Throwback Thursday: Erb Lumber's big comeback

Back in the early 1980s, Erb Lumber president Fred Erb was guiding his Birmingham, Michigan-based chain of 29 stores through one of the home center industry’s most volatile periods.

As reported in the July 16, 1984 issue of National Home Center News, the forerunner of HBSDealer, Erb Lumber’s new 140,000 sq. ft. distribution center was just one of the projects on the company’s plate. Erb Lumber was also moving to unify its merchandising approach – a task made difficult by the wide variety of footprints in the chain, which had grown largely through acquisitions.

What kind of merchandising did he have in mind?

“I’m talking about the kind where you walk into the store and the presentation tells you to buy,” said Erb.

A slowdown in housing starts in 1980 and 1981 hurt Erb Lumber, which saw a 75% drop in net income over that period. But 1983 came witha 154% rebound.

Erb explained in 1984 that the company needed to expand its sales with consumers.

A prototype in Detroit revealed some of the ideas that would play a role: expanded kitchen cabinet displays, bathroom vanity and paint departments visible from the front door, a trebling of the number of endcaps storewide, the covering of the inside walls of the store with cedar pine boards, and longer evening operating hours.

Erb's strategy and execution paid off in growth – the company had 45 stores in 1993. That’s the year that the family sold the business to Carolina Holdings, which later became Stock Building Supply, and even later became BMC Stock Holdings.

Erb was a remarkable figure in the home improvement industry and a respected philanthropist in Detroit even after his business years. He died in 2013 at the age of 90.

HBSDealer’s Throwback Thursday is sponsored by Schaffer Associates, a national management consulting firm specializing in executive search and organizational strategies for the hardware, home improvement, building materials, and consumer products industries. As the premier management consulting firm serving the industry, we help build organizations and leadership teams that foster corporate growth and success well into the future. Contact us at