The LBM industry has more than its share of companies with rich and interesting histories, and E.C. Barton & Co. is no exception. The company’s chain of Barton’s Lumber Company stores can be traced to a single stack of lumber that sat behind a Jonesboro, Arkansas grocery store in 1885.
Intending to build a new home, grocer P.C. Barton had stacked lumber for the project behind his grocery store for safe keeping. Ever the entrepreneurial spirit, he couldn’t turn down a good deal when someone asked to purchase lumber along with their groceries. Soon, lumber became a part of the regular inventory at P.C. Barton Grocers, and years later, Barton Lumber Co. was born.
Barton eventually sold off the grocery store interests and formed what was known as Barton Lumber & Brick. With a focus on building materials, the company grew and in 1928 P.C. Barton was able to turn the business over to his son, Eugene C. Barton, who at just 20 years old, controlled the company that became E.C. Barton & Co.
Throughout the years, the company expanded and built or acquired up to 30 lumberyards at one time. Today, there are 11 in a group called Barton’s Lumber Company. E.C. Barton also has business in the consumer retail markets called Bargain Outlet and Barton’s Surplus Warehouse. Those businesses specialize in kitchen design, flooring, cabinetry, plumbing and millwork. In addition, E.C. Barton controls a brokerage company, which purchases closeout and distressed inventory for resale. Today, COO Kevin Pierce says the company has intentionally whittled down the lumber- yard locations into a smarter and more efficient grouping of 11 Barton’s Lumber stores, nine of which are in Arkansas, and two in Missouri. Within the E.C. Barton landscape the Barton’s Lumber stores are 11 of a total of 105 locations in 17 states. The remaining 94 are specialty retail stores.
Employee partners at Barton’s Lumber
Pierce has been with the company for 12 years and is particularly proud of E.C. Barton & Co. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Since the 1970s, E.C. Barton, across all its companies, is wholly owned by employees. In fact, people who work for the company are not called employees at all, but rather “partners.”
“We specialize in quality products, and offer a great value for our customers, but it is our engaged partners that create our biggest competitive advantage,” Pierce says. “When you work with one of our partners you are working directly with an owner. This mindset creates a unique pride in ownership our competitors cannot replicate.”
There are 700 employees across all E.C. Barton companies, all operating within the same ESOP. Average tenure for an E.C. Barton partner is more than eight years, with several 40+ year partners.
“Time and time again, we are recognized in customer reviews for our exceptional service,” Pierce says. “It goes well beyond a single experience; our knowledgeable partners establish long-standing relationships with their customers. Partners understand, anticipate and react better to customer needs. This results in an overall better experience.”
Barton’s Lumber focus on service
That customer service helps to support a customer base of 60% to 75% contractors at Barton’s Lumber stores, depending on the location.
“Our business model, combining the specialty home improvement stores with our full-service lumber stores, lends to a focused strategy that creates buying power and gives our partners the ability to find the best quality and prices, to pass that along to our customers,” says Pierce. “That is the business model that has made us successful. Our lumber buying department works with Do it Best and buys direct, which also allows better cost to customers.”
An engaged partner helps the whole company, Pierce adds. “Everything ties back into an ownership philosophy. We are lean by design, which allows our partners more impact on every part of the business. This all has a direct impact on our customers.”
E.C. Barton growth
Much of the company’s growth decisions will be influenced by recent customer research, Pierce says. The company has spent the past year surveying customers and professionals about what is important to them and how all E.C. Barton stores, including Barton’s Lumber locations, can better align to meet those needs. It’s an extensive research process and is helping to shape a strategy for increased brand awareness in the marketplace. The company recently launched a set of pilot stores, styled as Barton’s Home Improvement, to test the research findings in both new and existing markets.
“It’s all about awareness of our brand and what we offer,” Pierce says. “It’s how we go to market and tell our story. Our 134-year heritage in the building material business allows us to provide expert knowledge, service and products. The customer insights from our research are informing our decision on when and where the company needs to meet the customer in their shopping experience.”
Pierce says he also sees technology as both an opportunity and a barrier when it comes to his company’s growth. The challenge of technology in this industry, he says, is the rapid rate at which it is evolving. As business leaders, he looks to the company’s management to anticipate changes and focus on those that will be most impactful. That includes monitoring not only technology trends in the retail industry, but also tech tools that benefit customers.
As an example, Pierce points out that Barton’s Lumber stores transitioned to Epicor BisTrack and provides complimentary kitchen and bath designs in store and online. The company rolled out an e-commerce option this year that allows customers to place an order online and pick it up in stores. Next the company will be testing delivery services in Bargain Outlet and Barton’s Surplus Warehouse stores.
“We have a proven and successful model of consistent growth, we take a test-and-learn approach to everything,” he says. “There are a lot of parts and if you don’t do it right, you can lose out on customers.” He adds that the company is entering an exciting time and part of a great team to move into the next 134 years.