According to a Cornell University study, the average lifespan of a family business is 24 years. By those measures, Curtis Lumber’s 132 years has lived up to its billing as a soon-to-be sixth-generation company.
Kylie Holland is in the early stages of transitioning to an ownership role as her father, Jay Curtis, is looking down the road to retirement. For a company founded in 1890 (even earlier if you count the family sawmill that led to the lumberyard), Kylie says the name of the game is “consistency.”
Curtis Lumber, based in Ballston Spa, just north of Albany, New York, has grown to six generations by adapting in smart, incremental measures. The family leadership has kept an eye to the future, while holding steady to the strength of its past. “We’re six generations deep and we’re still here,” Kylie says. “That may be a boring story to some, but to us it’s interesting. We’ve been one family, and we’ve never sold. We continue to grow every year.”
That growth throughout the years has led to 21 locations in New York as well as two in Vermont. Each location is considered a full-service lumberyard, and many also feature a kitchen and bath showroom.
While her father is still very much involved in the business as president and CEO, Kylie is ready to take on the office when Dad is ready to retire. “We’re just starting the transition of ownership. It’s a slow process, which is fine by me,” she says.
Next generation, next challenge
When Kylie looks back at her six-generation family company’s history, she sees major changes in the world during the time in which the torch was passed from one generation to another. For instance, when her grandfather turned over the business, her father introduced computers to the company that forever altered the businesses’ trajectory. Under her father, Jay Curtis’s leadership, the company physically doubled its size.
“At every single change of ownership there has been something significant that has happened, something generational or in society that sparked a significant change.” So, what’s in store when Kylie, currently executive vice president, moves into her father’s president and CEO role? “I think, looking at my role, digitizing ourselves in a way that makes us more accessible to our customers is the next challenge,” Kylie says. “We’re not going to be an Amazon tomorrow, and we don’t want to be. But there’s some level of change we have to embrace to get ourselves into the digital atmosphere that we’re all becoming so accustomed to.” Kylie is laser-focused on identifying processes in which technology can help Curtis Lumber operate smoother. “I’m looking at how online shopping could fit into our environment. It’s important not to write it off, but rather figure out how to do it right.”
Serving the Capitol Region
The Capitol Region and Saratoga County, the area that Curtis Lumber primarily serves, is somewhat isolated from business challenges faced elsewhere in the country. With a growing population in an affluent market, business is good for Curtis Lumber while the housing market is still, for the most part, on an upswing.
Curtis Lumber is approaching $300 million in sales this year, which Kylie says is a major jump from just four years ago in 2018 when the company held a celebration for hitting $200 million in sales.
“We’ve added two locations since then, but it’s mostly volume growth,” she says. “We’re in a market where we can experiment and grow. Twenty years ago, kitchen and bath departments weren’t evident. Now it’s a major category for us, as are specialty hardwoods.”
As for projections, Kylie says, “All things are pointing in the direction that we’ll have some kind of continued revenue growth.”
Curtis Lumber employs around 700 people across its 23 locations, a number that is “give or take around 50” depending on seasonality and the local hiring base.
Unfortunately for Curtis Lumber, the labor crisis isn’t one of those issues they are able to avoid based on their location. Kylie says they feel the pinch for help just like any other business. The company tries to widen their net as often as they can to reach prospective employees, including championing a Workforce Development Coalition to promote work in the trades. The company’s internal human resources and full-time recruiter with support staff help a lot with hiring without having to look to outside resources.
“We’re a sizable employer, a reliable employer, with a great reputation,” says Kylie. “I think we’re just trying to attack it from every single angle that we possibly can. One method of trying to attract people isn’t necessarily enough. If there’s a way of getting people in the door, we’re going to try it. Traditional, online, workforce development, getting into schools, maybe it’s an internship even.”
If there’s a silver lining to the labor market issues for Curtis Lumber, it’s that the competition for labor locally doesn’t include a lot of big box home stores. There are other independents in the area, but as Kylie says, “We’re very respectful of each other and we respect each other’s boundaries.”
Overall, 60% to 65% of the company’s customers are pro builders and contractors. The main location in Ballston Spa is one of the more retail-heavy stores. With the farthest location about an hour and a half from headquarters, and with a four-hour stretch from the northernmost to the farthest south stores, Curtis Lumber employs regional directors who oversee groups of four to six stores. All store managers report to a regional director.
Kylie says the diversity of knowledge among Curtis Lumber staff is what sets the company apart from its competition.
“We have the best staff in the industry. I’m sure most companies feel that way too, but what makes us unique is that we do a little bit of everything. We’re willing to do whatever kind of opportunity gets thrown our way. We do commercial, retail, remodeling, large home projects, multifamily apartments, hardware, kitchens, there’s nothing we won’t at least throw our hat in the ring for.”
That’s the Curtis family approach to business, she says, and it’s when the customer sees that, it becomes a personal approach to business. “At Curtis Lumber there are no cookie-cutter ways of doing things. We have such a diversified staff that even if one specific location or salesperson may not know how to handle something, someone on our staff does. Even if it’s way out of the box—somebody will know exactly what to do.”
Taking the lead on a 132-year-old family company isn’t something Kylie takes lightly. As her family has already done for five generations, Kylie will approach the future with caution, while keeping an eye out for opportunities, such as e-commerce.
“My dad is a traditionalist,” she says. “He’s done business successfully for a long time.”
When different opportunities have come their way, Jay Curtis hasn’t been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and that has made all the difference, Kylie adds. “He’s been very quick to say, ‘Let’s not do anything crazy.’ You don’t want to make so much change that people don’t recognize who we are.”
That philosophy has guided Curtis Lumber for five generations, and as it further transitions to the sixth, Kylie intends to hold on to what has worked for 132 years.
“It’s what makes us relatable and recognizable, and what makes us a leader in this market,” she says. “In that sense, I don’t think we’ve changed an awful lot; it’s more like an evolution process.”