the 1840s. It’s been a lot of family and friends over there. When I was kid growing up and did something in town, it was ‘Well, that’s Ed McKoon’s little boy Paul’,” McKoon said.
His father was city marshal in Nauvoo, and growing up in a small town is something that has always been a part of him.
“I like the small town, knowing people atmosphere. That’s one thing about Building Materials – most customers are repeat customers. We’ve got people who I sold materials to and 20 years later sold them another countertop and then 20 years sell them something else. It’s been a very comfortable family oriented atmosphere and it’s still that way.”