As store manager of a lumber and building supply business, Keith Stowe has found that getting to know not only what people are looking for, but also building a relationship with those people make going to work every day worthwhile. Keith took a few minutes last week to chat with us at RAKS, with whom he has been associated with since its beginnings.
Are you originally from Socorro?
I grew up in Belen. I went to Belen High School and graduated in 1983. I got out of high school and went to New Mexico Tech for a couple of years. Then I decided I needed to take a little time off and evaluate whether I should stay with Tech or started doing this.
How long have you been with RAK’s?
I’ve been with RAKS since it opened. That would be since 1986. Actually, I worked at Tabet Lumber before Raks even opened. The owners of RAKS are from the Belen-Los Lunas area, and Richie Tabet – the “R” in RAKS – and I are schoolmates from the first grade on. So, it was just one of those summer job things that kept up from there.
So the name RAKS is taken from first names in the family?
That’s right. It stands for Richie Tabet, Anna Trujillo, Kenny Trujillo, and Sue Tabet.
You were there from the very beginning?
RAKS originally opened in a roller rink. It was one of those things where you walk into a building on Friday and it was a roller rink, and then on Monday, we’re starting to haul material in and gutting the store for a remodel. Back in the early 70s, it was a bowling alley before it was a roller rink, and yes, I did go bowling there. Los Lunas at the time was a tight community. When RAKS first opened in Los Lunas there was a small mercantile called Kenny Mercantile, and they had a great reception because at the time you either had to drive to Bosque Farms or Albuquerque to find lumber and building supplies.
What is it about this business that appeals to you?
A lot of it was a family influence. My maternal grandfather moved from Oklahoma to Albuquerque toward the end of the great depression. He ended up working for the railroad and would strip boxcars at night when they had to recondition them. He’d take the stuff home and that’s how he added on to his old adobe there in Albuquerque, in the 30s and 40s. That’s basically how he built his house. So learning from my grandfather and also my father at an early age gave me an appreciation for building and working on things. It wasn’t uncommon back then to spend time in the Sears hardware department, or back then it was Furrow’s, like a Tabet Lumber, and spend a couple of hours every Saturday in there.
Times have changed, especially this year. How is business since the pandemic started?
Sometimes it feels like centralized chaos. You know the first thing you do when you go get in your truck to go to work is make sure you have a mask. Who would’ve thought? This year is unique because this year is … well, unique. We’re still trying to do our best to abide by the governor’s mandates for reduced personnel in the workplace. It’s very difficult because at the same time the number of people that are working from home or sheltering at home has increased our business substantially.
I’ve heard that people are finding projects to do while they’re at home all day.
If you drive around Socorro, there’s probably the cleanest, the nicest yards you’ve seen. In March, before the governor’s order, we shut down on Sundays because our business was down so much. A week after we did that, the emergency hit, and that first week was strange but by the second week, people started getting bored at home. The third week was just booming. It was really strange. To begin with, you had people staying at home working on their houses. It started with remodeling a bathroom or finishing projects they hadn’t had time to finish, and so on. Lots of moldings and trim. And then floorings, painting, and the yard. And then it went to fences.
What about home starts? How’s that going?
We have two houses currently under construction in Lemitar. We don’t currently have houses going up in Socorro but, there’s a couple of remodels and sheet sheds going on. Possibly a couple of starts in Magdalena. We just can’t get enough building materials right now because the demand in the Albuquerque market is so high. It’s driven then price up, and not just an Albuquerque thing, it’s all over the U.S., but then when the hurricanes started in the Gulf the sheet goods, engineered woods, and all the things that would typically go down to repair those shot up overnight.
What is the busiest time of year for you?
Normally it would be April through when school is let out. Summertime is kind of unpredictable. This year our walk-in business, due to the pandemic, was up almost 50 percent through April, May, and into June, just for walk-in customers.
What do you enjoy most about coming to work?
I enjoy the customer relations. We’re heavy into the building supply, contractors, home supply and that’s the forte for us. You do deal with the contractors but then you also deal with somebody that comes in and needs a recommendation on how to fix a leak, or put in a new floor or something like that. A lot of it is the relationships that you build with your repeat customers. I even had a customer call me from Home Depot for my opinion. It was something I didn’t carry, but he asked me which one would I get? It’s because they trust the opinion, and they knew there’s nobody up there to give them help. Our business has always been about, treat the customer the way you would expect your mother to be treated in a store. The biggest thing is just listening. In fact, I don’t like questions I can’t answer, so when I get a question like that I tell them I’ll find an answer. Research it. Figure it out.
In this Internet era, are more people doing their own research?
With the Internet, you can find out how to do practically anything on a youtube video. For example, I’ll have customers say, in their early 20s, just come in and click their phone and hand it to me and say, “I need to do this.” They have no idea and so you start from there and go.
How do you deal with generational differences these days?
Earlier this year we had a group meeting and the subject was dealing with generations. We’ve got five generations working in the RAKS company, from the silent generation all the way through to the youngest ones. But the reality is, that the X and Y generation are over 50 percent of the working force. So, realistically we need to be adapting more to them, and that’s what we’ve started trying to do, both in working with both our clientele and also with the personnel that are working for us.
How has the lumber or hardware business changed since you’ve been here?
As for this type of business, I can honestly say that for a while, we were friends with everybody. If I didn’t have something in stock I’d call Randy (Ace Hardware) or I would call Gambles or I would call Suzie (Leviner) at Crabtree, and find it for them. You know, keep them from going out of town. Socorro, pretty much the time I’ve been here, the population has grown a couple of percent, it’s dropped a couple of percent. But it has always stayed around the same level. So, the hundreds, if not thousands of people that you know on a first-name basis, it’s because the community is there. The community itself here is different. An outsider doesn’t see it.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
The responsibilities here are a minimum of 48-50 hours a week, so most of my downtime is spent doing things like work around the house and hobbies. I enjoy yard work. and when I have time, build furniture. At this time of year, I start making gifts to give to family members for the holiday season.
It sounds like you love what you do.
I do. I enjoy doing this a lot more than what my future probably would’ve been graduating from Tech.