Here to stay: Garris Evans lumber moves into a permanent location in Wilson, N.C., and sets its sights on doubled sales and no. 1 status in the growing market

Here to stay: Garris Evans lumber moves into a permanent location in Wilson, N.C., and sets its sights on doubled sales and no. 1 status in the growing market – Profile

Chris Wood

Sandwiched between the Raleigh metro area and North Carolina coastal developments, Wilson, N.C., is as close to Main Street America as you’re likely to get. The town of 42,000, nestled just off of I-95, boasts a strong industrial base, one of the East Coast’s largest antiques markets, and quarter-mile dirt-track racing at the County Line Raceway. You can walk downtown Wilson in less than 10 minutes, and almost everyone knows their neighbors on a first-name basis. Self-described by the local tourism board as one of the most beautiful towns in the state, Wilson definitely is a place where residents buy from people they know and, when given the opportunity, they prefer to buy locally.

For that reason, it took pro dealer executives at Greenville, N.C.-based Garris Evans Lumber Co. years to reach out to the builder business in Wilson. Despite being headquartered only 35 miles down North Carolina Route 264, Garris Evans looked west to Wilson and saw an intensely close-knit market with established dealers already entrenched and battling it out for contractor dollars. Indeed, a historical marker in Wilson designates the town as the birthplace for Carolina Builders, now Raleigh-based Carolina Holdings, and a Carolina-owned Stock Building Supply still operates from the center of town. Various other players, including Lowe’s, a defunct pro supply house owned by tobacco company Standard Commercial, and, most recently, a Pelican Building Center, gave Stock sales reps a run for the money until the late 1990s.

When Pelican pulled out in 1997 prior to being acquired by Builders FirstSource, Wilson became a one-pro-dealer town and the Evans family, which founded Garris Evans in 1919, decided there was an opportunity for the company to make a move. After nearly 80 years, the time seemed right to seize part of the market, go head-to-head with Stock Building Supply, and perhaps even grow a Wilson lumberyard that would one day rival Garris Evans’ Greenville operation in size, scale, and scope of services.

With a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, growing respect in the market from local builders, and corresponding steadily climbing sales figures, it looks like they are poised to do just that. Yet just two years ago Garris Evans was severely hobbled in the Wilson market, and without management’s commitment to keep the business alive, the location probably would not have made it. “Our first location in Wilson was originally only intended for a short [introductory] time frame,” says John Evans, the fourth-generation vice president who spearheaded the development of a Wilson location for the company. “This short time turned into three years–one and a half years too long.” An immediate grab in market share followed by logistical constraints that caused a plunge in sales had the company so busy putting out fires–both their customer’s and their own–that plans for permanent relocation could not enter the picture.

Entering the market in 1999, the company quickly settled on a leased property on Railroad Street, which served as a satellite yard for some newly hired Wilson-based sales reps. It turned out to be a boom year–the company pulled in $3.7 million in gross sales. With rent of only $1,000 a month, the Wilson property was low on capital investment, but at less than an acre and only 4,000 square feet under cover, it also was low on space and soon became a logistical nightmare. Product was stored anywhere there was roof overhang, and vendor delivery trucks often could not turn around anywhere on the property, if they could fit at all.

Standing Alone

Despite the tight quarters, there was a newcomer buzz about Garris Evans, and the immediate $4 million market share was keeping things busy. “We got lucky enough to hire some quality employees early on,” says current Wilson general manager Doug Reynolds, who in 1998 still was making the rounds at the Greenville yard as head of retail sales. “From outside sales to inside sales to truck drivers, we were able to get people who are good at their jobs and also have good contacts in the community.”

