Zarsky Lumber: It’s better 
in Texas

Corpus Christi, Texas — Most people who look at the rising condominiums along the beach at Port Aransas think “vacation.” But for executives at Zarsky Lumber, the thought is “opportunity.”

“We aren’t afraid to have a salesman go over to the condos and ask for their cleaning supply business,” said Cally Fromme, executive VP of the Victoria, Texas-based lumberyard, ranked No. 115 on the HCN Top 200 Pro Dealer list, with $41.5 million in sales. “We’re a lumberyard, but if that’s going to make us some money and some relationships, then why not?”

Thinking outside the box isn’t the only way the 10-unit dealer has been able to rebound from a tough 2009 to a double-digit-percentage sales gain in 2010. And when the opportunity to acquire a 10th location presented itself last year, the conservative-minded management team pounced, creating a new branch in Port Aransas. The unit is already in the black, said Steve Weaver, manager. “A lot of it is the economy,” he said. “It’s not great here by any means, but it’s not as bad as other areas. It’s simply hard work. You have to have the right people, and you gotta think positive.”

According to executives, there’s no single reason for success in tough times. And there’s no secret either. Zarsky every day balances its emphasis on relationships, the conservative business practices, the tight-knit family style management, and — the granddaddy of them all — hard work. 

The chief architect of the business model is president Dan Coleman, Fromme’s father, who, along with a partner, took over the business from the Zarsky brothers in 1976. Coleman’s management style empowers managers to make their own decisions and encourages them to make the most of community relationships.

“By getting involved in communities, from Rotary Club to Little League, not only are you doing good, but you’re making good contacts,” Fromme said. The company also invests in customer relationships with the time and effort required to get them hard-to-find products or materials. “Even for a walk-in customer who wants an oddball item, we can find it,” Fromme said. “Maybe we’re not going to make much money on the transaction, but we’re going to make a good customer.” 

Business-to-business relationships are also key, including its suppliers LMC, Orgill and Handy Hardware. And Fromme is exceptionally close to the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA), a group she will chair beginning in October, after serving for years in other executive roles. 

“It’s been an educational experience every step of the way,” she said. “I’ve met some amazing and very successful people, and I take pride knowing that we’re helping our industry. Being involved puts you close to the issues. I think, also, we have an obligation to serve our industry.” 

Both Fromme and Weaver credit the leadership of Coleman for setting the tone at Zarsky. After a disappointing 2009, Coleman assembled the troops and announced: “We didn’t make any money this year,” he said. “It’s never happened before, and it’s never going to happen again.”

Phone calls at odd hours are simply business as usual, according to Weaver, and a bias toward action is fostered across the board. “One of Dan’s sayings is: ‘If you’re moving stuff around, at least you’re trying to make things better,’ ” he said.

And how’s it working?

“I think we’re starting to feel a little more comfortable buying some equipment and doing things we put off a while ago,” Fromme said. “We’re not celebrating, but we’re doing better.”