‘Joes and Pros’ Ivey’s Building Materials embraces customer mix

Ivey's Building Materials
Mitch Johnson, president and CEO of the two-location Ivey’s Building Materials in Louisiana with son Josh, the company’s general manager.

There was a time when Josh Johnson was so ready to work for the family lumberyard that his father sent him to a Zig Ziglar sales training for a shot of inspiration before bringing him aboard. Josh was inspired, alright. So much that he announced he was starting up a rock band and bringing his high-school aged younger brother with him.

It was best, Josh says looking back, to get that out of his system before committing to Ivey’s Building Materials, the third-generation family business. So Josh, his brother, and a cousin (who happens to be a general manager of one of the Ivey’s locations) toured for nearly a decade as the band Tyler Read, opening for acts such as Shinedown, Chevelle, Fall Out Boy, and Puddle of Mudd.

While the road eventually led back to the hometown family business in 2010, the lessons learned along the way propelled Josh to a leadership role in the company.

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“We were doing the DIY musician thing. We played VFWs, dive bars, trailer parks…it really taught me as a business person that I don’t need to be afraid of the bottom. We were at the bottom and grew from there. A lot of street smarts came from that.”

Today, Josh is the general manager at Ivey’s Building Materials, while his brother has since left to lead his own construction company. Their father, Mitch, is president and CEO of the two-location lumberyard.

“As hard as it is sometimes with a mom and a dad in the business, I love it,” Josh says. “I have an hour-long conversation with my dad on most days, and I have really grown to appreciate that.”

Family history

The company was founded in 1969 by Josh’s grandfather, Mack Ivey, as a sawmill in Logansport, Louisiana. Mack opened a second store in Mansfield, selling the original sawmill. At the age of 14, Mitch Johnson went to work for the company and took a liking to one of Mack’s daughters, who would later become his wife. When Mack Ivey passed away at a young age, his son-in-law, Mitch, led the company, patiently awaiting the arrival of his own children into the business.

When Josh and his brother returned to the company in 2010, they hit the ground running and within a few years a new location was opened in Haughton, Louisiana, a suburb communities of Shreveport and Bossier City. “The first store was in a small market,” Josh says. “Right off the bat I was thinking we should expand. We tapped into my grandfather’s vision to see the company grow.”

‘Joes and Pros’

The two Ivey’s Building Materials markets are fairly different, Josh says, which has helped the company remain diversified regardless of any fluctuations in the building or remodeling markets.

“We serve the Joes and the Pros,” he says, alluding to the everyday DIY customers along with the professional builders and remodelers. “One location is in a rural town of 5,000 and the other serves a population of about 60,000 within a five-mile radius.”

Josh says it’s an area where many independents have given up on the home center model, but “we’re too dumb for that,” and it has served them well. “I’ve come to love hardware,” he says. “During the pandemic, hardware was very resilient. People flocked to hardware stores and home centers.”

Josh tells the story of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when a builder came into his office and told him he had lost four bids. “I thought, wow…it’s going to get very ugly for all of us. Who could have predicted the surge in DIY business?”

While the majority of the company’s volume is still pro builders, Ivey’s definitely leaned on the support of new DIY customers during the pandemic. About 63 employees staff the two locations, almost evenly distributed between them. The company’s outside salesforce serves builders and roofing contractors, not limited to any subset.

“Our sweet spot is the custom builder who doesn’t get into really elite, high-end stuff, but a good, solid builder who does six to 12 homes a year,” Josh says.

While pro builders have long been the focus at Ivey’s, Josh says the company is able to pivot into product categories as their customers’ needs change. “In a rural area it’s whoever’s working that we can serve—it may be an oil field in need of railroad ties. You just need to find your way with what’s out there.”

What’s in store

The pandemic surge into home centers coincided with a significant hail storm in northwestern Louisiana. The combination of the two significant events, along with commodity inflation, created an incredible run in revenue for the company.

Josh says the challenge ahead is converting those customers to remain after the pandemic is over. “People are recognizing us and our strengths now, when they hadn’t even had exposure to us before,” he says. “We need to figure out a way to retain them and grow from here.”

The trajectory of the company, Josh says, exists by-and-large due to open mindedness and following the best and brightest ideas in the business. Those ideas often come from other dealers in the industry who are willing to share their success stories.

“When I first got into the business, there was a group of guys in Oklahoma that sent a standing invitation to anyone who wanted to come in and observe their operations. They said they’d be an open book. I called them up and asked how many had taken them up on it and they said no one had.”

Josh travelled to Clinton, Oklahoma to meet with George Browning and the team at Elk Supply. “They were as advertised,” he says. “It was an incredible experience. I was a sponge and I came out of the meeting knowing we had to change our POS system in order to grow.”

There are other dealers Josh has met with through the Construction Suppliers Association and through networking at Do it Best Corp. member-owner events.

“When you’re growing, certain new  problems  pop  up that you’ve never had before. Somebody out there has the answer. Somebody can tell you how to attack that. For some organizations, it comes down to how fast you can get that information and how fast you can implement it and make changes.”

That doesn’t mean the Johnsons have visions of creating a national company, by any means. Rather, the goal is to be as optimized as possible in their current markets.

“I used to think 100 locations would be great. I’ve since seen the light,” Josh says. “I believe you have to continue to grow—the marketplace says you need to get better or you’ll be left behind. I believe growth is a necessity, but it’s about the right growth. Does it make sense in your life, your network, your family? We’re open to possibilities, but it has to remain within that balance. It has to make sense, and it has to be the right decision.”

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