A Century of Success

Garris Evans Lumber Company

After a century in business, the Evans family and their lumber company “have become an institution around Greenville,” says Scott Warren, Vice President and General Manager of Garris Evans Lumber Company. The name is well known in their Eastern North Carolina home town, and is even on the map – your GPS will likely direct you to take Evans Street to reach the family business.

Today, the fourth generation of the Evans family is at the helm, and the business has grown into an industry leader with five locations scattered across Eastern North Carolina. The team supplies a complete inventory of building materials, from kitchen, bath, window, and door products, to lumber, hardware, tools, paint and stains. Professionals in the light industrial, commercial and retail sectors are the primary customers, as well as some private homeowners.

ProSales magazine ranks Garris Evans as one of the top 100 professional-oriented lumber and building material dealers in America. Keeping a family business at the top of the industry hasn’t always been easy, of course; the recession has been particularly tough. In fact, many competitors had to close their doors when the housing industry soured. “It’s been crazy,” Mr. Warren admits. “Numerous companies are gone – even the big companies.” Garris Evans’ focus, he adds, has been to just “try to stay alive.”

But, after a little questioning, it’s clear that Mr. Warren is being modest. In reality, Garris Evans has done far better than just staying alive. Instead, the team has had the foresight to turn a bad situation to their advantage. “You have to make the most of these kinds of times,” Mr. Warren points out.

Most notably, in 2010 Garris Evans acquired assets from the bankrupt company General Wholesale, which operated stores in New Bern and Jacksonville, North Carolina. Garris Evans already operated in New Bern, and merging the two teams at its existing store proved a relatively easy transition. Furthermore, Garris Evans was immediately able to expand its sales by tapping into the bankrupt company’s loyal customers. Jacksonville was a new – and lucrative – market that Chairman David Evans and President John Evans recognized as having a lot of potential. Much of Jacksonville’s economy and housing market is driven by Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine base on the east coast. As a result, off base construction projects involving military personnel have provided the new Garris Evan’s location with steady business.

More recently, Garris Evans opened a new site in Shallotte, North Carolina, which is located near the popular tourist destination of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In mid-2013, the company bought a facility at auction for “a great deal” and hired employees from a local lumber company that had just gone out of business. The four-building compound needed some TLC but, after a makeover, the new location opened about two months ago. Business is already booming. “[It is] probably the best growth in our company right now,” Mr. Warren reports. The strong sales are particularly noteworthy because Shallotte and the surrounding coastal area were hit quite hard by the recession. “Obviously the beaches got hurt really badly because no one was building second homes. But now it is recovering, so that is exciting.” Landowners and builders are sensing that the time is ripe to build, Mr. Warren observes. “People hung on and waited, or they have taken advantage by buying a lot.” Either way, “they are building now.”

Myrtle Beach and surrounding vacation destinations are a huge draw for the area, and the steady stream of northerners and Canadians seeking warmer waters brings in substantial money. And, these tourist dollars continue to roll in during late winter and early spring, when local beachgoers stay indoors. “In February and March Canadians consider it warm down here,” Mr. Warren explains. As a result, the local economy enjoys a boost nearly year round, which helps Garris Evans maintain sales.

The new coastal location has also provided the company with a prime opportunity to diversify and reduce its dependence on the troubled housing market. The Carolina coast needs plenty of seawalls to prevent flooding, and the team is busy providing the materials. “Seawalls hold the ground back where it meets the river or the ocean,” Mr. Warren explains. “That has been a pretty good area of business for us.” The team plans to continue making the most of the increasing business in Shallotte and is in the process of adding a showroom to its facility there.

The team is also continuing to focus on its flagship store. Just two years ago – when the local economy was at its worst – a hurricane slammed into Eastern North Carolina, causing widespread damage. Garris Evans’ Greenville facilities were hit hard, one building completely destroyed. “We lost a building,” Mr. Warren recalls. “[The hurricane] just picked it up and took it away.” The team was able to turn the situation around, however, by upgrading all of the facilities at that location when they rebuilt. The Greenville site, which was the company’s original location, remains the largest in terms of sales, and includes a full scale hardware store.

Mr. Warren says that every Garris Evans location – Greenville, Wilson, New Bern, Jacksonville and Shallotte – stands out for its exceptional service. In fact, the company’s commitment to superior service has been the number one reason behind Garris Evans’ lasting success, Mr. Warren believes. “We give very good service. That is what we are known for.” Service is particularly important in the lumber industry, he adds. “Everybody sells the same products. Lumber is lumber. There are only so many ways to skin a cat.” Superior service is one of the few ways to successfully set oneself apart. As a result, Garris Evans supplies – and supports – a full product line. “We sell everything, from the foundation of the house up to the top of the house. We do all the sheetrock and trim, all of the mouldings inside the home. We do everything.”

Dedicated specialists walk customers through the process. The team has a window specialist to assist with complex window packages, which are a big seller for the company. “We just sold a $100,000 window package in Shallotte for a multimillion dollar home on the beach,” Mr. Warren reports. “Those get pretty complicated. You really need someone who has the expertise.” Garris Evans also has a wood specialist “who designs the house from the foundation up to the top.” The newly hired specialist is able to specially tailor a solution for each client. “He can take a set of plans and reengineer it to save them money or to make the floor stronger, for example.” Plans can be written in Spanish as well as English, and the engineer will actually go out to the job site to ensure that the design is being implemented correctly. This attention to detail is especially important in the Eastern Carolinas, Mr. Warren points out, because structures must be built to withstand heavy winds due to the high risk of hurricanes.

The Garris Evans sales team is also a major component of the company’s great service. “We have an excellent outside sales staff,” Mr. Warren reports. “They go out into the field, to the builder.” The knowledgeable team is able to walk builders and homeowners through the buying process, ensuring that they get the best materials for their specific job.

During the recession, Garris Evans worked hard to hang onto its top notch staff in order to be able to continue giving great service. “Even though we have had to cut back, we have tried to maintain our employees,” Mr. Warren says. “We try to make it a good place to work.” A good benefit package is crucial, he adds, but the Affordable Care Act has complicated the situation. “With the new rules and regulations about health care, it’s tough.” However, most competitors are also facing the same challenge regarding employee benefits, he points out, and Garris Evans is “still able to provide adequate benefits for people – better than a lot of places.”

Garris Evans has done a remarkable job staying ahead during troubled times, and Mr. Warren is optimistic about the future. “Our housing industry has been awful. But it is starting to recover – it is not great yet, but it is starting to recover. Our part of the world, we are usually the last that goes into a recession in the housing industry, and we are the last coming out too.” The important thing, he emphasizes, is that the area is finally recovering. His company will be there to meet the increasing demand – and to continue making the most of every situation. “We will continue our growth. If there are opportunities, we will take a look at them.”

June 19, 2018, 8:04 AM EDT

A Proactive Approach to Resolving a Longstanding Debate

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