Stepping down: Larry Stone
If you follow Lowe’s as an investor, a supplier or a competitor, you’re familiar with Larry Stone and his role at the nation’s second largest home center chain. He’s the man who runs the stores, and it’s his North Carolinian accent that — for the past 10 years, at least — has grown almost inseparable from the company’s image.
But more than a voice, Stone gives the company 42 years of experience on the job that dates back to a “buck-sixty-an-hour” position in 1969 — hired by Leonard Herring, Lowe’s CEO from 1978 to 1996 and a mentor who Stone continues to refer to as “Mr. Herring.”
The announcement of Stone’s retirement, effective in June, precipitated generous toasts from his colleagues. “He has made many important and lasting contributions to Lowe’s during his career,” said Robert A. Niblock, Lowe’s chairman and CEO. “It would be an understatement to say he will be missed.”
Stone’s hall-of-fame career — he will be inducted into the Home Channel Hall of Fame during the Golden Hammer breakfast ceremony in Las Vegas at the National Hardware Show May 11 — has given him more than just a front-row seat on a home center industry during its most turbulent era. It has brought him inside the lines to shape and influence the game.
Yard worker, store manager, regional manager, chief operating officer and president — and a few more titles — are all part of his resume. He spoke with Home Channel News in March, sharing his thoughts on a career well spent in home improvement.
On what makes a best seller:
“We found over time that customers respond to innovation. I think any time you get new, innovative products, the customers really, really flock to that. They like new things, and I think all the home improvement shows on TV really help drive that. Innovation has always stuck out; value to me has always stuck out.”
On merchandising philosophy:
“The thing you’ve got to do to encourage your merchants is to just keep trying. If all we ever hit were home runs, it would be a boring world. You’re going to win some and lose some. You just have to be careful at the end to win more than you lose.”
On surprise winners:
“In the early ’90s, I was general merchandise manager over one of the categories we had, plumbing, and we brought in a new merchandise VP, and one thing he wanted to do was go vertical with displays, and the second thing he wanted to do was go big in whirlpools. We tried whirlpools many times and just failed miserably. He said you guys are missing the mark, and he put together this great program, and all of a sudden we went from zero to $50 million in a year. I was blown away.”
On Lowe’s retail evolution:
“In 1981, there were 16 people selected as future leaders of Lowe’s who were asked to write articles about the future of the company. Four store managers were picked. One of those was myself, and another was [1998 CEO] Bob Tillman — he turned out pretty good for the company. My article centered all around trying to compete with people like Hechinger, which was the best in the home center industry at that time. And their stores were much larger, and it was hard to compete with stores three or four times the size of what we had.
“To me that whole decade of the ’80s, we were oscillating back and forth between the retail and the builder, and what size of store we should build. And it wasn’t until 1989 that we built that first warehouse type store. We built that first store in March 1989. It was 46,000 sq. ft., and we said we have to make a change with the company.”
On Home Depot:
“The 1980s was a decade of tremendous change, and you have to give Home Depot a lot of credit. I mean, they changed the home improvement business. When you think back at Hechinger and Payless and Lowe’s and all the different players, and here comes this company with no frills, big stores, stack it high, clog up the aisles and people were all of a sudden saying, ‘Hey, this is great value.’ It totally changed the way home improvement was being bought by consumers back then, and even builders.”
On expanding the brand:
“It was just a lot of fun. All of a sudden when you go nationwide you think, ‘Wow!’ At first, we would check into hotels, and I’d say, ‘Larry Stone at Lowe’s,’ and they would say ‘You mean the movie theater chain?’
‘No the home improvement chain.’
‘You mean like Home Depot.’ We used to get that comment a lot.
And I’d say, ‘Well, we’re better than Home Depot.’ ”
Mentors, part 1:
“I always say one of the best mentors I ever had was a guy named Bruce Ballard. He was a store manager I worked for when I first started in Raleigh, N.C. Bruce really taught me the lumber and building material business. He took me out on job sites. This was in the early 1970s. We were selling a lot to builders, he taught me all about lumber, building materials and millwork.”
Mentors, part 2:
“In the 1980s, we were more of a convenience store than a dominance store, and I came to work for Bob [Tillman] in 1989. One of the things he kept pressing is the idea of: if we can’t be No. 1 or No. 2, why be in the business? And I went into merchandising in 1991, and that was our mantra. We kept telling the merchants, ‘If we can’t be No. 1 or No. 2, then we don’t want to be in the business.’ So eventually we got out of things like brown goods, telephones — all kinds of stuff that really didn’t fit the home improvement business.”