Those contacts were exactly what Garris Evans needed to tap into the Wilson-centric contractor economy. With such limited inventory space on Railroad Street, the company was forced to bolster many orders with product from the Greenville yard. Though this system was originally how the company intended to enter the market, it did not do much to convince local builders that Garris Evans was becoming a permanent supply fixture in Wilson. To help head off any concerns about the dealer’s permanence in the area, the Wilson store assumed active roles in community organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Wilson Home Builders Association

But it wasn’t enough. As the grand opening novelty began to wear off in 2000, the Wilson location ran into management difficulties. With continued traffic jams and space issues in the yard, sales dwindled to $75,000 a month. Moreover, sales reps were beginning to hear rumors in the market that Garris Evans was not committed to the Wilson area. “We had a particular builder come by and take a look around the yard and then ask if we could handle his business,” recalls Reynolds. “He was only working on one house. It was at that lowest point when we changed management and I came over from Greenville.”

Reynolds was able to streamline and focus the Wilson location and vamp sales back up to a new high of $3.9 million within a year, a feat he attributes to out-servicing both the competition and the customer’s expectations. For example, he expanded delivery capabilities so small items could be added on the fly, including having power tools, blades, bits, and fasteners in every truck for immediate jobsite dispersal and subsequent billing back to a builder’s account. On one occasion, the yard even responded to a delivery call for a single box of roofing nails.

“In this market, [dealers] usually don’t get the luxury of next-day delivery,” Reynolds explains. “Our customers often call up with a framing order at 12 o’clock noon and want it that day. They are very demanding, but we don’t mind it. We think we can meet or beat the competition on service.”

At the space-strapped facility, however, that usually meant getting another truckload of lumber from Greenville. In an unfortunate twist, this commitment to service was the very thing still contributing to Garris Evans’ reputation as an over-tasked, non-local provider.

“We were not viewed as an equal player on the supply side in our core customers’ eyes” says Evans of the motivation behind the decision in April 2001 to get out of the Railroad Street location at all costs. “It became extremely difficult to recruit new business and new employees, and once the decision to move was made, we could not find a suitable location soon enough.” Word of mouth traveled fast among builders in the area, and a month later the local paper ran a front-page story on the pending Garris Evans relocation; sales began to rise again the following day.

Stand and Deliver

The new property immediately answered any size issues that confronted Garris Evans back on Railroad Street. Formerly a Miller Beer distribution facility owned by Best Brands Coastal Beverage Co., the location is uniquely suited for a space-starved pro dealer. Centered around a 33,256-square-foot warehouse, the 4-acre property has existing traffic areas designed for high-volume receivables and deliveries, ample parking for employees and walk-in customers, and concrete pads perfect for the eventual “T” sheds that Garris Evans would install. At approximately $700,000, the deed wasn’t exactly a bargain-basement deal, but it fit within Garris Evans’ budget structure and fulfilled the need for greener pastures.

A positive relationship with Best Brands enabled Evans to take complete measurements of the warehouse before the deal had closed, allowing the company to begin planning for the remodel some four months in advance. A wall running the length of the building that previously separated cold and warm storage for the beer supplier had to be demolished, as did some walls in a 3,100-square-foot office area that Garris Evans intended to use as retail selling space. “There’s not much you can’t do with a forklift,” says Evans of his demolition tool of choice.

In fact, the entire warehouse was remodeled with the tined product mover in mind. In addition to tapping into Alpharetta, Ga.-based Sunbelt Material Handling for help in creating a state-of-the-art, forklift-centric design, Evans and company construction supervisor Kenneth Lilley arranged countless racking patterns constructed of 2x4s to try to identify an optimal forklift-efficient floor plan. For weeks, the only breaks allowed were for power washing blankets of cobwebs off of the ceiling and walls, clearing small trees that had taken root in outside storage lots, and repainting the exterior of the facility after a power wash disintegrated the aging paint on the structure.

Evans also prepared by obtaining equipment and racking through Lowe’s store-closing auctions. Approximately three-quarters of the warehouse racking was obtained in this manner, in addition to some retail shelving and even a $39,000 boom truck that only needed a tune-up, a fresh coat of paint, and a Garris Evans logo. “With Kenneth and I focusing on the remodel project, our Wilson and Greenville employees did not get burdened with any construction,” Evans says, adding that Wilson operations employee and forklift operator extraordinaire David Woodard joined in the later remodel stages. “Other than daily shipments [of construction materials], I wanted employees to continue serving our customers without interruption.”

