If you happen to be wandering the aisles of one of Dixieline Lumber Co.’s 11 home center stores, don’t be surprised if the person who offers to help you is Joe Lawrence, president of the company.
When Lawrence says that he likes to lead by example, he can point to numerous instances of doing just that. That’s because at one time, he’s held most of the positions in the firm since starting as a lumber handler 23 years ago. “I have personally worked a lot of the positions, so I have a great understanding of the business,” says Lawrence. “Our management team has an open-door policy with our people and our customers. We expect each other to be in the field interacting with our people and exchanging ideas and gathering feedback. I see myself as one of the guys.”
His affinity for people makes him a likeable leader, but it’s Lawrence’s skill in managing employees, his hands-on involvement in their growth and development, and his passion for customer service excellence that have been the underlying reasons for his success in helping to guide the organization even before assuming his current role in March 2005.
Lawrence says that much of the credit for his success lies in his management structure, and his style of management transparency and empowerment that has enabled his team to stay focused and productive, and to grow.
Command and control doesn’t live here
Lawrence involves seven of his key executives in a management committee that authors and executes the business plan for the company. He considers one of the additional benefits of the system to be staff development. “I’m not a micromanager,” says Lawrence. “I prefer an open-forum style of management, so we meet as an executive leadership group formally once a month and then individually on an informal basis throughout the work week.”
The agenda typically includes a review of the financial results and projections, as well as preparing the annual presentation of the business plan to the rest of the management team. The most significant outcome from the committee has been much of the strategy for expansion and diversification of the business model, but it’s Lawrence’s leadership that sets the tone.
“The plus of having an open discussion is that we can reach a general consensus,” says Lawrence. “We have a debate if need be, but there are ground rules. The comments have to be professional, not personal, and I don’t allow generalities for comments; they have to be specific.”
Lawrence also acts as referee, and in the case of an impasse, final arbiter.
“I will let the debate go on, because first of all, I want them to own the result, and second, I want them to come to a consensus,” says Lawrence. “I think that some disagreement is healthy. For example, I don’t expect the sales folks and credit [department] to always agree as to what is an appropriate level of risk. The group has to be trusting and a bit thick-skinned at times and sometimes opinions are expressed that may not be consistent with the thoughts or expectations of others.”
With a major corporate goal of expansion of the firm’s footprint outside of San Diego, the committee reviews the demographics of the expansion, identifies the targeted customer base and sets the sales strategy. That formula resulted in success when Dixieline initially broke into the San Bernardino market by expanding into Colton. Later in 2006, Lawrence took advantage of his weekly one-on-one meetings to provide some staff development related to the expansion. “I like to teach my managers that they have to be adaptable,” says Lawrence. “Many people want things in black and white, but that’s not the way things in leadership usually are. I try to get my managers to play out the ‘what ifs’ in advance. As an example, after our Colton expansion, there was a downturn in the local housing market, and the business slowed. “Some members of the committee wanted to diversify the business model. In one-on-one sessions with them, I asked what message that move might send to our customers or competitors. We have since found other business to bolster that location.”
Success through people
Dixieline has more than 1,100 employees, and historically, most of the talent needed for the firm’s expansion has come through internal promotions and a highly structured employee development system. That strategy is still a large part of the culture, and because it is so important to the human capital plan, it is overseen by Lawrence. “I like to be able to dangle the opportunity for upward mobility in front of new hires and, of course, I use myself as an example,” says Lawrence.
All employees have a formal development plan, and the pipeline of internal candidates is reviewed each month at the management committee meetings. Each location has a separate turnover target based on the line of business and each position.
Turnover for the lumber and home center industry for 2005 was 35.7 percent, while Dixieline had a turnover rate of 23.5 percent. For just the retail side of the business, the industry average in 2005 was 57.2 percent, while Dixieline posted 32.3 percent turnover.
The goal is to achieve less than 30 percent turnover in the business centers and to average no more than 30 to 35 percent turnover on the retail side. By doing so, the company keeps a consistent employee base that is more knowledgeable and spends less money on recruiting and development.
