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Curtis Lumber grows into the largest independent lumber dealer in New York

By Norman Poltenson

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BALLSTON SPA — In 1822, Capt. Isaac Curtiss built a sawmill near Ballston Spa. Little did he know that 191 years later it would become the largest independent lumber dealer in New York state.

Robert K. Curtis, the fourth generation of eponymous owners, incorporated the business as the Curtis Lumber Co., Inc. in 1949. (His grandfather, Elmer A. Curtiss, dropped the second “s” because he thought it was a waste of time.) In 1952, when the company built a new office, it had only nine employees. In 1966, it opened a store in Schuylerville, which marked the beginning of the company expansion. “In 1971, when I joined Curtis Lumber as a part-time employee, we had four stores,” says Jon Hallgren, vice president for sales and operations. “By 1981 we had six, and in 1989 nine stores.” Hallgren became a full-time employee in 1977.

In 1992, Jay Scott Curtis bought the retail operation from his father and became the president of Curtis Lumber. “They split the assets,” says Hallgren. “Robert took the wholesale lumber business and the truss-fabrication shop [forming Saratoga Lumber Traders, Inc.]. The wholesale business also operated a reload facility for the transportation and storage of lumber and other building materials.” In 2003, Robert Curtis’s son, Todd, became president of Saratoga Lumber Traders.

Thirteen years after acquiring the retail business, Jay Curtis moved aggressively to expand the enterprise and its geographic footprint via acquisition of two chains. He closed the first deal on Jan. 1, 2005, with the purchase of Webb & Sons. “We had seven home centers in the chain,” says Lindsay LaRuffa, Curtis Lumber’s director of sales and operations for the central region.

LaRuffa started with Webb & Sons, stocking shelves in Norwich. “Our stores were located in Delhi, Greene, Hamilton, New Berlin, Norwich, Sherburne, and Waterville,” she says. At the time of the acquisition, which did not include a sister corporation called Lok-N-Logs, the annual sales of Webb & Sons totaled $30 million. Curtis subsequently sold the Greene store and continues to operate the remaining six.

On Oct.1, 2006, Curtis closed on his second deal, purchasing Gregory Supply, with stores in Plattsburgh and Ray Brook, and two located in Vermont at Williston and Burlington. At the time of the acquisition, Gregory Supply generated approximately $40 million in annual sales. Terms of both deals were not disclosed.

 

Company scope

Today, Curtis Lumber has grown into a company with 21 locations, 550 employees, and consolidated revenue of $162 million (year-end 2012). The company’s central region, which stretches between Utica and Binghamton, “… employs 80 and generates more than $20 million a year,” says LaRuffa. “The business [Curtis Lumber] has more than 1 million feet [of covered space],” adds Hallgren. “All of the real-estate is owned except for the Sherburne store, which is leased.

“We have more than 8,000 contractor accounts and inventory somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000 [discrete] items, ranging from cabinetry, decking, doors, fencing, and flooring to masonry, paints, plumbing, roofing, stairs, and windows. Curtis operates 154 forklifts, and there are 112 trucks in daily use, all owned by the company and maintained in three mechanic shops. We also have a variety of backup vehicles not included in the count,” notes Hallgren. LaRuffa adds that “the annual revenue ranges from $1.6 million in the smallest store to $48 million at headquarters in Ballston Spa.”

“The Curtis product line focuses on commercial-building supplies for the housing industry; remodelers, both professionals and do-it-yourselfers; and retail [buyers],” says Hallgren. “Our goal is to grow all of these areas. In the capital region, the ratio is 65 percent contractors and 35 percent retail. Up north, it runs closer to 80/20.” LaRuffa says “… the central region is about 60/40.” Hallgren notes that “… since the recession in 2007, we have focused more on pursuing larger projects or pieces of projects to compensate for the loss in our retail sales. We bid more on [state] government work and on RFPs (request for proposal) for items such as window, door, and siding packages.”

Curtis Lumber has plenty of competition. “On the commercial side, we compete with companies like Erie Materials, 84 Lumber, and Jay-K,” notes Hallgren. “On the retail side, we compete with the big-box stores like Lowes and Home Depot. We find that the contractors prefer independent stores like Curtis, because our employees have a lot of product knowledge. Curtis Lumber also has a competitive advantage because we belong to a national purchasing coop (Lumbermens Merchandising Corp. or LMC), which allows us to buy directly from the mills. Today LMC has 365 [stockholder] companies and an annual sales volume of $3.5 million to $4 billion. The coop often uses market timing to smooth out what can often be a volatile pricing [environment].”

Curtis Lumber is focused on growing its annual sales to $200 million. The 2013 sales projection calls for growth of 4 percent over 2012 sales.

“We need to focus on filling in our current [geographic] footprint, while developing our core business,” Hallgren notes. “We are always looking for new opportunities to continue our rural/suburban strategy, whether it’s building a new store or acquiring one. The profit margins in this business are slim, so we try to avoid the expensive code requirements of urban areas when picking sites.”

Curtis Lumber uses a variety of marketing techniques to develop sales, including social media. “We have a variety of social-media programs that are targeted at various groups,” says James Carpenter, the director of marketing for the company. “We are currently plotting a social-media program reaching out to professionals in the Burlington, Vt. market. In general, we employ a media mix coupled with relationship building and educational opportunities targeted at professionals.” Hallgren adds that “Curtis still distributes hundreds of thousands of printed flyers, runs ‘infomercials’ on local TV, and tracks the activity on the company website.”

The executive team at Curtis Lumber includes Curtis, CEO; Hallgren, vice president of sales and operations; Sandy Zelka, CFO; Elizabeth Irish, human-resources manager and business administrator; and five regional directors.

“The company spends a lot of time on training,” says LaRuffa, “and it’s not just on product knowledge. We train our staff, especially during the winter months, on professional sales, leadership development, customer service, and spend a lot of time on safety.” Hallgren points to “… the SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program) program sponsored by OSHA. This program recognizes small-business employers who operate [an exemplary] injury and illness prevention program. OSHA exempts us from regular worksite inspections [during the period our certification is valid]. We also participate in VPP (Voluntary Protection Programs) with the state labor department and OSHA to control and prevent worksite accidents.”

LaRuffa says that “… all our employees are involved with safety, and we also work to educate even our customers and sub-contractors through a course we call ‘contractor for safety program.’ Any sub-contractor we recommend has to comply with our safety standards … Safety doesn’t stop just in our stores or on worksites; we think it also [extends] to the home.”

Jay Curtis is now joined in the business by his son Christopher, who currently works in the corporate office on safety and cost control. He also works with his daughter, Kylie, a recent graduate of SUNY Cortland. She is the head cashier at the Ballston Spa location. Curtis, 54, and his wife Kendra, live in Galway. Few corporations can claim six generations of family ownership. Curtis Lumber, already the largest independent lumber dealer in New York State, is poised for still more growth.

 

Contact Poltenson at npoltenson@cnybj.com

 

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