Back to the basics

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Adorning a wall in the operations department at Carter Lumber Co. in Brimfield Township, a mural depicts a logging truck rolling down a dirt road, approaching what appears to be a growing business district.

Proudly, Neil Sackett recounts the painting’s symbolism.

“That old lumber truck is rolling through time, starting in the 1900s when my grandfather, W.E., earned his apprenticeship in the timber trades,” says Sackett, president the Carter Lumber Co. stores nationwide. “He worked at a lumberyard in southeast Arkansas, doing everything from sawing logs to leading mule-driven logging teams through the woods.”

Sackett refers to the company’s founding father, Warren E. Carter, who came to Akron in 1927 to visit a brother who worked at Goodyear. While here, Carter drove by the Gough lumberyard on North Case Avenue in Kent and chatted with owner Clyde Gough.

Gough offered him a foreman’s job at $22 a month. Five years later, Carter and a co-worker, T. Neil Jones, bought the lumberyard’s assets from the bank, which had foreclosed on the company during the Depression.

“That was the beginning of Carter-Jones Lumber,” says Sackett, one of 20 family members currently involved in the business. “So the buildings in the mural represent the lumberyard he took over, and the many yards and stores he built after that.”

Today, the Carter enterprise has a presence of 220 locations in 10 states. Annual sales top $560 million and the company provides jobs for 4,000 people, 200 of them at the 50,000-square-foot corporate headquarters on Tallmadge Road in Brimfield.

“We’ve grown to be more of a contractor-oriented store that also services retail trade and do-it-yourselfers. But recently, we’ve gone back to the basics of our founding business plan,” Sackett says.

Those basics are the core business strategies W.E. Carter used to build his empire — keystone philosophies that foster a corporate culture based on hard work and customer satisfaction.

The giant speaks

For years, this lumbering giant intentionally kept a low profile, avoiding publicity. But in 1998, the family acknowledged that its silent approach had a negative impact on the bottom line.

“Most consumers weren’t really sure who Carter Lumber served. Some thought we catered exclusively to contractors. Some contractors thought we just serviced do-it-yourselfers,” Sackett says, explaining that about 70 percent of Carter’s business was with contractors, with 30 percent stemming from DIY sales.

An image-building campaign was crucial to Carter’s success as a smaller chain, and timing was critical. Housing starts were booming. Home improvement superstores were taking root. Americans were spending billions annually on home improvements.

The family turned to Hitchcock Fleming and Associates Inc., an Akron-based advertising and public relations firm, to launch a massive marketing campaign. Through television and radio commercials, a Web site and a newsletter, the campaign branded the company as “The Yard at Carter Lumber” and promoted its founding principles of customer service.

“We also made it more convenient for contractors to do business with us by designating contractor sales representatives who travel to a contractor’s job site to offer advice, provide material supply lists needed for construction jobs, track inventory for the builders, and take orders right on site,” Sackett says.

This necessitated automating a company that was still handwriting tickets after 60 years.

“Our new point of sales computer system at each store enables us to give customers better service, make better decisions on the products and inventory levels we need and better market to our customers,” says Jeff Seder, vice president of technology.

Seder notes that the Enterprise software system databases information including the customer’s identity, and product types and quantity each contractor typically purchases. Since companywide implementation was completed in March 2000, Carter Lumber sales representatives and the company’s marketing and purchasing departments have benefited by the on-time access to this data.

Unit of one

“W.E. believed that, no matter how many stores you have, if you run the whole company like one store, your customers are better served,” Sackett says.

How does Carter Lumber achieve that goal with its 220 locations?

“You build your one store, decide how many people you need there to serve the customer, the management style that’s needed, and the amount and quality of products you need,” he says.

Typically staffed by eight to 10 employees, each store is about 6,000 square feet, situated on six acres, with two or three pole buildings. The company seeks to position its stores on a main thoroughfare into a city, targeting areas that big competitors avoid.

“Most important, to duplicate your business model, you have to run each store based on your foundation philosophies,” Sackett says.

Instilling those principals in 4,000 employees calls for constant training within the ranks and communication from the top down.

“The more your people know what’s expected of them, the better your customer service is, and that all ties back into sales,” says Jeff Donley, the company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.

It starts with Carter Lumber’s human resources department, which conducts training at the company headquarters and in the stores.

“We start with the basics, teaching the value of a customer, why customer service is so important and what’s expected of our employees,” says Donley. “The basics are courtesy, helpfulness and speed to ensure the customer’s overall experience is a positive one. Our contractors’ time is money to them, so we honor that and try to get them in and out of the store as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Training also covers product availability and quality issues.

