Even before she started working at Liberty Lumber Co., Shirley Pratten thought it might be short term. Then the founder said something that reinforced her uncertainty.
“I had a daughter in school and came to work here part time,” she said. “Mr. Cianelli Sr. said, ‘I’m not sure how long I’m going to be in business.’ I told him, ‘I’m not sure how long I want to work.’ ”
That was 1969, the Age of Aquarius. Forty-four years later, Liberty Lumber and Pratten are still together in downtown Canonsburg.
“It’s a good place to work,” Pratten said of Liberty, a lumber company and hardware store Nick Cianelli Sr. started in 1946 at the same site, 311 Adams Ave., and which remains a family operation 67 years later.
It is a small but vibrant endeavor, with 10 employees who deal in hardware, treated lumber, windows, Alcoa building products, ceiling tiles and doors.
The exterior of the main building has a new facade, with “Liberty Lumber” in red letters on a white background. The upper torso of the Statue of Liberty is centered above the name, torch poised above the rooftop.
“Since 2008, we’ve steadily increased our sales,” said Nick Cianelli Jr., 64, president and owner and also a 44-year employee. “We sell quality products and offer excellent service at a competitive price.”
Nick Jr. isn’t the only Cianelli (pronounced “Sin-elli”) in charge of this company. Brother Ron, 70, is vice president, and their sister, Cathy Romano, 54, is secretary treasurer. They are originally from Canonsburg, and collectively, they’ve worked there for 124 years.
Add Pratten, 77, the office manager, and the foursome has 168 years of service. Give them Liberty, indeed.
In business, stability often is a linchpin to success.
“The reason we’re still here is that my father then my brother have always hired outstanding people,” said Ron Cianelli, a 55-year employee. “They’ve always compensated employees well with benefits and such. I don’t think they’ve fired anyone.
“It’s about people. If you’re cheap with them, you’re not going to stay in business. Why worry about getting a large piece of the pie when you may not get any.”
It took his father, Nick Sr., time to develop an appetite for a business that would endure for nearly seven decades and has positioned itself for further viability.
“When he came over from Italy, he was a cabinet maker who did remodeling and built some homes,” Nick Jr. said. “He bought some property and developed it and thought that instead of buying supplies, he’d get them for himself and sell some retail.”
The elder Nick Cianelli died in 1988, the year his daughter joined the firm.
Liberty Lumber has a generous amount of retail space – 5,800 square feet – in its main building, with five or six outbuildings serving as warehouses. It also has six delivery trucks, two forklifts and no website.
The company has benefited from the recent boost in the housing industry, but more from the updating of existing homes than construction of new ones.
“It seems as though the small builder doesn’t have the large share of new home business it once had,” Ron Cianelli said.
“A lot has changed,” Nick Jr. said. “Independent builders used to build homes. Now it’s tract builders like Ryan. Guys who used to be home builders are now in the remodeling business.
“We provide them with some materials, but not framing packages (as do larger companies like 84 Lumber). We never got involved in that. We’re not big enough. To jump into that end of the business is a huge investment.”
Though Nick Jr. was referring to housing industry changes in this instance, he and his siblings acknowledged that the development of Southpointe I and II – up the hill from 311 Adams Ave. – and drilling in Marcellus Shale have been economic catalysts in the county.
“Southpointe has been an unbelievable boon,” Nick Jr. said. “And who knew Marcellus Shale would be so explosive? It’s a great thing for our state and it keeps our taxes down. Plus we’re located close to shopping, a casino and (Pittsburgh International Airport). We’re not losing population like so many places.”
“I think the borough of Canonsburg made a major mistake by not extending the road into Southpointe,” Ron Cianelli said. “There were people on council then who wanted to do it, but it didn’t happen. It’s a shame.”
Romano said: “I thought Southpointe would draw businesses and housing, but I didn’t envision it being this big. It’s definitely added to everyone’s business around here.”
Southpointe’s blueprint for success is impressive, to be sure. But so is one that was drawn up a half-century earlier – at Liberty Lumber.