Islands of opportunity

BY Ken Clark

The Caribbean island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands is known throughout the world as a vacation destination with remarkable beaches and unbeatable sailing and diving.

For Micheal Thomas, the second-generation general manager of CTL Home Center, Tortola is also an island of home improvement opportunity. It is here where the company’s transformation from plumbing supply house to showroom to full-service LBM dealer and home center is under way.

It’s also here where the challenges of the high cost of imports and competition from suppliers in the neighboring U.S. territories of St. Thomas and Puerto Rico have combined to keep the company sharp, especially in maintaining its customer base and controlling the cost of shipping, freight and import duties.

“We have to have prices that make sense to our customers,” Thomas said. “Our operating costs here are higher than they are in those U.S. islands. But we’re able to manage that. And our customers tell us they appreciate us. We even get some from St. Thomas.”

The business was founded by Thomas’ father Clarence Thomas, who ran a plumbing construction business in the 1960s and found a ready market for imported materials left over at his job sites. After Clarence Thomas Ltd was founded in 1967, the business transformed steadily, expanding to contracting and marine supplies and adding a location on the island of Virgin Gorda in 1996.

Today, the company that has been shaped mightily by geographic and political boundaries is on the verge of another big step in its evolution.

Thomas and his team, which includes his brother David, who heads the IT and marketing functions, are bringing a new dimension to their offering and to the island in the form of a drive-through lumberyard — phase one of a larger transformation to step up home improvement and building material distribution in the BVI.

“We took a hard look at the future of this business and this island,” Thomas said. “And the next logical step for us to complete the cycle was to add a lumberyard.”

Early efforts about five years ago to sell lumber from a shed at the Tortola location weren’t paying off. But taking the advice of a colleague in the industry, Thomas took a trip to Louisiana to visit the widely respected operation of Stine Lumber. What he saw made an impression in a couple of ways.

“I never met [the Stines] before, but a lot of our retail concepts were the same,” Thomas said. “Then we went through the lumberyard, and I said, ‘This is it.’ It makes all the sense in the world.”

He listed some of the benefits of a drive-through lumberyard: It’s organized to sell, it’s weather-proof, and it’s convenient for the staff and customer. The facility in Louisiana was designed by Ron Johnson, who has made a name for himself as an authority on and designer of drive-through yards. CTL engaged Johnson for an 11,000-sq.-ft. project on the site of a competitor’s hardware store that closed last year.

In December 2010, CTL’s drive-through lumberyard opened. The challenge of training new people in a new field was daunting, but Thomas likes what he sees so far, describing the addition as a “dry run” for an even bigger project on the drawing board.

CTL is continuing its business evolution. And it already has the blueprints drawn up for a facility that Thomas describes as a game changer for the industry in the BVI. The new home center will consolidate the two existing Tortola stores in one location just a little outside the island’s major city of Road Town in an area called Fish Bay. The new version of the 45-year-old business will combine a larger drive-through lumberyard and a larger home improvement center — totaling about 50,000 sq. ft. Located on waterfront property, the facility will allow customers to carry merchandise by boat back to their home or project. It’s about a year away, but expectations are running high.

“It’s going to change the face of retailing in the BVI,” Thomas said. “Our plan right now is to build a comprehensive offering to serve customers’ projects from the ground up. And I’m just looking forward to bringing our store concept to more people.”

The setting may be unusual, but the retail principles are familiar, according to David Thomas, marketing manager for CTL Home Center: Your people, your products and your service determine success.

“We’ve done our best to give our customers really great products, really great pricing and keep the stores looking good and comfortable to shop,” David Thomas said.

CTL describes Orgill as the company’s primary supplier, and estimates that more than 60% of its inventory is ordered through the Memphis, Tenn.-based distributor.

Several years ago, when Home Depot opened in St. Thomas, Orgill representatives arrived on the scene to develop a price strategy with CTL to find competitive and margin opportunities. And last month, Orgill’s team provided new planograms for the Virgin Gorda store. “They came in and reset the entire store. We can already see that it’s made a big difference.”

While building is at a lull across the British Virgin Islands, sales have grown about 5% a year in the last two years. While it’s not the high-margin areas of plumbing and construction, housewares is one of the fastest-growing categories for the company.

“We’re growing, even in the bad economy,” Micheal Thomas said.


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How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?

My father’s house

BY Jim Reynolds

This summer, my dad, he one of the “Greatest Generation,” passed away after a full life. He died in the home he built with his own hands for our family in 1958: a three-bedroom cape on the south shore of Long Island, about 3 miles north (as the seagull flies) of the Great South Bay.

He built it with my Uncle Bill, a tile contractor, whose three sons also later went into the kitchen and bath construction business, and my godfather, a local plumber. It took them most of the summer of 1958, and its completion just preceded my arrival in the family next March of ’59. We lived next to my Uncle Bill, who lived next to my grandparents, who in turn lived next to my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don. The property for all of the kids came from a turkey and duck farm operated by my grandparents. Long Island used to be famous for its duck.