“That involves offering quality products that are competitively priced, making sure we have the product we say we will and taking care of any problems right away,” Donley says.

District managers instruct yard managers and store employees about the company’s products and how they should be used. This level of management also ensures that each employee lives up to the company’s and the customers’ expectations.

“Through our district managers, we’re trying to send a consistent message from the top right on down, so that we can run each store like one store, and the result of all our efforts to train and communicate is good customer service,” says Donley.

Trickle-down effect

Neil Sackett says his company subscribes to the philosophy that, if top management believes in the company’s business philosophies, district managers, yard managers and employees will emulate that example.

“When our leaders work hard, that dedication is a role model to the district managers. They see that and we expect that to trickle down,” he says. “We try to create an environment people want to come into every day, and a big part of that is integrity.”

Of course, money is always a motivator, so compensation plans reward managers with “a piece of the bottom-line pie,” Donley reveals.

Unfortunately, Donley’s predecessor wanted too big a piece, and Carter Lumber is still rebuilding after the incident that happened last summer.

In October 1999, Kenneth J. Azar Jr. was fired from his position as senior vice president and chief financial officer, a position he’d held for eight years. Then last July, according to Emily M. Sweeney, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, Azar was charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of bank fraud.

Between 1994 and October 1999, Azar allegedly embezzled about $6.2 million from the Carter enterprise. He was also accused of committing bank fraud for his alleged role in making fraudulent loan applications.

Forward-looking, looking back

Asked how the current economic downturn might affect the company’s bottom line, Sackett remains optimistic.

“I believe our type of business will maintain and continue to grow during this time, because a lot of our business is through the small pro that does a lot of remodeling,” he says. “People still have to remodel bathrooms or do a small addition vs. building a new home, so we’re not hit quite as hard during recession periods as larger builders.”

In view of the company’s 6 percent increase in sales last year, Sackett says the refocus on W.E. Carter’s founding principles will continue to pay off.

“We saw our market increase at a slow rate between 1995 and 2000, but that was because of the heavier competition,” he says. “Now, we’re growing at a sound pace, and we’ll continue to do that.” How to reach: Carter-Jones Lumber Co., (330) 673-6100 or www.carterlumber.com

When W.E. Carter and T. Neil Jones established Carter-Jones Lumber Co. in 1932, the partners made $1,600 in their first year in business.

Five years later, Jones sold out to Carter, and within a year, Carter expanded to two more lumberyards in Wooster and Fairlawn. He also began constructing tract housing in several Ohio cities.

“W.E. had good business sense and believed in putting everything back into the business. He lived in an apartment above the first lumberyard and only took out $12 a week for himself so he could keep building on what he had,” says Carter’s grandson, Neil Sackett, president of Carter Lumber Co.

Then, when Van Carter returned from the war and began working alongside his father, the company began expanding throughout the Midwest as Carter Lumber Co.

“Dad wanted to begin a cash-and-carry lumber company called Cashway Lumber Co., which became quite successful. In the early ’60s, we changed the name to Carter Cashway Lumber Co. and eventually became Carter Lumber Co.,” says Bryan Carter, CEO.

By 1965, Carter Lumber Co. had grown to 12 lumberyard stores. Van Carter was president and CEO until he died in 1988, and W.E. continued to work in the business until he passed away last summer at the age of 101. At that time, the company was doing $550 million in annual revenue.

“Today, the parent company is Carter-Jones Cos. Inc., and we have eight subsidiary companies in the lumber retail business doing business in nine states as Carter Lumber Co.,” says Jeff Donley, senior vice president and chief financial officer.

There’s also Carter Development Co., which does various land and development projects in Ohio, and Carter Woodcraft Centers, which manufacturers doors and trusses. The company’s building and supply distribution center outside Columbus feeds the company’s lumberyards.

Bryan Carter notes that, by design, Carter lumberyard stores offer environmentally responsible products and energy conserving items such as engineered wood products, fiberglass and cellulose insulation. Commendably, he says, Carter Timber Co. owns 72,000 acres of Arkansas timberland, operating under the industry’s best-management guidelines.

“We actively plant about 500,000 tree seedlings annually, and our foresters practice clean harvesting techniques on our land, selectively harvesting trees,” he says.

And to honor the firm’s founders, the original store on Case Avenue in Kent still does business today under the name Carter-Jones Lumber Co.