Al Bavry saw something at his lumber firm last year he hadn't seen since 2006: a profit.
Not only a profit, but annual revenues at the company, Nokomis-based Kimal Lumber, are up 66.7%, from $12 million in 2011 to $20 million last year. Bavry, the president, CEO and co-founder of the company and a 50-year lumber and construction industry veteran, projects sales will reach at least $23 million in 2013.
While that figure is a steep tumble from 2006, when the company was at $58 million in sales, it's nonetheless a positive answer to the gloom that dots the region. The company has about 90 employees, down from a peak of 230 in 2006 — but up from 60 in 2011.
“It's been humbling,” says Bavry, “but as we come out on the other side, we feel like we are stronger now.”
Kimal Lumber is taking that strength out for a spin in several moves Bavry, 71, proudly calls contrarian. One move, a drive-thru lumberyard project, is so unique it would actually be one of the only of its kind in Florida. He also hired sales staff while competitors retreated. “The only way we will survive the recession,” Bavry often tells employees, “is to sell our way out.”
But it's a lonely existence, given many lumber firms, locally and nationally, remain stuck. “Our industry,” Bavry says, “has been in the tank for a long time.”
Indiana-based industry consultant Greg Brooks, who has known Bavry for at least 20 years, says not only are times hard, but lumber companies, even in booms, tend to not think ahead anyway. “This is an industry,” says Brooks, with the Building Supply Channel, “that hasn't had any innovation in 150 years.”
Brooks says entrepreneurs like Bavry are part of the industry's 1% or 3% who willingly take chances on bold and unproven ideas. That do-it-different approach, says Brooks, makes Bavry the “Steve Jobs of lumber,” because he finds and pursues opportunities others won't even think about.
“Al isn't someone who has any complacency in him,” says Brooks, who is also editor and publisher of LBM Executive, a lumber trade publication. “The ability to respond to the market quickly and accurately is the most important skill you can have in this business, and Al is one of the best at that.”
To wit: The market-defying moves at Kimal Lumber began with a business model shift, when the company added a retail hardware component. Now it has lumberyards and general hardware stores in Englewood and down the street from its Nokomis headquarters, in south Sarasota County. The firm has an additional sales and design center in Nokomis, and it has three facilities in Venice: a window and door outlet; an engineered wood/truss center; and a 7,500-square-foot training and event center that cost $2 million to build in 2006.
That shift, however, looks small compared with the lumberyard development.
That project is on three acres on Fruitville Road, just east of Interstate 75. It would be a drive-thru warehouse where vehicles, up to a full-size four-door pickup truck with a trailer, can access a trove of wood and lumber products in strategically designed aisles.
“It's really set up to keep everything inside,” says Bavry. “It will be easy to drive in and drive through.”
Bavry and the top executives at Kimal Lumber have been working on the project for two years. That includes scouting for land and visiting similar facilities outside Florida, like one in Hartville, Ohio. Bavry estimates the project will cost about $4.5 million.
Construction is expected to begin by April, and the facility could be open by the end of 2013. Bavry expects to hire 12-15 people to staff the center initially, with the hope that there would be enough business to double the payroll within a few years.
Bavry says the drive-thru will be a good spot for small homebuilders, renovation crews and even the weekend warrior do-it-yourself repairmen and women. “We see a big void in the marketplace, and we think we can fill it,” says Bavry. “I think we will grow like a son of a gun.”
Finally, in what could be the most counterintuitive move of all, Bavry plans to open an 8,400-square-foot hardware store at the Fruitville Road facility, the third such store under the Kimal name. That means he would be selling everything from lumber and lug bolts to screwdrivers and saws right down the road from industry giants Lowe's and Home Depot.
If Bavry is scared, he hides it well.
“It's not that difficult to compete against the boxes,” says Bavry. “Those box stores seem to think of customer contact last rather than first.”
Bavry says for that reason, hiring and training the right people will be his biggest challenge with the drive-thru lumberyard and hardware store. “You can be the prettiest store in the world,” he says, “but if you have an employee up front with a sour attitude, it's not going to work.”
Studs and plywood
Bavry has made strategy decisions that go against conventional thinking several other times before the drive-thru.
For example, the firm was one of the first in the country, back in the 1990s, to manufacture and sell engineered wood. That's a wood product made from composite materials that are bound together. Kimal Lumber also developed and sold its own line lumber products, to diversify its customer base.
Bavry co-founded Kimal Lumber in 1981 with business partner Kim Pavkovich; the company moniker is after the founders' first names. A Wisconsin native, Bavry had been a yard hand and a carpenter's helper at several local lumberyards while growing up. In 1969 he took a management position with a neighborhood lumber company that was ultimately bought by Wickes Lumber. Bavry stayed with Wickes, then an industry power, for a decade before he and Pavkovich founded Kimal.
The mission with Kimal, initially, was to provide studs and plywood for local contractors. The company did that, and growth came quickly: By 1987 it had its first truss plant and added dozens more materials and products to its portfolio. In 2003, Kimal opened a high-tech truss plant in Venice and next door to that, in late 2005, it opened a window and door production facility. The training center came the next year.
Bavry — think Steve Jobs — also embraced technology for the lumber industry long before others did. That goes back several years, to when he had GPS tracking systems installed in Kimal delivery trucks. It was a move designed to make the firm's logistics more efficient, not be big brother.
On the drive-thru lumberyard project, meanwhile, Bavry will certainly be satisfied if it becomes Kimal's iPad. Until then, though, Bavry is content trying to lead Kimal out of the downturn — even if he has to take some unusually high chances along the way.
“Nothing is a sure thing,” says Bavry. “Certainly there is a lot at risk here. But when you wake up in the morning and go on the interstate you take a chance.”