On a memorable day:
“I still remember when I heard I was going to get promoted to vice president in August 1989. I was talking to a store manager about a problem we were having in his store, and he was trying to basically get me off his back when he said: ‘I just heard a rumor that you were going to get promoted to vice president,’ and I said ‘What?’
“We didn’t have that many vice presidents. And sure enough, I got a call an hour later from Bob Tillman. He offered me a job coming into the office as vice president of our store planning department. It was kind of a dream come true.”
Advice to future leaders:
“The No. 1 thing you always have to think about is people. I think if you hire great people and train people and the people know that you’ll take care of them and respect them — that’s what makes this whole thing really work. The second thing is customers. From day one this thing is about customer service. Why would you not take care of the customer? Why wouldn’t you make him happy? Let’s just take care of them. And the third thing is be very authentic. Be who you are; don’t try to be somebody that you’re not.”
A dashboard adjusts to the times
There was finally some significant movement on the HCN Industry Dashboard housing starts dials. Unfortunately, the movement was almost entirely the result of a recalibration.
When introduced in August 2009, the original Dashboard’s starts-dial spanned from 200,000 to 2.6 million. But the needle has languished on the low end of the scale.
The new dials span from 300,000 to 1.1 million. The editors have also introduced a second needle, pointing to the pace of the prior month’s activity. Both moves are designed to make the dials easier to read.
But not even the friendlier display could sweeten the results of Februrary. Total housing starts fell to a SAAR of 479,000, while single-family starts slipped to a pace of 375,000 — both near record lows.
Category Report: Mowers
Electric corded lawn mowers accounted for only 6% of the walk-behind market in 2010 — but that’s up from 2.9% in 2009, according to data from consumer research firm The NPD Group.
Soaring fuel prices, tougher government emissions standards and a general trend toward environmental stewardship have given rise to more cordless electric walk mowers and manual mowers, especially for homeowners with smaller lawns. And powered mowers are feeling the trend, as well.
Rob Little, manager of the walk mower category for Toro, said the green movement combined with higher gasoline prices has resulted in more homeowners looking at cordless battery-powered mowers the last two seasons. “For this reason, we introduced last spring our new e-Cycler cordless mower,” Little said. The e-Cycler combines a 36-volt system and 20-in. cutting deck, making it a good fit for yards of a quarter acre or less.
Little said, however, that while homeowners are interested in green products, “they are typically not willing to pay extra for them.”
Sun Joe president Joseph Cohen is more bullish on the green trend, which he sees encompassing all landscaping activities. “We think the trend of manual, electric lawn mowers is here to stay, as more consumers continue to adopt a ‘greener’ attitude,” Cohen said. “We also believe that convenience is key. Our products offer a variety of intuitive features — from large wheels for greater maneuverability and low resistance, to a self-propelled system drive that allows the mower to do almost all the work — that make lawn maintenance quick, easy and affordable.”
Sun Joe’s new line, Mow Joe, features electric models that do not require gas, oil or tune-ups — thus no concerns about startup or maintenance. Some units are cordless, Cohen said, which allows for easy maneuverability around yards.
Go green or else
As Little pointed out, some consumers will not pay extra for green products. Soon, though, they may have no choice, or will be incentivized to do so.
New regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take effect beginning this year that would require engines on mowers to meet more stringent evaporative and emissions standards. These new national standards are similar to the CARB requirements (California Air Resources Board) in place in California since 2007.
To get in front of the forthcoming stricter emission standards, Toro this year introduced a Kohler XT6 engine on its Lawn-Boy walk mower lineup. The Kohler XT6 engine employs overhead valve technology for greater efficiency, cleaner emissions and improved durability. Toro has also introduced a “Smart Speed” drive system that allows the operator to select from a high or low ground speed setting — high speed for mowing open areas and low speed when added control/maneuverability is needed in tight areas around landscaping, Little said.
As consumers adopt newer electric technology as the “go-to” machine for lawn maintenance over traditional gas-powered machines, mower companies are responding with “convenience” machines, according to Cohen. The Mow Joe cordless units, for example, come with a removable and rechargeable 24-volt battery to enhance performance when fully charged.
“Our products offer a variety of intuitive features — from large wheels for greater maneuverability and low resistance to a self-propelled system drive that allows the mower to do almost all the work — that make lawn maintenance quick, easy and affordable,” Cohen said.