With a credo of “always try to do a little better than what's expected,” Dixie Lumber Co. has built a team of employees with the hands-on knowledge and the willingness to take care of its customers.
Marajó Island in northern Brazil, a remote region of South America at the mouth of the Amazon River, may seem like the most unlikely place to strategize a corporate human resources philosophy—yet that's exactly what Mac Lawton did in the late 1970s while he was living in a small town about halfway between the Brazilian cities of Macapá and Belém. At the time, he was running a lumber operation founded in 1976 by Lawton Lumber, his family's Greenville, S.C.–based molding manufacturing company. During his tour of duty as manager of the offshore venture, a rotating post that his three brothers and two cousins also filled over more than a decade, Lawton developed a mindset that would later help him and his brother C.E. nurture an award-winning employee culture when they became co-owners of Easley, S.C.–based Dixie Lumber—an ethos that is dedicated to fostering personal growth, developing loyalty, and delivering good old-fashioned customer service.
Mac Lawton's turn to travel south came in 1978 when he was 30 years old. He packed up his wife and two children and headed more than 250 miles into the interior of Brazil to live at the company's 80-employee manufacturing operation for cutting and kiln-drying virola wood blanks, which were then exported back to the Lawton Lumber manufacturing facility in Greenville.
In the end, the experience helped him to develop a guiding management principle that is now a supporting pillar of Dixie Lumber's human resources initiatives. “The local employees were hard workers, and we treated them the way we would treat employees in the States, which is considerably better than the normal employer there would,” Lawton says. “I brought that mindset back with me when I got into this business and maintained the philosophy that if you treat your employees better than is typical in a work situation, then you engender an employee's loyalty and engender a willingness for them to treat customers better. In relating to employees, we always try to do a little better than what's expected.”
Family Affair After more than a decade of rotating responsibility to oversee the offshore operation, the family decided to sell Lawton Lumber in 1986 when the available pool of family members had all taken turns abroad—an integral part of their operation—and nobody was interested in going again. C.E. was working as an outside sales rep for Lawton Lumber that year, and one of his customers, Norman Hamilton, got wind of the impending sale and approached him about buying Dixie Lumber. Hamilton, a long-time entrepreneur in the building trades, founded Dixie Lumber in 1942 and was ready to retire. Meanwhile, Mac had expressed interest in purchasing a yard. The two brothers decided to become partners and bought Dixie, believing it was a good fit that built on the Lawton's three-generation history in construction supply, which began around 1905 with Mac and C.E.'s grandfather, F.A. Lawton, a lumber broker, sawmill operator, and LBM supplier.
Despite the recent downturn, however, over the past decade Greenville and its surrounding bedroom communities, which are located in the western part of South Carolina, have been among the fastest-growing areas in the state. Additionally, home building activity at a number of recreational lakes in the region has opened up substantial growth avenues for suppliers. “The lakes continue to boom around here,” Lawton confirms. “We have not worked that market hard yet, and as a result we've missed some opportunity.”
But that probably won't be the case for long. As Dixie Lumber continues to expand its business and tap into new areas such as high-end waterfront developments, a big part of the company's strategy is to have the right employees committed to personally serving the individual needs of its 400-plus accounts. Kitchen and cabinet design specialist Bill Egan is one such employee. A veteran CAD operator, he is now focusing on growing the 10 percent of Dixie's builder customers currently buying cabinets from the company. “The challenge we've had in this market is that it's always been [dominated by] custom cabinet shops,” says Egan. “We've got some very good craftsmen in the area, but they can't beat a factory finish. Plus we've got subcontractors who are licensed and insured to install for us, and it works very well.”
As Lawton sees it: “HR is really an outgrowth of what you are doing as well as who you are. Our philosophy is having the people with the knowledge and the willingness to take care of our customers.”
Hands-on Approach That level of service—which in Lawton's opinion can be developed only with a dedicated team of top-notch employees—is what sets Dixie Lumber apart from the big boxes and other competitors in the market. For example, when a contractor walks into the yard's sales center and showroom, a renovated car dealership that the company moved into seven years ago, one of three counter salespeople handles his or her needs from start to finish. “Because the person who runs the ticket is the person who actually loads the order, there is very little confusion about what items are required to build the load,” says Dixie Lumber's receiving manager William Herbert, who has been with the company for five-and-a-half years. “That's different than how it's done at most lumberyards, which have an outside sales staff and some sort of hand-off situation with the paperwork.”