In the beginning of September 2001, close to seven months after first locating the property, the warehouse had been cleaned, remodeled, pre-stocked with product, and stood ready for Wilson employees and the $275,000 worth of inventory still over on Railroad Street. “When moving day occurred, it was an all-hands-on-deck, full-weekend event;’ Evans says. At 4 p.m. on Friday, September 7, the phone at Railroad Street was permanently disconnected and everyone headed home for an early night. By 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, 30 employees and five trucks from Greenville joined the four trucks and 15 employees from Wilson and began moving inventory over to the new yard where Evans, Woodard, and two other employees manned the forklifts nonstop. By 4:30 Sunday evening, there wasn’t a stick left to restock. “No one believed we were going to be able to move that fast” says Woodard. “At times I could not believe the constant traffic, but we did it. It’s a great testament to everyone.”

A grand opening celebration was planned for the first week, but on Tuesday, September 11, the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., effectively put the handshakes and backslaps on hold.

In the wake of the tragedy, however, the Garris Evans management team found solace and camaraderie in their team effort to achieve what at times seemed impossible. “All of our employees felt like their current jobs would be easier after the Wilson store could operate without assistance from the Greenville store–it was a personal incentive to get this move accomplished quickly, but they still all deserve a special thanks,” says Evans. “We did not leave ourselves any room to hesitate or step back.”

Standing Tall

It was probably the first time that a lack of room actually played into Garris Evans’ favor since the company arrived in Wilson. In the year since the move, efficiencies have increased steadily, and the company’s reputation in the town is staging an impressive comeback–2002 gross sales clocked in at $5.3 million. “The result is fantastic” says Woodard. “It’s a fantastic place to work and an incredible improvement.”

Woodard’s on-the-job confidence, like that of most other employees in Wilson, has increased along with the company’s financial commitment, a benefit that has not gone unnoticed by Garris Evans management. Evans ranks this employee morale boost as No. 1 on the list of worthwhile reasons for the facility investment, namely because it plays into all of the other goals the company has as it aims for the top dealer slot in Wilson.

“Many of the internal problems that the satellite location had–delivery, product availability, customer perception–have been erased from the picture,” Evans says. “The modern facility is a sales tool, it gives our salesmen credibility in the marketplace and they can focus on our customers and on building relationships.” Overall, Evans easily views the approximately $1 million in total property and remodeling costs as a capital investment far surpassing the low-cost, no-space hassle on Railroad Street.

“There is a 100 percent difference between the new and old locations,” confirms contractor salesman Shane Joyner–and rightly so. A gross sales comparison between the last six months on Railroad Street and the same six-month period the following year at the new yard shows a 100 percent jump from $1.4 million to $2.8 million. “Just the amount of walk-in traffic has increased five times,” Joyner says. “It’s really given us an opportunity to grow.”

Local business leaders also are taking notice, indicating that the company’s out-of-town stigma is likely a thing of the past. The Wilson Chamber of Commerce presented Garris Evans with an award last May for visual improvement achieved through the remodel, the installation of two “T” sheds, and the construction of an additional, three-sided, 3,100-square-foot storage building. Additionally, the Wilson Economic Development Council has lauded Garris Evans’ commitment to the local economy through property investment, job creation, and overall economic growth.

“Our goal is to be No. 1 in this market. I think we can be that, and I think we will be that,” pledges Reynolds, who says recruiting more outside sales reps is his top priority for 2003. “And I want that No. 1 sooner rather than later,” he says. “I’m not a patient person.”

After a strong 2002, Evans sees no reason why sales can’t double again at the Wilson yard within three years, approaching the $10 to $12 million range, and those are the types of numbers that the dealer doesn’t plan to ever walk away from. “Right now we are capable of accepting and handling all opportunities that come our way,” Evans says. “Our customers and employees now know we are finally in Wilson to stay.”

Vital Statistics

Company: Garris Evans Lumber Co.

Year founded: 1919

Headquarters: Greenville, N.C.

Number of locations: 2

Number of employees: 70

2002 gross sales: $22.5 million

Pro sales percentage: 91 percent

COPYRIGHT 2003 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group