A hundred years, and growing

TW Perry isn’t just a lumberyard with a 100-year history. It’s a company — ranked 33rd on the HCN Top 200 Pro Dealer Scoreboard — with a story. 

The drama includes an extreme makeover in the late 1990s, when it recast itself from a home center to a pro dealer firmly focused on the remodeler and contractor. It’s a turnaround story starring motivated salesmen, and it’s an ongoing example of how a decentralized, entrepreneurial business can thrive — even in a tough market.

To tell the story, Home Channel News sat down with the following key players:

• Michael Cassidy, president and CEO

• Ed Quinn, chairman

• Mike Moore, VP materials 

• Rich Cortese, retired president

Cassidy: In a market that’s not growing, we grew 10% last year, and we’re on track to grow 10% this year. We do it by leaning forward — anticipating the market — by being sophisticated, highly technical, decentralized, entrepreneurial and by sharing what we know. In fact, we have a theory of running this company upside down. The customer is at the top of our chart. The person interacting with the customer is next. Then that person’s manager, then the senior manager. And at the very bottom of this work chart is the CEO. Our people can make decisions without having to ask Mike or me.

Moore: We have to be that way given the geography of our territories. The Baltimore market is completely different from Leesburg and Springfield. The analogy we use is we’re all the same family, but we have different children with different personalities. And the local management at each individual branch has to know the customer that they service. And the customer is completely different across all six branches.

Quinn: A hundred years ago, [TW Perry] was a feed and fuel company. Livestock feed and fuel for farmhouses. So when the suburbs were born in the 1920s and ’30s, that’s when the whole fabric of the company changed, and that was the real revolution for the company.

Cassidy: Ed took the company over about 12 years ago. Ed is a turnaround guy hired by the Perry family. They were in their third generation heading into their fourth. And as many generational transfers go, well, they don’t go well. The saying goes: “Value is created by the first generation, occasionally preserved by the second, typically destroyed by the third.” That was the stereotypical case here.

Quinn: The real change that forced Mr. Perry to hire outside consultants — namely me — was the big-box threat. The first Home Depot opened right here in about 1987. And it was an instant success. Our Gaithersburg building used to be a home center, by the way. It was 33,000 sq. ft. It won all kinds of awards. And it never made a nickel. In fact when I got here, they were losing about a million a year [across the company]. The day Home Depot opened, TW Perry sales dropped 25%, and they never recovered.

Nobody knew what to do about it. They made the classic mistake of trying to out-advertise them. Home Depot dominated the Washington Post, and TW Perry was fighting back with advertising in the county newspapers. It was a nice try, but it just wasn’t going to work.

Cortese: At that time there was a lot of work to do. Ed had started the ball rolling. I came on board in February 1997 and yeah, it was a critical period. We were getting hammered. The business focus was scattered. So we refocused the business and determined who our customer was. 

Quinn: Sooner or later you have got to focus. What are you going to be when you grow up? Out here [in Gaithersburg], we were selling Christmas trees, train sets, a lot of seasonal merchandise, grills, patio furniture. So, we repositioned the company to focus on remodelers, and that took about two years. I got here in 1995, and in 1997 I hired Rich Cortese, who came in to organize the sales force.

Cortese: I would walk around and talk to people and try to get a feel for things. Why are you doing it this way? And the answer was always, “Because this is the way we’ve always done it.” So the biggest thing was to convince everybody that we are a business, and we need to do things the best way — not because we had always done them that way.

Quinn: Hiring Rich was a watershed event, no question. He knew how to manage people. And he was just a gangbuster, really and thoroughly.

Cortese: One of the biggest things we did is we established next-day delivery guaranteed. If you order by 5 p.m., you’ll get it the next day. I got a lot of push back from everybody on this. I heard, “We can’t do it.” Sometimes our cut-off was at noon, or 1 p.m., when the shipping department would say, “Hey, we got too many today. Let’s cut it off.” And that was pretty much standard. But I said, “We’re going to do next-day delivery because we’re the only ones who can do it.” And all through the boom period, we did next-day delivery without fail — and sometimes we did 300 deliveries per day. Now I laugh, because starting in 2008, everybody can do next-day delivery because there aren’t that many deliveries. Back then, none of our competitors could match us. That was a big turnaround for us.

Quinn: Rich’s first hire was Doug Kelly, who is now our head of sales for the whole company and part-owner of the company as well.

Cortese: We were in dire need of experienced salespeople. I used to ask all the vendors: “Who do you know?” And they all kept mentioning this fellow Doug Kelly who worked at 84 Lumber. So I called Doug. I said, “Here’s what we’re doing, is there any interest?” Doug said, “No.” He was doing pretty well. But his branch was on a valuable piece of land, and 84 Lumber got an offer for the land, so they shut down the branch. Doug called me back and said, “I have an interest.” He progressed from being top salesman, and sales manager and he has been included in the ownership group.

Cassidy: You have to have the entrepreneurial spirit throughout the organization. You have to have a strong and nimble leadership team. And Ed is the architect behind the transition from the old Perry family business to our current team. Our senior management on average is 46 years old. That’s young in this industry. But they have 16 years at TW Perry and 22 years in the industry. That’s just a remarkably deep group.

Quinn: Today our balance sheet is strong. There are not many lumberyards that have strong balance sheets. We have a great balance sheet because we protected it during the recession. For our hundredth year, our story is our financial strength and stability.

Cassidy: We examine everything. There’s not a category that we don’t want to get better in. We’re always looking for one more idea. Right now, we’re looking at a lot of interpersonal evaluations and assessments of effectiveness of our shipping operations, our selling operations — down to the employee and shift level. So that the person who works the counter knows what their numbers are.

Moore: We’re chain-of-custody certified. From strictly a sales standpoint, it’s been a slow growth in the green building area. But more importantly, we’re educating our customers about positioning themselves to survive and thrive going forward. The codes are changing, and builders have to adapt. It’s about using new materials that are coming out in the right way, and it’s about positioning them to be a leader in their market. The sales and the monetary benefit for us will come eventually.

Cassidy: We want to be the educational resource for our customers. We advise a lot of our customers in how they run their business. And green building is one of those areas. And it’s not wind turbines, and it’s not solar panels, and it’s not collected rainwater. It’s not fuel cells. It’s good basic building technique.