Woodson Lumber, small-market powerhouse
As Handy Hardware celebrates its 50th anniversary, one of its Texas hardware and lumberyard dealers is preparing for its 100th.
Seven-location Woodson Lumber, based in Brenham, Texas, operates in the small towns in the economically diverse Dallas, Houston, San Antonio Triangle. The chain was founded by HP Woodson in 1913, and today is run by his granddaughter Ann Chapman.
A slow evolution over three generations of ownership has brought the company to its current mix — two locations focused on contractor business and five others focused on what president and COO Craig Blum describes as “very small town, rural, repair-and-remodel, farm-and-ranch, agri-related” customers.
“We carry a little bit of everything, and we’re willing to try a little of anything,” Blum said. The retail evolution continues across the company. Most recently, Blum pointed to an expansion of Woodson’s farm and ranch assortment, adding Nutrena and Purina to its staples of wire and hardware. It has expanded its gift, housewares, and lawn and garden departments. “Things to help decorate your home a little bit, inside and out,” said Blum, who has been with Woodson since “the day I walked out of high school” in 1975.
Since about that time, Woodson has been with Handy Hardware as its hardware supplier. (Blum served on the Handy board from 2000 to 2008.)
“The other thing we’ve done, on the business side, is we have focused our buying in two ways, one with Handy Hardware and the other on the commodity side through LMC,” he said. “We have relied on those two to do their job, so we can focus on the customers and our markets. And there hasn’t been a whole lot that they haven’t been able to provide.”
As Woodson has grown, Handy’s in-house team and RDMs have helped guide the company’s new store design and planograms in Lexington (pop. 1,500); Buffalo (pop. 1,800) and Groesbeck (pop. 3,500.)
Blum said there’s always been somebody to talk to at Handy. “From our regional district manager, the buyers, management and [president] Tina Kirbie, we’ve always known people we could turn to, and never felt that we wouldn’t get a call back and get a problem addressed,” he said.
“We’re close enough that if we needed to, we could get in a car and go talk to them, but we haven’t had to do that,” Blum said.
Like most dealers who aren’t tied to the success of tract builders, Woodson feels somewhat insulated from the tough economy. “When there is little building, you have to shift to the repair and remodel guy,” he said. “And our walk-in business has been very good, even in this downturn in home building.”
The company slogan: “Where You Matter.” Emphasis is on the “You,” said Blum. And that service focus is typical of the Handy membership, he noted.
“They want to have an independent hardware distributor, and they want to maintain their independence,” he said.
Fix & Feed Hardware
Sulphur Springs, Texas — “Let me show you something.”
That’s how an employee at Fix & Feed Sulphur Springs Hardware greeted a reporter who was visiting the store about 80 miles east of Dallas on a hot July weekday. She marched to a back room of the 20,000-sq.-ft. hardware store to a door marked “Keep this door closed at all times,” and led the visitor inside.
“Here is where we make the fudge,” she said.
On the shelves are pans of Oreo fudge, Snickers fudge, maple nut, even a sucrose-free fudge formulated for diabetics, all of which are merchandised in a fancy case near the entrance.
“From what I understand, the profit margin is about 300%,” said Sharon Stacey, whose duties at the store include making the fudge. “It’s profitable, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. I get in here, and I just rattle a pot and pan.”
The phrase “profitable and a lot of fun” goes a long way to describe the scene at Fix & Feed, which operates three locations in East Texas — Sulphur Springs, Commerce and Bonham. And the fudge program is a good indicator of the retailer’s willingness to try new things and differentiate itself.
Owner Bobby Hill is the gregarious proprietor who started in the hardware business kind of by accident. He bought a small shopping center with 12 stores in 1995, and felt a hardware store would be a good fit for the center and the community. He tried to recruit hardware retailers from surrounding areas, but with no luck. So he started one himself.
