Higginbotham Brothers serves Texas for 138 years

Higginbotham Brothers
Owner Rufus Duncan (left) and President and COO Corby Biddle.
Owner Rufus Duncan (left) and President and COO Corby Biddle.                                PHOTOS BY COTTON PHOTOGRAPHY

There was a time when putting your money in Higginbotham Brothers Lumber was better than putting it in a bank.

A ledger was saved from a Great Depression-era Lubbock, Texas Higginbotham location. The balance sheet read “no debt,” and it was dated 1930, Higginbotham Brothers owner Rufus Duncan says.

“The lore is that the farmers used to pay their bills into the negative because it was safer putting it with Higginbotham than in a bank,” Duncan added. “Farmers were living one harvest to the next and they needed to make sure their money stayed around.”

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Smart farmers kept their money with Higginbotham for a reason. The company has now been around for 138 years, has survived world wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and more.

Higginbotham Brothers Company History

Based in Comanche, Texas, Higginbotham has grown from its start as a general store, lumberyard and funeral home, to a chain of 39 full-line lumberyards stretching east to west across Texas.

“Most lumberyards way back then were also funeral homes,” Rufus says. “For us, that business is still in the family and is still going today.”

“In the family” to a Higginbotham means operated by a cousin, of which there are several. In fact, though Rufus Duncan is named after his great-grandfather, R.W. Higginbotham, one of the founders of the company, he didn’t get into the business by inheriting it directly.

Rufus was working for his father who, as a builder in the area, had started his own one-man lumberyard to keep his building materials costs down. When his dad left the building business, Rufus bought out the lumberyard, and then bought a couple more. By 1999 he had three stores. Then one of his cousins called. “He said, ‘you look like the only one of us who enjoys doing this, so why don’t you buy my lumberyards?’ and so I did,” Rufus says.

That cousin and extended family had 19 stores based in Comanche, and by 1999 Rufus had found himself with a chain of 22 locations. In Lubbock, there was another Higginbotham chain run by another set of cousins and he bought that in 2002. Since then, Rufus says, he’s “bought a few, closed a few, sold some to managers.”

Operations

To run his lumberyards, Rufus relies on Corby Biddle, an industry veteran who has been with Higginbotham Brothers for the past decade. Prior to that he spent 26 years with Foxworth Galbraith.

Corby now leads a team of about 350 employees spread across the 39 locations. He sees to it that each of Higginbothams’ mostly smaller, rural market stores is the top independent dealer in its area, serving single-family homebuilders, custom builders, and remodelers. As for competition, only the Tyler, Texas location butts up with big box stores. Other Higginbotham yards face competition from independent lumberyards in their respective markets.

About 60% of the customer base for Higginbotham Brothers is made up of pro builders, Corby says. A big reason for the high retail traffic is due to the smaller markets in which the stores are located. In many of the communities the company serves, the local lumberyard serves as a hardware store, farm store, and even outdoors, hunting and fishing headquarters.

“We have some locations where we’re the only game in town, so we give our managers the autonomy to carry what they want,” Corby says. “If they have a niche in their market, we allow them to bring that in. At least 20% to 25% of our markets are niche items that aren’t lumber, building materials, or straight hardware.” For instance, he says, a third of the company’s stores are in West Texas, where many of the SKUs in the stores are products that support work in the oil fields.

Together, the locations are generating a steady increase of 6% to 8% in revenues annually. With revenues on an upward trend, the company recently opened its 39th location, in Mineola, Texas, just north of Tyler.

“The goal is to add one or two a year for the next few years, or as long as the economy holds out,” Corby says.

Like many lumber dealers in today’s market, Corby says labor is a big issue with his company. “Out in West Texas, if you can pass a drug test and fog a mirror you can work in the oil fields for up to six figures,” he says.

Because of the competition for workers, he has found success recruiting outside of his regular pool for lumberyard help. Female employees who might be less inclined to want jobs in the oil industry are a great resource for Higginbotham. Five locations are managed by women, and Corby says that number will likely increase. Corby also works with local colleges to bring in more associates, and Higginbotham representatives attend job fairs around the state, as well as work with a handful of different recruiters.

The Future of Higginbotham Brothers

Rufus’s son, Scott, is on the board of Higginbotham Brothers, and Rufus anticipates him one day owning the company. As the industry continues to evolve, Rufus doesn’t want to look beyond his son’s tenure as owner.

“I feel pretty certain this will make it through his generation,” he says. “He’s only 31, so it will definitely be a Higginbotham’s for a long time.”

Corby says a population boom in many of the small markets is bound to keep Higginbotham Brothers relevant for years to come.

“People are migrating from California and Nevada to this area. Large companies are moving headquarters to Texas because of tax breaks. It’s a great place to be and there’s a lot of opportunity here.

“I think a lot of that is going to hinge on November 2020,” he adds. “What happens then will dictate the long term. Up until then I’m pretty positive about the future. I’ve been in this business for 40 years. We’re going to have ups and downs and you’ve got to just prepare for them.”

Rufus agrees and the two have set an aggressive approach for the future for their company. “You’ve got to grow. At any given time, you’re getting more competition in a market.

Your sales are going to drop, your profits are going to drop. The competition is always getting tougher. If you don’t grow a company, you’re dead,” Rufus says.

To continue to grow, and to continue to be successful, Rufus follows a simple philosophy: People. “Higginbotham is about people,” he says. In taking care of his people, Rufus knows they’ll take care of the company. They recently introduced an Associate Assistance Program, a company-seeded non-profit to which employees can donate tax-deferred. If an associate runs into a problem, a committee can allocate those funds toward medical expenses and so on. Recently, a manager lost a home to a fire and the funds were able to help him get started on recovering.

“We kind of do what we can to make the associates feel welcome and feel at home. It’s a big family,” Rufus says.

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