An Industry Innovator

The family-owned business, which has been in operation in Lansing since 1979, is appropriately named RBK Building Materials after its founders, Robert and Betty Kleiman. It’s the hard work of the two that’s being credited for establishing a solid work ethic. “Our family company represents the American Dream,” says Trystin Kleiman, manager of the Lansing flagship store. “My ancestors were immigrants hungry for a better life and hopeful about the opportunities the United States offered those with ambition.”

Kleiman says it was her grandfather who joined the army and fought in World War II to earn money to go to business school. It was his knowledge that sparked interest in entrepreneurship in the family, which in turn led his son Robert to eventually own several businesses. But it wasn’t until 1979 that Robert and his family opted to take on the biggest venture yet: RBK Building Materials. Despite a bumpy economic road of late, the family has never regretted the decision.

RBK sells exterior building supplies to both contractors and the public, but its primary customer base is homebuilders and renovators. Services include roofing; siding; and the installation of windows, garage and storm doors, and gutters. But after the collapse of the housing market hit the construction industry hard, the company found itself in need of a makeover.

“New home construction was our bread and butter,” says Trystin. She adds that just as the downturn forced contractors to change, RBK had to change as well. “Contractors went with the flow of the market, moving to smaller, indoor jobs—or they died out. We had to find a way to change too.”

Ironically, the plan to save market share involved a pet project of Trystin’s father, and company chief executive, Terry Kleiman. “My father has always been interested in technology,” she says. “He knew the key to survival was to become more efficient and creative.”  That creativity led to branching out in the area of custom mill work ( Using cellular PVC, RBK began to offer what no other business in the Lansing area could.

“Mill work is the decorative stuff that some call ‘icing’ normally seen on older homes,” says Trystin. “If you can come up with a picture, we can create it.” Not only does the material look like wood, but it isn’t affected by the weather; it doesn’t rot, warp or yellow. The best part, Trystin says, is that each item is made to order.

While the mill work has sparked new life in the company, RBK is not giving up on traditional supply work. “In conversations with customers, many are saying they plan to spend more on their homes this year,” says Trystin.  Though people may not be building new, Trystin says they are looking to renovate and upgrade their current homes with the essentials. Roofing, siding and new windows are the most common changes, but other areas need attention too.

Gutters, which have been left unattended for too long, can cause serious foundation problems. “If not maintained properly, gutters can lead to water run-off that is too close to the house and could lead to erosion of the foundation or water in the basement, which can create some costly repairs,” Trystin says.

Even well-intentioned homeowners can make some costly mistakes. Those who choose to install gutters themselves, hoping to save money, can end up shelling out a whole lot more in the end. “We always recommend professional installation. If not installed properly, water could run down too close to the home.” Trystin says not only do homeowners risk foundation damage, other types of erosion can be problematic as well.

“It can also affect the landscaping in an unnatural way making the home less appealing aesthetically. In today’s housing market, the little things can make a difference between a sale and no sale.”

RBK also works as a link between customers and contractors. “We let them know who they should trust and who they shouldn’t,” says Trystin. “We try to take the worry out of the job.”

Trystin says there are some jobs that homeowners can do themselves, but gutter installation probably isn’t one of them. “I can’t tell you how many times someone will come in and say they should have listened to me on a professional installation. Eventually they come back to us for the install, but that’s after spending more time and money to fix their mistakes.”

RBK, now with locations in Jackson and Kalamazoo, has done well in building a reputation for quality. Their mantra: keeping loyal customers happy, becoming as efficient as possible, creatively finding ways to stay competitive, and continuing to practice business honestly and ethically. RBK was nominated for Small Family Business of the Year in 2008 and remains a member of the Select Independent Distributors of America (SIDA) and the Greater Lansing Home Builders and Remodelers Association (GLHB&RA). It was just last year that the organization added remodelers to the group, to reflect the shift in the housing market from new construction to renovations.

RBK, which began with a handful of workers, now employs more than a thousand, with 600 here in Lansing. And, it doesn’t stop there. RBK is expecting to add more work as the economy picks up. “We believe in Lansing and are optimistic things will pick up,” predicts Trystin. “And we’ll be ready when it does.”

Author: Jo Anne Paul-Stanton
Photography: Terri Shaver

RBK Building Materials

Bob and Betty Kleiman, Founders

Terry Kleiman, President and CEO

Randy Kleiman, Silent Partner

Trystin Kleiman, Store Manager

1325 E. Jolly Road




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