Louisville, Ky., businessman Don Burch—who has owned and operated a local outdoor goods store for 26 years—was driving down one of the city's main commercial avenues when he caught sight of a stark, black-and-white billboard on the back of a bus that said “Keep Louisville Weird.” When he saw the logo again on T-shirts while buying music at a local record store, he asked an employee what it meant and was introduced to store owner John Timmons, who along with other independent businesses in Louisville, formed the “Keep Louisville Weird” coalition dedicated to preventing corporate conglomeration in their market. Burch immediately signed up.
“With each passing annum, more locally owned businesses succumb to behemoth corporate market pressure, as chains with huge advertising and marketing resources proliferate and snare customers with conveniences such as one-stop shopping,” writes Stephen George in “Keep it real, keep it weird,” an article on the “Keep Louisville Weird” business coalition in the Oct. 4 issue of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, a weekly alternative newspaper.
Snaring customers. Behemoth market pressure. Chains with huge advertising and marketing resources. Man, if that doesn't remind me of a couple of conversations I've had with “independent” LBM dealers about industry consolidation and the infiltration of big boxes. In fact, I cannot recall a single dealer—large or small, local or national—that does not encounter these market forces on a daily basis. Honestly, I'm not even sure if there is one simple thing that makes the “independent” pro dealer, well … independent.
It can't be ownership. With the exception of San Francisco–based Building Materials Holding Corp. (BMHC), virtually every company in the entire LBM pro dealer arena is privately owned. Many are family owned, including such industry “behemoths” as Redmond, Wash.–based Lanoga Corp. (still owned by members of the Laird and Norton families who founded the company in 1856) and 84 Lumber, where company founder and CEO Joe Hardy and his daughter and company president Maggie Hardy Magerko still own the company and control daily operations.
Certainly BMHC isn't an example of stamped-out corporate conglomeration, even if it does have Wall Street shareholders. Its BMC Construction division, for example, is at the forefront of value-added component and framing services for big builders. Similar in approach and success is Franklin, Ind.–based Davidson Industries, a two-unit “independent” focused almost exclusively on component manufacturing and installed framing that is a recognized industry leader in the construction services sector. Sure, the scale is different. But scale itself cannot be the measure of independence, either. Warren, Mich.–based National Lumber cranks $110 million out of a single yard. Petaluma, Calif.–based Golden State Lumber raked in $304 million in 2003 from a mere five locations.
Truth be told, virtually every player in this industry was at least at one time a family business, operates at a local level, and has the experience and capacity to offer one-of-a-kind customer service. All pro dealers face similar challenges and have similar opportunities within their grasp. Size does not dictate strength. If Wickes and Payless Cashways are any example, size will never secure a certain future, either. On the local level, pro dealers fight the competition tooth and nail regardless of the sign outside the door.
In Kentucky, the “Keep Louisville Weird” business coalition is doing a great job emphasizing that independent, local character and customer service are important parts of the buying experience, George writes. I haven't seen a pro dealer yet that would argue otherwise. So to Louisville I hold our industry up and say—weird as it may seem—we are all independents.
–Chris Wood is senior editor for PROSALES. 202.729.3501 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org