Next month, Smitty's Building Supply will celebrate 32 years of doing business with the Northern Virginia remodeling and custom home contractor community by officially re-opening the company's flagship store in Alexandria. The redesigned facility boasts a new kitchen and bath showroom, a revamped window and door showroom, and custom millwork capabilities. And it's all backed by a full-service lumberyard that will see a daily delivery fleet leaving the yard for the first time in nearly a decade.
As contractors hopefully gather to ooh and ahh over upscale hardware and fixtures in the re-merchandised interior retail space, check out the new Silver Line windows in the showroom, or ponder escorting their high-end homeowner clients in to check out the cabinet selection and 50-foot wall of custom millwork profiles, Smitty's staff and management will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief. There's new paving, new paint, and new signage, but best of all for customers and employees alike will be the return of Smitty's dedication to the metro Washington custom home and remodeling market. That's because, just two years ago, company officials were putting out the word that the Alexandria location would be shuttered and the property sold.
The story of the Alexandria yard's rebirth begins with a plotline similar to many LBM dealers. Between 1975 and 2000, Smitty's grew from a mom-and-pop hardware store founded by husband and wife Nelson and Pat Smith into a successful home center serving retail, small builder, and remodeler business. At first it was able to fend off competitive pressure from giants like Channel, 84 Lumber, and the now-defunct Hechinger and Builder's Square. But then came The Home Depot and Lowe's, and by the end of the 1990s, Smitty's—like many in the industry—decided to bail on retail and go solely after the pro dollar.
“I think we had internally already begun converting to a pro contractor yard, though I suppose our customers didn't really see it. I'm sure we looked like the same old Smitty's to them,” explains Rick. “But when we bought GP, that's when we made the full-fledged commitment to go pro and to deal in the quantities and inventory mix that larger home builders needed. And we went from the smaller builders and remodelers to where we were going after the big boys.”
From a P&L standpoint, the strategy worked. When the Manassas yard was brought on line, Smitty's was doing about $20 million in annual sales. By 2005, Smitty's had grown to $84 million in pro sales, leading the ProSales 100 ranking of the nation's largest construction suppliers in organic growth and rivaling other Mid-Atlantic pro dealer powerhouses like Roper Bros. Lumber and TW Perry. The Manassas yard was so successful it even became the company's headquarters.
Meanwhile, the Alexandria yard was stagnating. In the name of going pro, product mix and merchandising were drastically cut. Will-call traffic slowed, and the company cannibalized the location, dispatching deliveries out of the Manassas facility to remodelers and custom home builders inside the Capital Beltway.
“We did get away from our roots a little bit as the economy was growing and we were growing with the distribution out of Manassas,” says executive vice president Scott Smith. “That was the vehicle that allowed us to handle the growth that the economy put on us. We pulled away from our core customer in the Alexandria market, and there were competitors in the area that were happy to pay attention to them.”
Rick agrees, and is even blunter in his assessment of how badly Alexandria was dismissed as the company was hot with tract-builder fever. “I'm sure our people there felt like second-class citizens,” the Smitty's chief says. “Property values in the D.C. area were skyrocketing, and we were telling everyone that we would probably close the Alexandria location. It was becoming too expensive, too valuable a property for a middle-of-the-road lumberyard.”