Walk around the Brinker Brown Fastener & Supply showroom in Fort Myers and owner Jeff Brown will show you tools you won't find in most sheds.
There's a propane-gas-powered gun that shoots screws into steel, saw blades that can chew through concrete and private-label epoxy for big construction jobs. “The whole Sanibel Causeway is held together with Brinker Brown epoxy,” says Brown, 56.
You probably won't find a lot of these construction-related tools at Home Depot or Lowe's either. Brown is always adding new products, from generators and dust-containment shrouds to top-of-the-line Makita power tools (his Fort Myers store is one of just three Makita “pro centers” in Florida.)
Brown bets you won't find knowledgeable people or a tool-repair department at the big-box stores. “If there was money in tool repair, Home Depot would be doing it,” he quips. “It's not much of a profit center because of the overhead.”
But customers who work in the field appreciate getting their tools repaired quickly and talking to knowledgeable salesmen. “We won't take a power tool on unless we can repair it,” Brown says.
Brown and Walt Kerr, the partner he has since bought out, formed the company in 1985 after working for years to supply the construction trades for other companies. The pair sold their cars, maxed out their credit cards and got a $35,000 bank loan to start the business.
“We grew really quick because we had a following,” Brown recalls. “We did over $1 million in our first year in business.”
Brinker Brown rode the construction boom like every business tied to the residential and commercial real estate industries. By 2006, the company's annual revenues topped $10 million from its two stores in Fort Myers and Naples. Brown declines to cite recent sales; he says they're “not pretty.”
Brown is ambivalent about sharing the reason he's been able to keep his two stores open, but he says Internet sales have grown to become one-third of his sales. “It's allowed us to keep the doors open,” Brown says. “I knew we had to get outside of our local economies.”
Brown won't reveal the name of his Internet-sales Web site is because he doesn't want to cannibalize sales from his brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, the Internet business was established as a customer of Brinker Brown and is completely independent of the physical retailer.
Internet sales are a low-margin business with fierce global competition, but the volume has made up for the meager profits. Brown has sold tools to customers in all 50 states and 40 foreign countries.
The high volume of Internet sales allows Brown to buy from manufacturers at prices that helps his physical stores compete against the big boxes in Fort Myers and Naples. Because of the thin margins, an Internet store could not be competitive on a stand-alone basis if Brown had to account for the overhead.
But the Internet store lets Brown stock more inventory because it moves faster. “I've been able to sell off all my slow-moving stuff,” he says. With a large inventory of 10,000 items for the Internet store, Brown can sell hard-to-find tools to his walk-in customers. “If somebody needs it, they need it now,” Brown says. “It's a service thing.”
The Internet business hasn't been easy. “We built our first Web site and it was a miserable experience,” Brown says. He says he spent $20,000 and thousands of hours of staff time in 2008 after a Web marketing company failed to deliver a site that functioned properly.
“We ended up hiring a programmer,” Brown says. The programmer worked full-time on the Web site for six months to perfect it before turning it over to Brown's staff.
In the last quarter, Brown says he's seen signs of a recovery in the Fort Myers and Naples construction industry. He organized a cookout in December at his Fort Myers store for tradesmen and about 400 people showed up. “They turned up to buy,” he says.
Of course, Brown says the market won't come roaring back and he expects more construction firms to leave or go out of business. Brown is irked by the county's economic development efforts that subsidize new businesses while Brinker Brown and other well-established companies carry Lee County's heavy tax burden. “I've had to finance this out of my own pocket,” he says.
Brown says county officials won't listen to pleas to lower taxes, especially so-called “impact fees,” which are taxes on new construction. “They don't cut the business owner any slack,” he says.
Brown built a 30,000-square-foot building in Fort Myers in 2007 to beat the deadline after county commissioners blundered by tripling taxes on new construction that year.
But Brown says he's not going anywhere. “I'm happy we're here,” Brown says. “Our customers and employees love it. We'll be greased when it does come back.”