In January 2005 Blake Wagster was driving home from law school at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., when he saw a “Now Hiring” banner waving in front of an 84 Lumber store. With prior experience as a yard hand, and needing money to support his family while studying, he decided to stop in and fill out an application. Thirteen months of employment later, Wagster became manager of 84's Lake City, Fla., store, a $10 million operation, and law school was put on hold. “Honestly, I just fell in love with the company,” says Wagster. “I hadn't even been there a full two months, but they were willing to give me a chance as a manager-trainee, and it just all happened from there.”
While the importance of human resources often can be overlooked in the lumber and building materials industry, Wagster's story illustrates how 84 Lumber's fast-track program to identify, educate, and promote talented workers from within has helped the firm stay on top of its phenomenal growth. With almost 50 more stores slated to open in 2006, identifying and training the right people has been crucial to 84's success.
“Obviously, if you want to continue to grow, you need people, and they have to be the right people,” says 84 COO Bill Myrick, who himself started out as a manager-trainee at 84 in 1982. “To me, when you focus on hiring, training, and developing people, it's only going to make you a stronger company.”
There's nothing complicated about what 84 looks for in its associates: personality, smarts, and ambition. “If you find somebody with those three traits, that person will be very successful here,” Myrick says. The company relies on the judgment of its store managers to probe applicants during the interview process about their passions and goals, and to gauge how outgoing and likeable they are. “We're looking for that person who has a desire to be more than they are today,” Myrick says. Candidates are then assessed for their cognitive abilities, including math skills, through standardized testing. Individuals who score well in all three areas are hired and start training at the company immediately.
Jim Guest, 84's vice president of human resources, says getting new hires on board as soon as possible through its Early Development Program is crucial. “We've found over the years that inattention is your worst enemy when it comes to retaining people,” he says. “During the first three weeks, we make sure new associates have activities they need to fulfill each day.” Examples include learning specific product lines, how to build loads efficiently, and how to keep the yard neat and orderly. After that initial period, the firm flies each associate to company headquarters in Eighty Four, Pa., to attend Lumber Camp, a four-day introduction and training program where new hires bunk together dorm style while being indoctrinated with 84's culture and corporate philosophy.
It was during Wagster's initial employment that his store manager saw his potential and asked if he'd be interested in management training. Wagster rose quickly by diligently completing 84's nine-part self-study program, a management-training curriculum that introduces associates to everything from blueprint reading and take-offs to the company's policies and procedures. He then flew to Eighty Four for a week's training and was promoted to co-managing a store within two weeks of returning to Florida. With apologies to his law school friends, Wagster says 84's program was more challenging than his initial legal studies. (He still hopes to finish law school eventually.) After serving as a co-manager for 10 months, Wagster received his own store in February.
Wagster attributes his quick advancement to the preparation that 84 gave him. “I had a lot of help and training from other guys as I was coming up through it,” he says. “The way they have it set up here, 84 puts you right in front of the door, and it's up to you if you want to just crack it a little bit or kick it wide open.” —Joe Bousquin is a contributing editor for PROSALES.