The heart of the business for 50 years

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

Verlin Pfannenstiel has crafted a career in the building supply business few can match.

He's been a part of the business now known as Heartland Building Center for 50 years.

The business itself, first known as Schwaller Lumber Co., began 120 years ago.

"It's kind of unusual for a business to stick around for that many years," Pfannenstiel said.

Pfannenstiel started in 1962 as a bookkeeper for Schwaller Lumber, then located at 900 Main.

In 1965, the business moved to Centennial Shopping Center, 2502 Vine. The retail store was where Sears is now, and the lumber yard and warehouse were behind the shopping center, where Heartland is now. A few years later, they closed the retail store in the shopping center and moved to the current location.

"Since then, we've expanded and eventually took over the whole block," Pfannenstiel said.

The business also opened a truss plant during this time.

With his wife, Elaine, helping with the bookkeeping he brought home, Pfannenstiel remained on the job even while attending Fort Hays State University.

FHSU "opened a lot of doors for us," he said.

After graduating, Pfannenstiel stayed on at Schwaller's, and bought 25 percent of the business in 1972.

In 1978, the business opened a facility in Stockton, and one in Russell started in 1981.

He owned 50 percent of Schwaller Lumber from 1981 to 1988, when he became sole owner, and changed the name to Heartland Building Center.

The name was the result of a contest, and the winners came up with the slogan, "we take your building needs to heart."

Pfannenstiel since has sold 50 percent of the business to his son, Curt, the only one of his five children involved with Heartland.

Curt Pfannenstiel, who serves as president and manages the day-to-day operations, began his career making deliveries before serving as manager for the Stockton store.

"It's a pleasure to learn from all that experience," he said of working with his father.

Altogether, the business has about 70 employees, and maintaining a stable knowledgeable workforce is key, Verlin Pfannenstiel said.

"I've always had a close relationship with them."

Frank Stecklein's tenure at the business is a good example.

He took a temporary job at Heartland unloading boxcars after coming home from military service. It was supposed to take three days.

"Thirty-eight years later, I'm still here for my three-day job," he said.

Stecklein attended FHSU and worked summers and weekends. When he graduated, Verlin Pfannenstiel offered him a job in the office. He's now assistant manager.

The biggest change he's seen is departmentalization.

"When I first started working here, Verlin did just about everything. ... When people came in who needed help on their projects, they would line up and go see Verlin. ... Now we have about eight people doing what he used to do."

Cindy Doerfler, another longtime employee, has been at Heartland for 34 years.

She admitted she didn't know much about the business when she started.

"It was a man's world," she said. "(Verlin Pfannenstiel) taught me how to figure lumber and plywood and all the things you'd need to sell. He was a good boss."

As a working mother with small children, the job was a good fit.

"I don't think people realize how strong of family values Verlin has. ... He has a sense of family and a sense of promoting that in the community."

Even though he's turned the daily operation over to Curt, Verlin Pfannenstiel still comes in every day to see the people.

"It's provided me with all the challenges and opportunities I've ever needed," Verlin Pfannenstiel said of the business.

"We've stood the test of time because of Verlin," Doerfler said. "He offers such good leadership, and he has the respect and confidence of the people in the building industry."