After 40 years in the nuts, bolts and power tools business, Craig Johnson has seen a lot of change.
Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Johnson, owner of Vancouver Bolt & Supply, has watched Clark County grow up, and his business with it. Early on, the company supplied nuts, bolts, tie rods, screws and other components for the Interstate 205 Bridge, but as Vancouver grew the company also realized it needed to keep up with the needs of its contractor-customers. So it spread its product selection into high-quality tools, drill bits, saws and other components. Today, some of Vancouver Bolt & Supply’s products are being used at the Waterfront Vancouver project, along with multiple other construction sites throughout Clark County.
“Like any business, you just evolve,” Johnson said. “If you’re selling to this industry, a lot of the stuff we sell is common with manufacturing. But we evolved from the early business to what’s current today — more high tech customers, products, better inventory management. We just grew.”
Vancouver Bolt & Supply was founded by Johnson’s parents, Rennie and Doris Johnson, in 1979. Rennie had worked in the fastener industry since 1963, and he saw an opportunity in Vancouver to build a specialty shop, said his son, who soon after joined the company with his wife.
“In 1979 my parents sold everything they owned except their cars,” Craig Johnson said. “My dad asked if I wanted to be a partner in the business, and he said ‘if you want to be a partner, bring money.’ I had a good job in Tacoma, but I sold my house and all the extreme toys I had and invested everything I had in the business.”
The company started out with just the family, one pickup truck full of nuts and bolts and a rented warehouse. Over 40 years it has grown to 33 employees, a stock of more than 27,000 products, a main 10,000-square-foot store in Vancouver at 805 W. 11th St. and a second 8,000-square-foot branch in Longview at 420 California Way.
Last week, the company held its 40th anniversary sale in Vancouver, which looked a bit more like a convention of contractors and suppliers from across the country than it did a retail sale. Suppliers like DeWalt, Proto Tools and Drillco Cutting Tools were all on hand with displays, ready to speak with customers and help them with bulk deals.
“These guys are great,” said Mark Wilcox, president of Drillco, who hosted a booth at the event. “They’re a great partner. They’re very supportive and outgoing. They’re our largest supplier in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve been partners for more than 25 years.”
Wilcox said the company has a great reputation throughout the industry, and that’s something he thinks has contributed to its success.
“Their willingness to support their customers is what drives their success,” Wilcox said. “They’re customer centric, and they’re always looking at what drives customer needs.”
More recently, the company has focused on improving its website and computer systems. Several years ago Vancouver Bolt & Supply added e-commerce to its site, but the system was a bit clunky, so the company is relaunching it with an improved e-commerce system in the next 90 days or so, said Brian Hyland, general manager, who’s been at the shop for 10 years.
“Overall revenues are trending up,” Hyland said. “We’ve seen a little increase over the last year of 2-3 percent growth, and the waterfront project is helping. It’s bringing in even more customers.”
Some of his larger customers include Columbia Machine, JH Kelly and ProTech Industries. Most clients are in the construction and manufacturing industries, he said.
“For us it’s a diverse marketplace, and we serve a very wide spectrum,” Hyland said.
The tariff war between the United States, China and other countries has impacted the business slightly, Hyland noted, but it hasn’t really stopped anyone from buying the parts they need.
“A lot of what we see is import, and that has raised prices, but it’s raised everyone’s prices,” Hyland said. “People are still buying because they need the parts. It hasn’t really slowed anyone down all that much.”
Over the years, Johnson said he’s tried to treat his employees like family – and it shows in the company’s employee retention. Today, Vancouver Bolt & Supply has several employees who have been working there for 30 years.
“We take care of our people if they have problems,” Johnson said. “People can tell when they come in that employees are not stressed about the boss. It’s not all about the buck – I say have a good day and have some fun.”
Ralph Kraus, outside sales manager, is one of those employees. He’s been there for 36 years, and it was his first job out of high school.
“It’s an interesting day every day,” said Kraus, who started in 1982. “When I started out our big forte was the I-205 Bridge. I met the Johnsons with my dad on a charter boat, actually. My Dad and Craig’s Dad were real good friends. And this has been my only job.”
Johnson’s response when he heard that Kraus said the position was his only job?
“And it will be for Ralph as far as I’m concerned,” he said, adding he hopes Kraus will work there until he retires.
The problem now is actually finding new employees, because the labor market is so tight, Hyland said.
“It’s hard to find people that want to work in today’s marketplace,” Hyland said. “We can’t pay minimum wage anymore. That’s out the window, and I think that’s hurt us. We’re looking for five new employees right now.”
Johnson said he’s taken on some very green employees in the past, and the skill set they learn in the fastener industry is one that is needed pretty much everywhere. He’s had some other companies try to steal his employees in recent years as well.
“This is a trade, we’re an industrial supply house,” Johnson said. “With these skills a worker could move to Idaho, Montana, California and almost instantly have a job. I’ve also helped my people get jobs when they wanted to move to Seattle or California. Once you’ve been with us you really have a trade.”