Lawrence says a command-and-control environment hampers people’s growth, and continuing to develop good people means letting them learn and think on their own without overseeing their every move. He says his deliberate choice of management style enables internal promotion and the people development system that has gotten Dixieline to its present status. “I believe people want to be involved in building the business and contribute to the overall success,” says Lawrence. “If we are always told what to do, not only will we not grow the business, but we will stagnate the growth of individuals.”
Shopping for attitude
“Today’s builder wants a one-stop shop,” says Lawrence. “That has necessitated the need to make acquisitions outside of our core competency, so now we are looking at and evaluating building materials distributors, and shops that manufacture doors and trim.”
In addition to looking at the numbers, Lawrence visits every prospective acquisition to assess its philosophy on customer service and quality, because it is here where he finds the true fit. “I look for acquisitions where their business has a synergy with our core business and their executives share our core beliefs about customer service,” says Lawrence. “We want to retain many of their people, and I often find that if they don’t have a strong sense of customer service ingrained as a philosophy, it’s hard to teach.”
Success for Dixieline on the consumer side of the business has come through positioning the firm as an alternative to big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, something Lawrence also credits to strong customer service. “Having roots as a family-run company helped to create our culture of customer service,” says Lawrence. “I believe that consumers like to have choices. We have more people out on the floor so we run a more expensive model, but we also run at a higher margin. I believe in the ‘Moments of truth’ philosophy in customer service because every transaction is important to us.”
Lawrence is referring to the popular customer service mantra that espouses that each interaction between a customer and the company’s frontline personnel creates an opportunity for the customer to leave with either a negative or positive perception of the company’s service, based on his or her experience.
To begin the process of dedication to excellence, all new staff members begin customer-service training on their first day of employment, followed by product-knowledge training accomplished through vendor presentations.
The results speak for themselves.
“Since 1980, there have probably been close to 20 big-box locations that have opened in San Diego,” says Lawrence. “In spite of their growth, we’ve been able to more than triple our business during that same time. I think it’s a misnomer that you can’t run at higher cost and be successful just based on the financials. It’s all about the throughput analysis.” On the retail side, Lawrence measures transactions per labor hour, using a different target for each location, as well as staff turnover, because that affects a customer’s experience. And the firm has achieved a reputation as a preferred employer with dedicated employees who have been promoted through the ranks.
While many firms have gotten out of the retail hardware business, Lawrence has jumped in, adding the consumer market to counterbalance homebuilding, as well as adding solutions for the remodeling, custom homebuilding and repair markets. In 2005, the firm had record sales of just over $400 million, led by the home-building segment.
Lawrence was a visionary and an initiator of a diversified business model long before he became president of the organization. Initially, Dixieline was solely dedicated to supplying lumber and materials to builders. As he moved up in the organization, Lawrence watched the economic cycles take a toll on the company, its customers and employees.
In convincing the owners to diversify, Lawrence established himself as a future leader and set the company on a course of economic stability. His takeaway from those experiences includes lessons in persuasion and persistence. “I was persistent about my beliefs,” says Lawrence. “I found others internally who shared my vision, and together, we created a nucleus of the same vision to diversify and grow outside of San Diego and become a regional player in the entire Southwest area.”
Dixieline’s success attracted attention, and the company was bought in 2003 by Lanoga Corp., which was, in turn, bought last year by Pro-Build Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of Fidelity Capital.
The experience of being acquired twice after so many years as a family-owned company has had its advantages and its learning moments. While there is additional support for the vision of becoming a regional player, Lawrence sees the education process as having benefits for both sides. “What I have learned from this is to be open to listening to new ideas and new ways of doing things,” says Lawrence. “However, what we bring is knowledge of the local marketplace and how to be successful here, and that’s a competitive advantage. I think we will thrive by learning from each other. “Day-to-day, we are still a local company, and the burden is on us to grow our strategic plan. I am always an optimist. There is always a way to make something work; you just have to work harder than the next guy.”
HOW TO REACH: Dixieline Lumber Co., www.dixieline.com