“It was extremely overwhelming,” he said about starting up. “I remember thinking, ‘Can I do this? Can I just jump into this?’ ”
His record provides an answer. Since the first store opened in 1996, the retailer expanded to Bonham, Texas, in 2003 and Sulphur Springs in 2006, which relocated to a larger location in 2010. “In all that growth, there’s a lot of learning,” Hill said. “There’s still a lot of learning to be done.”
“I had retail experience,” Hill added. “I had a couple of convenience stores and a service station earlier in my career. Customers, I knew. Retail, I knew. But I didn’t know hardware.”
One valuable resource from the beginning, Hill said, has been the chain’s longtime hardlines supplier, Houston-based Handy Hardware Wholesale. One of the first things Hill did as a hardware store retailer was to attend Handy’s market, and then turn to Handy’s regional district manager for advice. “We actually used Handy to guide us,” Hill said. “The regional district manager would say, ‘You need 16 ft. of plumbing, faucet and repair parts,’ and we would go to the vendors and get those sections set up.”
Fix & Feed’s growth has come aisle-by-aisle, along that same model, he said. When the stores branched out beyond hardware categories — animal health, for instance — the learning process started over from the beginning.
Currently, one of the big initiatives for Fix & Feed is an inventory management project.
“We have completed, however not perfected, installing a system. It’s still a challenge, but technically, we can pull up an item and see if we have two or 10, or two or 10 in another store.”
Managing inventory ranks with managing the employees as the top two challenges, Hill noted. The economy? “We don’t have tract builders in our store. Most of our business is smaller customers,” he said. I think the economy is less important when you have that for a customer base.”
One constant at the East Texas business is customer service. The store is open 13 hours a day, seven days a week. That policy goes a long way toward being there for the customer.
“The customer-service reputation that we want is the feeling that people can get in, get what they want, and get back out,” Hill said.
Another differentiator in a small town shared by Tractor Supply, Atwoods and even a Fastenal next door, is staff morale. It’s fun to work at Fix & Feed, according to Stacey, who also said many of the customers are friends. “It’s a laid-back experience. The fact that we’re an independent hardware store, we don’t have a big corporate name, we have Fix & Feed, three stores. And we are hugely successful in a market that is glutted with agri-business and building supplies, and we’re very competitive with them.”
CNRG acquires Cole’s hardware store in Tennessee
Natchez, Miss.-based Central Network Retail Group has purchased a 38,000-sq.-ft. Cole’s Home Solutions store and drive-through lumberyard in Ripley.
CNRG is a recently organized management and operations group led by Boyden Moore, the former CEO of Marvin’s Home Centers, and Jimmy Smith, the current president of Home Hardware Centers.
According to Moore, CNRG’s president, the Ripley store ran into hard times, despite innovative merchandising and strong operations. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“The Cole family has a great business with stores in Millington and Ripley," Moore said, in a prepared statement. "They are truly innovators in the home center industry. We are proud to have the opportunity to add the Ripley location to our portfolio of stores.” The store will continue to operate under the Cole’s Home Solutions name during a transition period, after which it will be renamed as a Home Hardware Center."
CNRG said it is working to create a multi-format, multi-brand operating company through strategic partnerships and acquisitions. It currently manages the 18 Home Hardware Centers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
"This purchase opens up a new market area for us,” said Jimmy Smith, chairman of CNRG. “It is our goal at CNRG to grow the number of our retail holdings as we move forward. We are constantly exploring opportunities to partner with solid retail operators to expand into new areas and with new retail formats under the right circumstances, and our purchase of the Cole’s facility in Ripley is testament to that.”
The Cole family will continue to own and operate the Cole’s Home Solutions store in Millington, Tenn.
On the basis of the ambitious upgrades and merchandising ideas incorporated in the Millington store, Cole’s Home Solutions was recognized as the 2010 Golden Hammer Award "Tools of the Trade" honoree. (For a store tour of the Millington, location, click here.)