By BRIAN WALKER
Custom Building and Supply had a humble start when Bob Moate Sr. bought it on April 1 (not fooling), 1968.
The wholesale pallet business was in a chicken coop on Third Street just south of Interstate 90 in Coeur d'Alene.
"I had three teen-age boys who I didn't know what to do with so I thought I'd put them to work," said Moate, who, at 90, is still involved in the four-generation family business.
Son Bob Jr. responded: "It's not that we weren't working before that."
Fifty years after purchasing the business, located on 3 acres on a former pumpkin patch between Seltice Way and I-90 in Post Falls for the past 47 years, Moate Sr. still keeps his fingers in the firm by paying the lumber bills and performing bookkeeping duties.
"And he gives us advice," said son Randy, president of the company. "He makes sure that we're not making mistakes."
Bob Sr. said there were only two or three customers when he purchased the business. It received a boost when the Bunker Hill Mine became a client.
Winds of change, including government regulations and lumber suppliers going out of business, tightened profit margins.
"The availability of lumber became more difficult and drove up costs, so that made it harder to compete," Randy said.
Bob Sr. said there were seven lumber mills around Coeur d'Alene when he bought the company, so it could buy most of its products locally.
"We could draw from a lot of places with short haul, but now we're buying some out of Oregon, Washington and Canada," he said.
The answer has been hard work and customer service.
"Treat customers fairly and give them their money's worth," Bob Sr. said.
Increasing productivity through in-house automation, a dedicated workforce and faithful customers have helped the company fend off such economic challenges, Randy said.
"We've built our own equipment," Randy said. "What we do is very specialized. We couldn't purchase some of the equipment we needed, so we designed it ourselves. It has increased production and made up for the transportation costs."
Russell Moate, vice president of the company and a grandson of Bob Sr., said the automation has also made it easier for employees to work and lessened the chance of injuries and workers' compensation claims.
Randy said finding the right employees isn't easy, so when they are landed, they are treated as well as possible.
"They're a dedicated workforce," he said. "Some have been with us for 30 years. You have to like this kind of work; not everybody does."
The business is open seven days a week, 364 days a year (closed only on Christmas).
"We have some demanding customers," he said with a smile.
The company has 22 full-time employees, including seven family members, and five part-time workers. The youngest employee is Alex Moate, 15, Russell's son.
"Grandma (Marjorie, who kept the books for many years) and grandpa have passed on great values to do business with a conservative philosophy," Russell said. "They've made sure we're not spending money we don't have, paying all the lumber bills as they come in and treating our customers very fairly."
Diversification — the company doesn't serve a specific industry but several including metals, landscaping, bricks, food products and construction — has been a key to success. It has allowed the company to steadily expand both its capabilities of manufacturing heavy-duty pallets, chicken crates, skids and shipping boxes made of softwood.
"Our shipping skids and pallets go all over the world," said Russell, using China and France as examples.
The products are handled with forklifts or cranes.
For about 30 years, the company built asparagus boxes for packers in central Washington, but that was cut when firms went to cheaper materials such as particle board and waxed cardboard.
Russell said the company is always exploring ways to expand its bulk product base. It flirted with the idea of making cupcake boxes for a company in New Jersey with a farm-fresh design, but that didn't pan out.
Custom Supply has been approached to make wine boxes for Washington's bustling industry, but that's too specialized for the company's wholesale approach.
A secondary product that Custom Supply sells is property line markers, or wooden survey supplies.
It has partnerships with Plummer Forest Products across the street. Plummer sends Custom Supply scrap particle board to make products that Plummer in turn uses for shipping. Sawdust from Custom Supply is also sent to Plummer to make particle board, eliminating the need to send it to a pulp mill.
Custom Supply also sells some of its leftover wood at cost to area seniors in need of firewood.
The business has served the family well, Randy said.
"It allowed us to work on vacation, after school and on Christmas break so that we could pay our way through college," he said.
Bob Jr. said the company's longevity boils down to a simple formula.
"We've followed Dad's philosophy for 50 years,” he said, “and it's paid off."