Learned Lumber in Hermosa Beach: 100 years of gratitude

Craig Evans leads employee-owned Learned Lumber into its second century of serving the Beach Cities building industry. Photo by Jefferson Graham

Learned Lumber builds on a foundation of relationships stretching back 100 years

by Kevin Cody

Michael Learned began mulling over selling the family lumber yard he had run for four decades to his employees in the early 2000s. He and his brother Rick and sister Lynn were third generation owners. Learned Lumber was founded 100 years ago, in 1924, by their grandfather George, who bought it from Bert Cook, the grandfather of Jim and Bob Cook, the third generation owners of what is now Cook’s Doors and Windows, in Lawndale.

Michael Learned’s father, Dick, took over Learned Lumber shortly after serving in the Navy during World War II. His lumber background made him a valued crew member because he served aboard a wooden schooner named Guadalupe, based in San Pedro. The “Splinter Fleet” had the advantage during rescues and patrols of being undetectable by radar.

Neither Michael Learned’s kids, nor his nieces and nephews wanted to be the fourth generation to run the family lumber yard. One of his sons is an orthopedic surgeon and the other a mathematician. Michael  and his wife Karen wanted to spend more time on their sailboat at Howland’s mooring on Catalina Island. Learned was awarded Howland’s A1 mooring for having served as commodore of the Los Angeles Yacht Club.

Learned understood his sons’ reluctance. He hadn’t wanted to join the family business in his youth, either.

After graduating from Palos Verdes High in 1964 he studied art at UC Santa Barbara, where his striking resemblance to movie star Michael Douglas, who also was attending UC Santa Barbara, resulted in them sometimes dating the same coeds.

In 1970, Michael was teaching early Renaissance art and working on a Masters in Fine Arts at Sonoma State when his dad called him back to temporarily watch over the lumber yard.

The rest of the family was going to Germany for the wedding of his brother Rick, a banker.

There was a prodigal son quality to Michael Learned’s return to where he had been paid 33 cents an hour in high school to pick up nails customers dropped on the floor and put the nails back in their correct trays.

He had long hair and no interest in business. 

Learned Lumber hired off-duty firemen to drive its fleet of yellow trucks, and merchant marines on shoreleave to run its forklifts. 

Despite their differences, the workers accepted him. He was more tradesman than businessman. “I told our workers, ‘Don’t sell. Just help people solve their problems,” he said.

Learned’s customers were largely local builders, some multi generational. The do-it-your-selfers, many of whom worked in the flourishing aerospace industry, went to Home Depot. But Home Depot didn’t offer advice, and the do-it-your-selfers often didn’t know what to do with what they bought. “So they’d come to us for advice, and we’d refer them to a local handyman or builder, who was already our customer,” Learned said.

Sales and talking story went hand in hand, creating an old general store atmosphere in an era when personal service was giving way to self-service.

There were surf tales from local shapers, including legendary board builders Greg Noll, Hap Jacob and Bing Copeland, who bought balsa blanks and redwood stringers for their boards. At the time, balsa was hard to find.

A Manhattan Beach carpenter named Pat Riley regaled them with tales from his days as an NBA journeyman. One day they read in the paper the guy they knew as a carpenter had been named head coach of the Lakers. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who made his fortune in real estate, let Learned know if the lumber yard wanted to keep Buss’ apartment building business, Learned should buy season tickets. Not two, but four, and not just any seats, but $5,000 senate seats.

Hermosa contractor Dave Garrett became a Learned customer when he began building homes shortly after graduating from Leuzinger High School in 1955. “I was always short of money, and Dick always let me slide, even when a customer stiffed me for $5,000,” Garett recalled.

Learned Lumber employee-shareholders Greg Scott, Michael Learned, Dave Kendall, Mitch Heller, Kevin McLernon, Jimmy Norton, Kristin Karlin, and Craig Evans. Photo by Jefferson Graham

Pete Tucker also got his general contractor’s license shortly after graduating from high school. This summer, he’ll be attending his Mira Costa 60th year reunion at the King Harbor Yacht Club. When Tucker graduated from Mira Costa, Learned still picked up its lumber from the Santa Fe rail cars that ran down what is now the Greenbelt, and unloaded it in front of City Hall.

