For Wheelwright Lumber Co. president Paul Wheelwright, the key to his store’s success for 121 years has been doing a few things really well and sticking to some core principles.
“We have always been known for great service, and our delivery times are always within two to three hours for local deliveries,” he said. “I always try to buy the best quality of materials. For example, all of our 2x8s, 2x10s and 2x12s are select structural grade instead of #2&btr. Our studs are #2&Btr or premium, instead of stud grade. These things develop loyal customers.”
Wheelwright knows that a satisfied customer can turn into a loyal customer for years, if not generations. He has witnessed it at his Ogden, Utah-based store. “ I believe that people like to do business with local companies. We have been in the area for over a hundred years,” Wheelwright said. “We’ve been good to our customers, and they have been good to us.”
Excellent customer service and quality materials are not the only factors that have sustained this dealer for so many years. Wheelwright also believes in these core principles:
• Carry very little debt.
• Pay off everything during the good times, and that will get you through the bad times.
• Own everything.
• Lease nothing — it is much cheaper when things are slow.
• Keep your best people.
“I think we’ve done these things well,” he said.
Wheelwright’s business has withstood — even thrived at times — during the long downturn, in part by shifting its focus from a largely pro-oriented focus to more of a DIY destination. Its 12,000-sq.-ft. sales floor, part of a large renovation several years ago, is more than double that of the old location. Consequently, Wheelwright said his store has seen an influx of DIY customers that it never experienced at the old store, where 95% of its customer base was pro. “Business has increased considerably, which is a pleasant surprise in this downturn,” he said.
When Wheelwright entered into a wholesaler partnership with Orgill seven years ago, Wheelwright was in the process of building a new, more expansive store. Using Orgill’s Market Driven Retailing (MDR) process, Wheelwright was able to devise a product assortment and pricing structure necessary to be competitive. “I used to have customers coming in and asking if I could match the big-box price that was often much lower than ours,” Wheelwright said. “But I don’t get that anymore, especially on price-sensitive items. In some cases, we’re even a few dollars less. Our retail business has increased two to three times in sales as a result.”
In August 2004, Wheelwright Lumber relocated to its brand-new facility on 6.5 acres, a property that houses a larger store and door shop, a warehouse with 20,000 sq. ft., as well as a rail spur to bring in quality lumber products by the carload.
Wheelwright said the Orgill reps routinely walk his store looking for ideas, such as new merchandising sets. “They don’t merely order the sets and go home, they help put it together with us,” he said. “They are with us every step of the way. It has been a very good partnership.”
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Zarsky Lumber: It’s better in Texas
Corpus Christi, Texas — Most people who look at the rising condominiums along the beach at Port Aransas think “vacation.” But for executives at Zarsky Lumber, the thought is “opportunity.”
“We aren’t afraid to have a salesman go over to the condos and ask for their cleaning supply business,” said Cally Fromme, executive VP of the Victoria, Texas-based lumberyard, ranked No. 115 on the HCN Top 200 Pro Dealer list, with $41.5 million in sales. “We’re a lumberyard, but if that’s going to make us some money and some relationships, then why not?”
Thinking outside the box isn’t the only way the 10-unit dealer has been able to rebound from a tough 2009 to a double-digit-percentage sales gain in 2010. And when the opportunity to acquire a 10th location presented itself last year, the conservative-minded management team pounced, creating a new branch in Port Aransas. The unit is already in the black, said Steve Weaver, manager. “A lot of it is the economy,” he said. “It’s not great here by any means, but it’s not as bad as other areas. It’s simply hard work. You have to have the right people, and you gotta think positive.”
According to executives, there’s no single reason for success in tough times. And there’s no secret either. Zarsky every day balances its emphasis on relationships, the conservative business practices, the tight-knit family style management, and — the granddaddy of them all — hard work.
The chief architect of the business model is president Dan Coleman, Fromme’s father, who, along with a partner, took over the business from the Zarsky brothers in 1976. Coleman’s management style empowers managers to make their own decisions and encourages them to make the most of community relationships.
“By getting involved in communities, from Rotary Club to Little League, not only are you doing good, but you’re making good contacts,” Fromme said. The company also invests in customer relationships with the time and effort required to get them hard-to-find products or materials. “Even for a walk-in customer who wants an oddball item, we can find it,” Fromme said. “Maybe we’re not going to make much money on the transaction, but we’re going to make a good customer.”
Business-to-business relationships are also key, including its suppliers LMC, Orgill and Handy Hardware. And Fromme is exceptionally close to the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA), a group she will chair beginning in October, after serving for years in other executive roles.
“It’s been an educational experience every step of the way,” she said. “I’ve met some amazing and very successful people, and I take pride knowing that we’re helping our industry. Being involved puts you close to the issues. I think, also, we have an obligation to serve our industry.”
Both Fromme and Weaver credit the leadership of Coleman for setting the tone at Zarsky. After a disappointing 2009, Coleman assembled the troops and announced: “We didn’t make any money this year,” he said. “It’s never happened before, and it’s never going to happen again.”
Phone calls at odd hours are simply business as usual, according to Weaver, and a bias toward action is fostered across the board. “One of Dan’s sayings is: ‘If you’re moving stuff around, at least you’re trying to make things better,’ ” he said.
And how’s it working?
“I think we’re starting to feel a little more comfortable buying some equipment and doing things we put off a while ago,” Fromme said. “We’re not celebrating, but we’re doing better.”
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Responding to weak market, 84 Lumber designs new store
Pro dealer 84 Lumber is testing a consumer-oriented prototype at its corporate headquarters in Eighty Four, Pa., a format that it hopes to roll out to rural markets underserved by big boxes.
The LBM company, No. 2 on the HCN Top 200 Pro Dealer Scoreboard, hopes to transform 70 of its lumberyards into retail stores that feature several aisles of such basic items as painting supplies and plumbing fixtures, as well as some gas grills, sheds and backyard gyms. Kitchen and bath design centers will also offer decking, railing and doors. Cosmetic changes to the stores will include brighter lighting and a more open floor plan.
The company has no intention of moving away from its builder/contractor customer base, according to Jeff Nobers, VP marketing and public relations. The company just hopes to double its consumer business, which now accounts for approximately 10% of sales, as a way of generating revenue during the housing slump.
“Our plan is to roll out roughly 15 [consumer stores] per quarter,” Nobers told Home Channel News.
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Great idea, the remodel
Great idea, the remodel market is what will carry us all through this extreme slow down in business. There are still opportunities in the smaller rural areas where a retailer can hire the right staff and put in the correct product mix. Very important to attract female customers into your location. Most times the bigger box stores over look this remodel market but with commiment it can work.