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Curtis Lumber finds room to grow: The Multi-Unit Pro Dealer of the Year thrives on service, attitude

Curtis Lumber’s Ballston Spa, N.Y., location includes a home center...
Curtis Lumber has been a regional leader in material handling...

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. —Jay Curtis, president of Curtis Lumber, believes generally that things aren’t as bad as the media or the politicians make them out to be. He has a point. Things are certainly going pretty well right now for Curtis Lumber, the 2008 Home Channel News Multi-Unit Pro Dealer of the Year.

The 22-location company made a strong showing on the recent Home Channel News Top 350 Pro Dealer Scoreboard, with sales growth of 11.0 percent and total sales of $170 million, earning it the 41st spot on the list. The primarily New York state company’s empire has grown to include parts of Vermont, with the late 2006 acquisition of Gregory Supply, a four-unit dealer that began carrying the Curtis banner earlier this year.

The acquisition of Gregory followed a late 2004 acquisition of seven-unit New York state competitor Webb and Sons, and capped a long period of steady organic growth that has marked the company since it was founded five generations ago in 1890.

But of course, numbers can’t tell the whole story of any large organization. The interactions every day between the company’s staff and its customers are what Curtis believes are the key to its success. And the company’s long-term view of building material distribution and market-by-market approach play heavily in the company’s ability to thrive.

In his Ballston Spa headquarters, adjacent to the company’s massive home center and lumber-yard facility, Curtis shared some of his management and market theories with Home Channel News. They include:

“Today, everything is a moving target, and your hard-fought competitive advantage—if you had any—can evaporate in seconds. We are a very conservative company: Waste not, want not. However, our radical streak keeps us one step ahead of the game.”

“We want to be the biggest bottle of aspirin in the closet for the customer. When they have a problem, we want them to come to us to solve it.”

“All we have is our integrity. Anybody can do what we do.”

“Surround yourself with good people and give them the freedom to do their job.”

The company’s latest acquisition conforms with the last piece of advice. “Jay and [vp] Jon Hallgren told me basically, ‘You guys were very profitable, and we’re not going to try to change things,’” said Tim Haley, director of sales and operations for the northern division of Curtis Lumber, a division that consists of the former Gregory Lumber locations.

The four locations have noticed the benefit of increased buying power, now that the Curtis banner hangs over the door, but Haley describes the integration as seamless, owing partly to familiarity between the companies. Both were members of Lumbermens Merchandising Corp., and both companies had participated in the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program, in which Curtis has taken a leadership position. The relationships were already in place for a smooth transition.

“One day we were Gregory, and the next day we were Curtis, and nobody missed a beat,” Haley said.

At hardlines distributor Orgill, vp-dealer services Bobby Massingill describes Curtis Lumber as a good company to do business with. “Curtis has had huge success, particularly with the way things have been up in the Northeast with the influx of the big boxes. He not only has survived, but competed and thrived.”

Massingill pointed to the company’s ability to manage each location based on local needs as one of the keys to its performance.

The Curtis family has been distributing lumber and building materials longer than most. Jay’s tenure marks the fifth generation of leadership, and the sixth is being groomed in the form of 23-year-old Christopher Curtis, Jay’s son.

Curtis Lumber’s involvement in the LBM industry extends beyond the 22 units that carry the Curtis banner. Christopher represented Curtis Lumber at the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLMBDA) Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2008. And the company participates actively in the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

“They are an integral part of everything that we do,” said Rita Ferris, president of the NRLA, on which Curtis Lumber’s Jon Hallgren serves on the executive committee as treasurer.

CURTIS LUMBER

Headquarters: Ballston Spa, N.Y.2007 sales: $170 million2006 sales: $153.1 millionUnits: 22

Source: HCN Top 350 Scoreboard

For instance, she pointed to the company’s dedication to the NRLA’s Material Handling program, which was launched last year to educate dealers on how to reduce damage, avoid workplace injuries and improve overall efficiency. For 10 years, Curtis Lumber provided support and resources to develop the program, Ferris said.

“Jay has been very supportive, and he’s extremely generous,” she added.

Another strategy that differentiates Curtis Lumber—and perhaps serves as a reason for the company’s ability to thrive during a time of diminishing housing starts both regionally and nationally, is the company’s aversion to tying its success to that of a big builder customer. There are no superstar outside sales reps at Curtis. In fact, the term itself is rather neglected. “Inside, outside, upside, downside, it doesn’t matter,” Curtis said.

“Everyone here is a salesman.”

But individual markets, and the 22 locations, are treated differently and allowed autonomy to market as they know best. Managing the communications and understanding the needs of the local market is very difficult to maintain as organizations grow. Curtis says that’s one key to Curtis Lumber, and it’s a challenge across the LBM industry.

“The minute we’re fat and happy with the status quo, we’re probably done for,” he said.

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