Planning for expansion

Growth is the name of the game for recent Lake Benton transplants, Curtis and Laura Rethwisch. The couple is going all in by buying two businesses.

Photo by Jim Muchlinski Curtis and Laura Rethwisch have big plans for Lake Benton’s downtown hardware store and lumber yard. They moved to Lake Benton from Colorado, where they took part in ranching.

LAKE BENTON — For much of 2018 Lake Benton residents thought their downtown hardware store was likely to close, but new owners stepped forward to keep it a vital part of the business community.

Curtis and Laura Rethwisch bought the hardware store last September from previous owner Gary Serie. They then set to work on a long-term strategy for success.

They decided to move to Lake Benton several years ago from Colorado in order to be near relatives on both sides of their family. The process included building a home on the lake east of the Benton Shores housing development area.

While building a home, which they moved into in 2017 for Thanksgiving, they also considered potential business opportunities. At first they had planned to focus on the lumberyard, known as Valley Lumber.

The plans expanded after Lake Benton Mayor Bob Worth met with them to ask if they’d also consider the hardware store since it was set to close at the end of 2018.

“We decided there was good potential to work with both businesses,” Curtis said. “We met with the owner (Serie) and we reached a purchase agreement.”

He said both facilities are already lending themselves to the experience they gained from ranching in Colorado. They plan to expand in merchandise such as farm equipment, fencing, pet supplies, feed and horse tack. At the same time, they’re looking at having a broad inventory through a business plan that includes being a distributor of NAPA products. As a distributor, they contract with NAPA as independent owners.

Curtis said they’ll also take advantage of any opportunity that allows them to carry other kinds of products, either by having them in stock or with a prompt ordering system.

“We want to offer more than just basic hardware and lumber,” he said. “We’ll have strong product lines in both areas, but we’ll also be able get other goods for our customers at a competitive price. People don’t necessarily have to travel to a larger community to buy things like gifts or electronics.”

The store will soon have a new sign at the corner of Lake Benton’s main business district intersection on the corner of Center Street and Benton Street. The same location offers a view of the historic business mural featuring Lake Benton merchant Ernest Osbeck, whose nearby home is one of the city’s historic sites.

They chose the name Rethwisch and Son for their business, in recognition of how the startup has become a multi-generational activity. The son, Austin, is a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., specializing in animation. He has spent vacation time helping to get the business up and running, including his three weeks of Christmas break.

They’re finding that one of the best rewards of having a locally-based business is the customer relationships that develop with a considerable share of their customers.

“Even though we have new people all the time, it’s always encouraging to see regulars who keep coming back,” Laura said. “That tells us we’re meeting their needs. Support from the local community is vital.”

Besides a diverse inventory, they plan to make the store a welcoming place, both in terms of interior design and personalized service.

It’s both kid-friendly and pet- friendly. Their dog Maddie, formerly a ranch dog, likes her new daytime routine inside the store. She’s reliably friendly toward both people and animals.

They’ve already added to the hardware store staff in anticipation of future growth. It now has five employees in addition to Curtis and Laura.

The lumberyard’s opening day is targeted for this summer. Curtis said Lake Benton has strong overall growth potential, something they considered before the made a final decision about their business venture.

“It has the lake, county and city parks, and a good variety of businesses,” he said. “It’s also a nice place to raise a family with a grade school, library and medical clinic.”

He added that location is likely to work toward Lake Benton’s advantage. It’s located in a rural area at a significant distance from larger towns (about 20 miles from Pipestone and 30 miles from both Brookings S.D. and Marshall.

Jackie Connell, who is in her third month of employment at the store, said she enjoys the daily activities and looks forward to its long range potential.

“They definitely have a vision for the hardware store and lumber yard,” Connell said. “It includes looking ahead to the future. I’m sure it will make a difference for the local area.”

Laurie Ellefson, a new part-time employee, decided to try a new career area after working down the street as a nurse at Lake Benton’s clinic.

She said the same things that motivated her to become a nurse are part of the rewards of a retail business place.

“I like helping people,” Ellefson said. “I’m still able to do that here. We’re personable when it comes to finding what they need or helping them carry things to their cars.”

Lake Benton City Clerk-Administrator Eileen Christensen, whose office is located at the Lake Benton Heritage Center a block from Rethwisch and Son, said she’s heard entirely favorable comments about how the business has been taking shape.

“People like what they’ve seen,” Christensen said. “We’re very glad to have them. Hardware stores and lumber yards are important parts of small town business communities. They’re needed for homeowners, other businesses and farmers.”