Volume 45, Issue 9 - November/December  2006

Vertical Thoughts
Lumber Dealer Focuses on Relationships and Streamlining Business

by Samantha Carpenter

As I wait in a hallway outside of chief executive officer Mark Manis’ office at Wheeler’s headquarters in Rome, Ga., I can hear his joking banter with an employee, and already, I know this will be an interesting interview.

Manis greets me in his warm Georgia drawl, and we start the interview when he tells me how Wheeler’s got its start in the lumber dealer business. 

“My dad, Wheeler Manis, was a young man who got home from the war and went into business. There was a lot of entrepreneurial activity when those guys got back. 

His dad (my granddad) had been a sawmiller, so my daddy was familiar with the business,” explains Mark. 

A Step Ahead
Wheeler Manis started the company in 1949 and grew it throughout the next decade. By the 1960s, though, Wickes Lumber was “the big deal,” and Wheeler’s began to change, according to Mark. 

“My dad was afraid that Wickes would come into Rome, take all of his business and wipe him out. So he decided to expand to smaller towns where they would be less likely to go,” says Mark. 

“Of course, carpet was just taking off in Dalton, [Ga.], so he put a store there in 1963 as sort of a hedge against Wickes. That went well, and a couple of years later, he put a store in Calhoun, and that did well, too.” 

Wheeler Manis started thinking that there was such a big market in the Atlanta area that he needed to move in that direction. He started building stores in bigger towns, and this led him to buy Austell Builders’ Supply in Austell, Ga., in 1966.

Wheeler’s made it through several recessions in the 1970s, and it was in this decade that Mark and his younger brother, Jim, came back from school. Mark had attended college at Duke, and Jim attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“We grew up in the lumberyard, so it wasn’t a big deal. We knew what we were getting into,” Mark says.

A Hard Right Turn
“We wanted to work here during the summers, at least I did. I liked making my own money and, while most of my friends hung out at the pool and flirted with the girls, I preferred pulling lumber in the lumberyard. Working in the business wasn’t something that I aspired to do; it was what Daddy did. I wanted to go off and blaze new trails.”

Mark taught English for three years and was working on his Ph.D. in English literature at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill when he saw what he calls “the darkness at the end of the academic tunnel.” 

“The jobs that people were getting at the time weren’t good and there were a lot of untenured positions. I also was married and thinking about a family,” Mark says. 

“I was thinking, ‘Is this really what I want to put my family through?’ I took a hard right turn back into the family lumber business in 1982 and have been here ever since.”

All in the Family
While Mark Manis and Jim Manis both have positions with the company—Mark on the personnel and store operations side, and Jim on the manufacturing and IT side—their older sister, Anna Manis Tabor, has stayed in the family-business by extension only. Her husband, Stan Tabor, works for Wheeler’s as chief coordinating officer, and is on the company’s board of directors.

Mark says the challenges of a family business are the same as growing up in a family. 

“You have a lot of good times and a lot of conflicts. Everything is intensified in a family setting because you can’t leave, at least not easily,” he says.

Mark says that you learn to channel your love and emotions and, at times, even your ill will for your family members into the business so hat you remain productive. If you can do that, he thinks that family businesses have some real strengths that other businesses don’t have. 

“We don’t have to meet quarterly numbers; we don’t have to satisfy that money-hungry crowd on Wall Street. The only people we have to satisfy are ourselves,” he says. 

“You might say that would decrease the level of discipline in a company if you aren’t constantly focused on making numbers and if you don’t have outside investors to objectify things because it’s very easy to deceive yourself,” Mark says. 

“You can hang with things, since you are basically betting your own money. You don’t have to explain things constantly to the outside shareholders as to why you are still screwing around with something that they [would] think is crazy. A lot of crazy ideas are the ones that are the best ideas over time,” he explains.