Tucker recalled another lumber yard bidding on a job he was doing in the San Fernando Valley. “They didn’t understand why I was hauling lumber all the way from Hermosa when they were right near my job and their bid was $4,000 cheaper than Learned’s.”

“I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I’ve been buying from Learned for 25 years. I can order at 2 in the afternoon and have a truck and trailer there the next morning. If the lumber’s not ready, I can go to Michael Learned’s home and yell, ‘What’s for lunch, I’m waiting for my lumber.’”

Tucker and Mike Learned worked together on a framing crew when they were teenagers.

Last week Tucker was trading stories with Learned General Manager Craig Evans in Evans’ office while waiting to pick up plywood siding for his barn in Palos Verdes.

Learned’s personal relationships built up over decades proved their value during the recent pandemic, when Learned’s employees were classified as essential workers.

“People were stuck at home, so they decided to remodel, landscape, and build decks, and fencing,” recalled Evans. “Our phone rang off the hook. We made so many curbside deliveries our forklift tore up the parking lot.” 

The lumber business follows construction cycles. George Learned credited his lumber yard’s survival during the Great Depression to $10,000 the government paid him for his frontage, which the government needed to widen Pacific Coast Highway. He grew tomatoes between the lumber stacks to help make payroll.

Dick Learned credited Learned’s survival during WWII, when lumber was rationed, to government contracts from his Navy friends.

A more recent challenge was the 2008 mortgage crisis that quickly struck the building industry.

Craig Evans has been Learned Lumber’s general manager since 2002. Photo by Kevin Cody

The recession coincided with Michael Learned finalizing his plan to sell the lumber yard to a dozen of his longtime employees. 

He offered the business at market value, and agreed to finance the sale over 10 years. Randy Gascon, a second generation employee, took the offer to his accountant. The accountant said the offer looked too good to be true. The sale took place in 2011, and was largely paid off in five years.

“It was a way for the Learned family to say thank you to our employees,” Michael Learned said.

General Manager Evans played a central role in the sale. Evans provided assurance to the Learneds the lumber yard would be well managed. Similarly, Evans assured his new partners they were making a good investment.

Third generation Learned Lumber owners Rick and Michael Learned.

Evans’ career in lumber paralleled Michael Learned’s in many respects, though instead of being an artist in his previous career, Evans was a head chef at Houlihan’s in Del Amo Fashion Center.

Like Learned, Evans attended Sonoma State, and like Learned, his first lumber job was through a family connection. His brother owned a lumber remanufacturer that made pallets and stakes from sawmill “downfall,” or scraps.

Evans became a chef when he moved back to San Fernando Valley, where he had grown up.

After 10 years as a chef he returned to the lumber business as a broker. One of his biggest customers was Learned Lumber, which offered him the general manager’s job in 2002.

Evans’ confidence in the lumber yard sale, which resembles an Employee Stock Ownership sale, is partly due to its location.

“People from all over the world want the California Dream. The demographics just keep going upwards,” he said.

He’s also a believer in lumber.

“Man-made composites are harder to work with. You can run a saw blade through lumber three times faster than through composites.”

Lumber is also more environmentally friendly, he said. 

“Composites require more energy to make, create more carbon pollution and are non renewable. Trees store carbon, and for every tree we cut down, five new ones are planted.”

“With lumber, there’s no waste. Paper mills use the sawdust, and cogeneration plants burn bark.”

But Evans acknowledges composite products have their place.

“If you’re ordering a door near the beach, and it’s facing the sun, don’t get wood, and don’t paint it dark blue. It will blow up in a few months,” he said.

“There’s nothing like the warm look of  natural wood. But only if you do the maintenance. It’s like putting a wood boat on the side of your house. We find younger people like wood because they don’t mind the maintenance. Older people like composites,” Evans said.

“We offer advice in a non biased way,” he added.

And always with a story. ER


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