Linton Tibbetts may be just shy of 88 years old, but he still dreams big–in part because he already knows what it's like to have realized that dream.
"We want to keep on opening yards," he says. "When we sold out, we controlled the lumber business in Florida. I'm sure going to be trying to reach the size of Cox Lumber."
Achieving that goal will only add to, not make, the legend that is Linton Tibbetts, the shipbuilder's son from the Cayman Islands who in 1948 paid $1,500 for what became Cox Lumber and built it into a 31-store, $400 million giant before selling Cox in 2006 to The Home Depot at the peak of the housing market.
Now Tibbetts is back in the game with a new company, and growing. This spring, he opened new yards in Lehigh and Palm Bay under the Tibbetts Lumber banner. They join Tibbetts Lumber facilities in St. Petersburg and Land O' Lakes that the veteran dealer established in 2009. He also has brought back two top lieutenants, Juan Quesada and Arlen Tillis, who are building a team peppered with staffers from the Cox era.
Tibbetts' return has given the Sunshine State's battered LBM dealers hope that better times might be on the way. "It's really dismal," says Bill Tucker, president of the Florida Building
Material Association. "Building permits are down 22% statewide for the first quarter of 2011. Everybody believes this is the bottom and that the economy is turning around, but everybody is just wore out.
"To me, it was a great sign that things are changing, that Linton got back in the market," Tucker says. "Though of course, there were other people who said the old man's lost his fool mind."
As far as Tibbetts is concerned, the timing was right to jump back in the market. "We didn't care [what people said]," he says. "We were going to do what we were going to do and do it best.
"In 63 years of business, I've seen recessions come and go, and after a recession comes emerging businesses of all kinds. And I felt that would happen here."
An Eye for Detail
Tibbetts reveres hard work, commands respect, rewards loyalty, and understands the value of a dollar. Tillis, who serves as
Tibbetts Lumber's executive vice president and manager of the Land O' Lakes yard, is well aware of his boss's financial savvy–and the full scope of his concerns. He remembers Tibbetts asking him, "Arlen, you know how much it costs to fix a flat from a nail punch?"
"Then take a magnet and pick up these nails, put them in a bucket by the front door and sell them for 25 cents."
"He'd tell me to do the same thing for lumber off-cuts," Tillis says. "He'd say, 'You never know what people will use those for, so put them in a barrel by the door and sell them.'"
Tillis has been working for Tibbetts, first at Cox Lumber and now at Tibbetts Lumber, going on 39 years. "Everything he could teach me, I learned," says Tillis. "He just sees things." Tillis recalls he once gave Tibbetts a favorable report about an 18-acre property he had inspected at his boss' request. After a hard rain a couple of weeks later, Tibbetts called up Tillis and told him to walk the property again and report back. Tillis came back with a much different view of that lot's worth.
"He helped you understand accountability and what that dollar could do in terms of land and business. He created a methodology," Tillis says, one his boss instilled in his managers and employees. "Whenever you had a yard, you always thought that way, saving a dollar, making a dollar."
Tucker once asked Tibbetts what he owed his success to. "Persistence," Tibbetts told him.
Persistence, hard work, and ambition have carried Tibbetts far. He grew up on Cayman Brac, one of the smaller sister islands of Grand Cayman, before leaving home at 17, working first in Jamaica and then Panama before joining the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in 1943.
In 1946, he landed in Florida, where some family members already were living, and started working in their roofing business in St. Petersburg. Less than three years later, Tibbetts bought a 50% share of a small St. Petersburg lumberyard called Cox Supply Co. By 1992, the year of the first ProSales 100 report, Cox ranked No. 37 with sales in 1991 of $59 million. By 2005, Cox had become the 21st-biggest LBM operation in the ProSales 100.
But lumber isn't Tibbetts' whole life. He also owns an export business in St. Petersburg–Tibbetts ships building materials from the Port of Tampa throughout the Caribbean–and operates resorts on each of the small islands on the Caymans.
He helped bring electricity to Cayman Brac, and in the 1970s he and some other investors created Red Carpet Airlines to ensure a reliable air connection between Florida and the Caymans and among the islands. Tibbetts may be the only lumber man in America who has been made an officer in the Order of the British Empire, an honor he received from Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 for his services to the islands (which are part of Britain's Overseas Territories).
"I love working," says Tibbetts. "My dad built sailing ships in the Caymans, 13 of them; the only thing my family knew was work.
I came to America with almost nothing. This really is the land of opportunity.
If you can't make it here, it's your fault."
Opportunity To Return
Tibbetts says both family obligations and a legal technicality helped persuade him to get back into the market. "I have five grandsons and all they've done is the lumber business," he says. "We met one day, and they said, 'Grandpa, we need to get back in the business.'"
The desire would have been impossible to fulfill had The Home Depot's HD Supply unit continued to own Cox, because Tibbetts had signed a five-year non-compete clause. But in December 2007, The Home Depot sold its lumberyards to an equity partnership that in turn sold the facilities to ProBuild. That nullified Tibbetts' non-compete agreement. Then, over the next 24 months, ProBuild closed at least 10 of its Florida yards, including some on land that ProBuild was leasing from Tibbetts.
Tibbetts reassembled his management team in short order. Tillis and Quesada, Cox Lumber's former president, had both gone with The Home Depot when Cox was sold.
Quesada was not long with Home Depot before he was relieved of his contract. He visited his former boss to tell him the news and says Tibbetts replied, "You are the answer to my prayers." Tibbetts installed Quesada as president of Cox Lumber Ltd. in the Caymans, lumberyards that were not part of the 2006 sale. When Tibbetts launched Tibbetts Lumber, he appointed Quesada president of the new company.
Similarly, Tillis was at ProBuild when he got a call from Quesada in late 2008.
"He said, 'You need to come to St. Pete,'" Tillis says. "And I did. I had deep feelings for Tibbetts and my history with them, and it was exciting to hear what Juan and Mr. Tibbetts had in mind." Other former Cox Lumber managers and long-time former employees were happy to re-up.
Says Quesada: "When we went to see suppliers or bankers or mills, everybody was ecstatic we were getting back in the market. We were ethical guys who paid our bills."
The yards may be new–or at least are sporting a new name–but Quesada and Tillis plan to succeed the traditional way: By emphasizing service.
"All the suppliers had been cutting back and cutting back and customers who had been used to calling and getting something done immediately, and that wasn't happening," Quesada says. "Customers were forced to do their own pickup, and when we came back in, we were able to do that.
"We go in selling services, not price," says Quesada, "but we have always been an aggressive group."
Adds Tillis: "Today you need to be more aggressive, more sales oriented, keep trying to find things to sell folks and accommodate what people need. You have to find the products that builders need, and there is a broader spectrum of product available to do that."
Tibbetts Lumber isn't looking to make a big meal out of every sale, not in a market where sales are primarily to remodelers and small builders. "We go after the French fries and put 'em together to make a big sale," Tillis explains.
To collect enough of those French fries, Tibbetts Lumber is focusing on customer service. "If somebody needs five trusses or three doors, we can do that," Tillis says. "If a builder wants to pay cash or credit, we can do that. This goes back to what we know. At Cox we cut our teeth on small businesses, and now we want to be one-stop shopping for them.
"I was working with a builder doing a house and he asked me if I could deliver lumber 50 miles away. I told him I could," Tillis says."He appreciated that tremendously. You just have to take those extra steps to make people happy. When you save them money, you're making money.
"I think the LBM market is struggling, but every day things improve a little. When things were cranking, Mr. Tibbetts told me things will never be this way again."
Maybe not, but Tibbetts himself is looking forward to lumber's future. Even at nearly 88.