Note: Since original pub date, I got the chance to speak with two of the 4th generation Fitch Lumber owners. See additions in green.
What better place to learn about best practices and secrets to success than a business that has lasted through two panics, two depressions, sixteen recessions and nineteen United States Presidents.
That’s what led me to visit Mac Fitch, the owner & President of Fitch Lumber Company, and ask the question, “What has enabled you to be in business for 104 years?”
His answer was lightning quick, “ Blind luck.”
Since we had that covered, I went on the next question. With Father’s Day a few weeks away, I asked him to share some lessons learned from his father and grandfather – lessons that might help the rest of us encounter some of that “blind luck” in business.
First a little history
In the 1920’s, there were a lot of new buildings going up down the road in Chapel Hill – on Franklin Street and on campus – and Mr. Fitch was getting lots of window and door orders for these. So in 1923, he sent his son, Bernice (Mac’s uncle) to open a branch in Carrboro. Bernice and his co-worker took orders all day and made deliveries after 5:00 with horse and wagon.
When the Mebane store burned down in 1945, they decided to consolidate everything into the Carrboro store. From that point on, A.B. Fitch drove from Mebane to Carrboro every day – six days a week – until he was 94 years old.
Soon after the Mebane store burned down, Bernice’s brother, Miles Fitch was discharged from the service and he came home to work in the store.
About fifteen years later, Miles’ son, Mac came on to the scene as a ten year old, pushing a broom, doing this and that at the store on Saturdays and every summer all the way through college.
Mac said, “I grew up in the business. Doing every job imaginable.”
I asked if his Dad made him do it.
He said, “My dad gave me the opportunity to make some cash and I took it.”
I loved that answer.
After graduating from Carolina in 1971, Mac came on board full time and worked alongside his Dad.
And then guess what? Beginning in the early 1980’s, Mac’s sons started coming in as they got old enough to push a broom, pick up nails, whatever they could do to help. All four of them, Miles III, David, Brad and John.
When Mac’s dad died in 1989, he left the store to Mac, giving him (in his Dad’s words), “the right to work your butt off the rest of your life.”
Mac’s sons continued to help with that – on Saturdays and during summer vacations – doing every job imaginable . And then Brad came on board full time in 2000; and David in 2001.
Now, after 51 years of doing everything from pushing a broom to being President, Mac still comes in to the store Monday – Saturday. Though he did admit that he has missed a few Saturdays now and then.
This little history of Fitch Lumber reminded me of something I read once about luck.
“I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. “
He said he remembers his Dad pushing to get orders out to keep the customer happy. And he remembers his Dad saying, “You’ve got to stay on top of accounts receivable. You’ve got to be the best there is at service. Don’t worry about price but give a fair price. And everything will work out.”
Today about 80% of their business comes from working with custom home builders. There are four outside salespeople who visit the builders, stop in on their work sites, make sure they have what they need, help them solve problems, etc. And about once each month, Carol Fitch Walker, Mac’s sister, who is in charge of advertising and promotions, cooks lunch for all the contractors. Hamburgers, pizza, tacos. It feels like family.
I wondered about staying on top of receivables, especially in this economy, with customers who were like family.
Mac said, “We work with them.”
He gets them to come in and talk about things. He listens. He tells them about how others have handled similar situations. He helps them look for ways they can cut back or manage their money differently. Helps them figure out a plan. Sounds like family. And a great way to keep customers happy.
Speaking of “happy” and “family”…
Mac told me that right after he finished college and started working full time at Fitch, he wanted to find out the average tenure for those that worked there. It was nineteen years. Some people had been there 40-45 years. There was NO turnover.
Generations of people have worked there. Not just from the Fitch family. They’ve had mothers and daughters work there; and grandfathers, fathers and sons work there. Uncles too.
The average tenure now is around twelve years – down a bit because several 40 year employees have recently retired.
What’s the secret?
Mac says, “They are good people. And we try to treat them as family.”
I asked for an example and Mac said, “ I don’t rule with an iron fist. We try to be fair. If somebody calls me and says, ‘One of your drivers just drove over a flower bed’, I talk to the driver and we go fix the flower bed. They (employees) know what is expected. We let them grow up. They are family.”
There are currently 35 employees who are part of this family. And Mac considers each of their families to be part of fthe Fitch family too. When I asked if there had been any layoffs during this recession that has been particularly hard on the building industry, Mac said, “No. I would rather take a cut in my pay than do that. There are 35 families here. They are all important to me.”
What would a “family member” say about all of this?
Freddy Foust, a 1975 graduate of Carolina, worked at a building supply store, a lumber company in Mebane and as a contractor before going to work at Fitch in 1984.
When asked why he has stayed at Fitch for 27 years, Freddy’s immediate answer was “Mac Fitch”. He added that he loves working there because it feels like a family, because it’s a great business and he loves working with the customers.
Freddy, whose role at Fitch is Vice President of Sales, went on to tell me that Carol also cooks for all the employees once a month – everything from hamburgers to spaghetti to flongolia (sp?) which from Freddy’s description sounds a bit like goulash – apparently an old Fitch Family recipe.
Freddy added: “If you want to know why Fitch Lumber has been in business so long just go stand at the counter and listen to interactions with customers.”
What would you hear if you did that? You would hear workers at work who really care about the customer, what he needs, why she is there. You would hear some banter. Some laughter. You would hear friends and family members helping each other.
I had one more question for Mac, “What was the toughest lesson learned from your Dad?”
Mac said, “My Dad was never very pushy. He led by example. So I never had a real run in with him. But I always respected him because he did work hard. But I do remember that they (his Dad, Grandfather & Uncle) were sticklers about being there every day on time. They were always punctual. “
Mac remembers his Dad saying, “It’s terrible to waste your own time. But when you waste others’ time, that’s really terrible.”
So Mac is always there at 8:00 when the store opens.
Perhaps it’s this same discipline that helps him stick with the daily routine of what I call “checking the scoreboard and stat sheet”, which in Mac’s business means checking on deliveries, and then reviewing reports that tell him the number of tickets, sales and profits from the day before. Plus the monthly routine of reviewing monthly profit and loss statements – always compared to prior year.
And perhaps it’s discipline and knowledge of the stats that helps him stay focused and committed to one specific niche – custom builders. Working with them and everyone in the Fitch Family through good times and bad.
I loved visiting with Mac Fitch and learning more about the Fitch Family’s 104 year history in business. By the end of my visit, I was reminded of something else I read about luck:
Brad added, “I feel very blessed to work here. There are so many who are unemployed. It’s hard out there. But dad has always told us to hang in there. If we have a bad day, there is tomorrow. If we have a bad year, there’s next year. He tells us to stay upbeat. Cater to the customer and they will be back.”
In a separate conversation, David who now works in contractor sales, told me about the different jobs he has had including doing inventory and driving trucks. He said his Dad had wanted him to start from the ground up because “people will have more respect for you if you’ve done it all”. Speaking of respect…David described his dad as his “biggest role model and dearest friend”.
It sounds like Mac has done a great job of teaching David and Brad everything he learned from his Dad and Grandad – maybe even more- about what it takes to make “blind luck”.
Thank you, Mac and the entire Fitch Family for being such a great role model for the business world.
What about you? What helpful business lessons did you learn from your Dad?
copyright 2012 – Jan Bolick & Business Class Inc