Streamlining the Business
At this point, Mark and I turn the interview from family to the crux of the business—the products. It’s during this part of our discussion that I learn that, while Wheeler’s is a lumber dealer, the company also manufactures a number of its proprietary product lines.

“We’ve always done some manufacturing,” Mark says, explaining that this started back in earlier days when a builder needed a window and would measure the rough openings and would scribble them down on an old piece of board. The builder would then come down to Wheeler’s shop with that scrap piece of lumber and hand it to the guy in the shop, who would figure out the lite patterns that would fit the rough openings and glaze the lite patterns accordingly. 

Wheeler’s uses its manufacturing capabilities to support its stores. This enables the company to control a product line without having to go through a wholesaler or a middle man, according to Mark.

“We feel like the more things we can manufacture ourselves, the more streamlined the industry becomes, the better, and passing the baton from one company to the other adds inefficiency and expense,” Mark says. “The more we can streamline that business within reason, the more efficiency we can bring to the marketplace, and we can lower our cost and improve our service.”

Wheeler’s does buy most of its products from manufacturers and distributors. The company buys Southern yellow pine from sawmills and spruce and fir from West Coast mills. It also buys other building materials from James Hardie, BlueLinx, Boise Cascade, Louisiana-Pacific, Trex, Great Southern and Robbins, among others.

But it manufactures the company’s key product lines—interior and exterior doors, wood windows, vinyl windows, trusses and wall panels—itself. 

The company summarizes its philosophy as upstream and downstream.

“We are looking for opportunities upstream to manufacture more products for our customers, and we will pass it to our stores or directly to the builder, and downstream we want to install more of our products for our customers,” Mark says. 

The Sweet Spot
Wheeler’s main customer base is residential homebuilders, but it hasn’t always been this way. 

Unlike a lot of its friends in the industry whom Wheeler’s warned, “Don’t take those guys (Home Depot) on,” Wheeler’s decided that it was going to do its business on the builder side of things, not the consumer side of things. 

After recognizing Home Depot’s legitimacy, Wheeler’s came up with a company strategy to exit from the consumer side of the business. It’s been a good strategy for the company. It has 17 locations across the Southeast with more than a million square feet of manufacturing and distribution space, and the company’s revenue last year was $230 million.

Wheeler’s estimates that its market share in the Atlanta-metro area (which is very big and fragmented) is approximately 15 percent. 

“We basically do business with builders—from the individual who is building his own home and has a construction loan to the large production homebuilder,” Mark explains. “The sweet spot of our market is with the [independent] builder who is building a few dozen houses a year up to a couple thousand houses a year, a company like ourselves—a family company.”

One of Wheeler’s customers is Lee Troutman of Lee Troutman Homes of Newnan, Ga. Troutman says that he has enjoyed Wheeler’s as a supplier for 20-plus years.

“They have been fantastic to work with,” he says.

A Good Company = Good People
“Getting good people and having the best people is a challenge,” says Mark Manis, chief executive officer (CEO) of Wheeler’s. 
Recruiting is always a top priority and a challenge, Manis says. 

He says it is difficult because people are making so much money right now and it’s hard to pry people loose. 

“They are happy, their customers are happy, they are being paid well. We don’t think in a short-term fashion. We aren’t going to give a big pile of money to somebody, buy a year of their services and hope that we keep them long term,” says Manis. “We’d really like to cut a deal with them that we can live with on into the future.” 

Manis says that Wheeler’s benefits package is competitive and similar to other companies—health insurance and 401k. 

“I think the biggest benefit we offer people is to work for a family-owned company that’s 57 years old with people that know their employees and appreciate their contributions,” he says.

Jay Chandler, product manager for millwork at Wheeler’s, agrees with his CEO.

“I have been in the business for 25 years, and the entire time has been with two family-owned companies. The door is always open with the owners, and you feel appreciated for the job that you do. They may not always agree with you, but they are always willing to listen,” Chandler says.

Samantha Carpenter is editor of SHELTER magazine.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.