Since my mom has been gone for a few years now, this summer was the end of the line for this home in its service to our family. It will be sold, re-furbished, re-painted and readied for a new family, and I hope they fill it with love and another 50 years of memories.

Going through the many family papers, I came across the bill of sale for most of the materials used for our cedar shake home from Bayport Lumber Co., which is now a ProBuild unit. Back in ’58, it was run by Henry and Walter Haab, and carried the slogan “We Serve Those Who Build.” There was no apparent need for additional info like a street number or zip code, let alone a website: The phone number was enough — Bayport 8-3800.

The cost of materials for the wood frame house, excluding kitchen and bath cabinets, came to just under $5,800, which was a large sum at the time. Included in the product list were Andersen basement windows, Kwikset door locks, a Bilco basement door and 1,200 sq. ft. of Ponderosa (knotty) pine paneling. That paneling was everywhere in the house!

That cape survived many hurricanes, some heavy snow on the roof, two brush fires (the pine barren woods of Long Island are prone to wild fires every decade or so) and of course the ’60s and ’70s with two teenagers growing up inside its walls.

When I am forced to recall a soothing, happy memory in order to briefly escape the hectic pace and stress of the current world, I imagine myself hopping on my Schwinn Sting-Ray bike on a sunny Saturday morning and pedaling down the driveway out to find my neighborhood friends.

I keep thinking about the “We Serve Those Who Build” company mission of Bayport Lumber, and how building is so ingrained in our country’s history and psyche.

It’s in Home Channel News’ psyche too. If you expand and rephrase it just a little to say, “We Serve Retailers, Dealers, Owners, Operators, Wholesalers and Distributors who serve those who build,” you would hit the nail on the head.

Of course, we all utilize more than a phone number and a paper bill of sale to conduct our business these days, but the sum of all the ingredients used to build and maintain our houses hopefully adds up to the creation of a home. Just like all the ingredients that went into my father’s house.

— Jim Reynolds
[email protected]


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t.jack says:
May-03-2012 07:50 am

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r.sanders says:
Apr-30-2012 03:39 pm

What a great little story! If
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How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?

Found: The Gingrich Notes

BY Ken Clark

When Newt Gingrich was first mentioned as a long shot to be considered as a presidential candidate, I had the following conversation with a salesman.

“Remember when Newt was our keynote speaker back in 2008? What if he makes a strong run for the Oval Office?”

“Well, then,” said the salesman. “You’d have a column for the magazine.”

Here is that column.

Unfortunately, no complete record exists of the keynote speech delivered by the former Speaker of the House at the 2008 ProDealer Industry Summit, hosted jointly by Home Channel News and the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA). But since Gingrich began playing with “front runner” status, Home Channel News editors have pieced together this recap, based on recently discovered notebooks and recordings.

Here’s the setting. It’s Oct. 1, 2008 in Chantilly, Va. A few miles to the east, Congress is debating the details of a massive bank bailout. Gingrich takes the podium and describes the 200 or so industry leaders in attendance as “an intense and serious-looking group.” He begins a presentation that may still impact the presidential race:

“The real underlying economic weight of the planet is enormous and growing,” he said. “And there’s no sign that that’s going to change.”

He moved on to “the sheer explosion of communications. More and more people are connected to more and more people in ways that leads to more and more creativity.”

Still, the economy was clogged. Housing was in free fall. And markets were spooked. But Gingrich pointed to the resilience of U.S. enterprise and offered a gastrointestinal metaphor. “Think of this as a bad case of indigestion,” he said. “Once we come through the current indigestion, the odds are fairly high we’re going to resume a historic growth rate, which in this country averages better than 3% per year.”

Gingrich, the self-described historian, as opposed to Gingrich, the presidential candidate, said: “A sudden surge of energy from the American people will wipe out the current two-party system.”

He criticized Washington legislators and members of the executive branch for ignoring warning signs at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, being indifferent to the declining educational standards of U.S. high schools (“holding pens with athletic opportunities,” he called them), and stunting the growth of small businesses by passing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Those who saw the United States of late 2008 on a verge of a massive depression were guilty of “massive levels of stupidity.” And he added: “We’re still the best system in the world for attracting capital.”

Gingrich’s remarks were well received, and he was a kind and patient guest in the post-keynote reception. Sometime between then and now, he became a lot of people’s idea of a president. He’s still in the hunt.

— Ken Clark
[email protected]


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C.Fromme says:
Jan-09-2012 05:05 pm

I well remember Newt's
I well remember Newt's presentation in Virginia. I think that what impressed me most was his intellect. I walked away thinking that he sure was smart, he knew his history, and he was an encyclopedia of facts. He seemed to really have a handle on the "real world" and common sense.



How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?