From lawyer to lumberman
Outsider’s Perspective Drives Dallas Dealer
It may just be that more than any other industry, LBM is one that sees the highest rate of family succession—Dads passing lumberyards along to sons and daughters, who wait for decades to do the same for their own children.
Dave Reichert left his position as a partner in a law firm to purchase Davis-Hawn Lumber in Dallas. The career move has allowed Reichert to grow the business as well as spend more time with his family.
Perhaps that is why Dave Reichert’s story comes up often in conversation when LBM dealers share tales of how they got into the industry. Reichert didn’t come from a lumberyard or builder family. He didn’t grow up in the yard alongside dad and grandpa. As Reichert likes to say, “Hardly anybody volunteers to get into our industry; they’re born into it.”
Yet Reichert himself is one of those few volunteers who took a very unconventional career path. Twenty years ago, he was a partner in a major Dallas law firm.
As a young lawyer with a partnership, Reichert was proud of what he had built in his career, but felt he was missing out on what he would rather have been building at home.
“Practicing law was very difficult on family life. I wanted to find something that would allow me the flexibility to become the husband and dad that I wanted to be.” After long discussions and prayers with his wife, he decided that he was going to make a change. One of Reichert’s favorite family photos is an image of him, his wife, and three of his (now four) sons smiling and celebrating. The photo is from the day in 1999 when Reichert went from lawyer to lumberman.
The photograph is among his favorites, but what isn’t visible is the little voice in his head saying, “I just bought a lumberyard. Now what?”
“We’re celebrating; it’s a huge transition,” Reichert describes his family in the photo. “We’re raising up our hands in celebration and yet we have no idea what we’re getting into.” What they got into was an education, Reichert says. “All I knew about [before researching lumberyards] were the Home Depots and Lowe’s of the world. I was a hobbyist woodworker, and I was intrigued by construction, but I didn’t know a lot.”
Reichert says he visited a lot of lumberyards leading up to the purchase. He asked a lot of questions and he prayed a lot with his wife. “Was this our jumping off point?”
High-end and hardware
The Reicherts purchased Davis-Hawn Lumber, a yard that has been serving the Oak Cliff and Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1923. Davis-Hawn services primarily high-end builders in the area. Reichert says those builders helped to teach him the industry by conveying what their needs were. As he got to know those builders, he learned to cater to their needs, and that market remains his main focus.
While the lumberyard caters to high-end custom homebuilders in North Dallas who are doing in-fill projects in affluent areas including teardowns, the company’s hardware store serves the local neighborhood, which when the business opened in 1923, was the southern edge of Dallas.
“We’re located in an older part of town,” Reichert says. “Our hardware store is a part of the community. It’s a convenience for handymen and those with DIY repairs.”
Reichert says that even though the hardware store makes up 15% of the company’s overall revenues, it’s not completely overshadowed by the LBM side. The hardware store, Reichert has learned, remains steady through most any economic climate. During the downturn, it was a hedge for the company. He’s proud of the position the hardware store holds for price-conscious customers.
“It’s the basics, nothing fancy, but we’re an Orgill dealer and we have good buying power there,” he says.
Along with the lumberyard and hardware store, Davis-Hawn operates an architectural millwork facility that specializes in custom mouldings and radius millwork. With over 1,300 different moulding profile knives—which they’re adding to weekly—Reichert says the millwork shop allows the company to serve a restoration market and the building of “architecturally significant homes.” With the millwork business, remodelers are finding Davis-Hawn to be a one-stop shop for projects they are trying to replicate.
But the benefits extend beyond production. Growing the millwork business has allowed Reichert and others at Davis- Hawn to immerse themselves in Lean business principles.
“We know we can technically build a lot of things, but can we profitably and efficiently build those things? We learned that we’re not a door shop, we’re not set up to profitably build doors, so we don’t do that anymore. Our focus is mouldings. My Millwork Manager, Michael Morgan, has done a great job and has such focus on what we can do.”
Growing the millwork shop has indeed helped to drive business throughout the company. As he has learned how to produce the best millwork value for his customers with the fewest resources (tenets of Lean business) he has brought those principles to the lumberyard and hardware store as well.
When Reichert bought the lumberyard, he knew that he faced an uphill challenge to grow the business. There were eight employees when he started. One of the key employees who “came with the business” is Mike Martin, who is now the lumber buyer, Reichert says.
The company was doing less than $1 million in sales a year, and “there wasn’t much builder business left,” he says. “Most of the customers had retired or died and had not been replaced. We had some units of yellow pine that had been sitting in the yard for eight or nine years.”
Little did he know, Reichert says, that as soon as he thought he’d gotten his feet under him in the LBM business, 2008 was around the corner. That’s when the education really began. Luckily for Reichert, the Dallas area was far from the worst market during the Great Recession. While businesses elsewhere closed up shop for good, Davis-Hawn’s sales dropped by 40% and Reichert was able to steer the company through the downturn.
“You take a lot for granted during the good markets. As a young business owner, I didn’t know that. My dad kept saying to ‘pay down all your debt’ and I just thought he didn’t understand.”
Surviving the hard times strengthened Davis-Hawn and its employees in a way that Reichert says will always be in the back of his mind. He’ll always be wondering if he has rebuilt his business with durable enough customers, or if he’s diversified enough.
“All of us are still scarred or marked in some way by the Great Recession,” he says. “But a couple years later we pulled our heads up and we’re still here.”
The company is still here in a big way. In one of the country’s fastest-growing housing markets, Davis-Hawn is now a $9 million a year business with 21 employees. His biggest customers—which make up 85% of the business—are building some of the finest homes in the area.
Reichert predicts a 15% uptick in revenue this year. He’s leveraging his outsider’s perspective along side resources such as a LMC membership and other roundtables and conferences to help him understand his business in ways that he hasn’t before.
“For independents like us, LMC staff and other members allow us to compete with just about anyone,” he says.
There will be challenges ahead, Reichert acknowledges, such as “the Amazon effect.” To battle the bigger companies and their deep analytics, Reichert himself has been turning to data as a way of doubling down his approach to smart business practices. He’s recently worked with a CFO who has helped him filter through metrics to more effectively track key performance indicators through customized dashboards and budgeting and reporting tools.
“After 18 years, I’m finally getting to know our business,” he jokes. “Doing battle as a small independent dealer against those analytics and that technology is a bit daunting. We’ve got to take advantage of whatever we’ve got along those lines.” Reichert adds that with the changing landscape of labor in the industry, technology will continue to play a larger role in the business.
Still, as that occurs, he is conscious that making his lumberyard a desired place of employment is also crucial to his survival. Reichert is focused on employee engagement. He knows that people need to feel that their job is important and what they do every day is important to the company. His goal, he says, is to do a better job of consistently conveying that appreciation to his team.
“If we can do great things here and make it a great place to work, we’ll make it a place where people can want to work and succeed.”
Reichert’s wife, Darian, works with the company marketing initiatives. His sons, Austin, Ben, Will, and Carson have all worked in the yard during summers and have “learned invaluable lessons about work ethic and people,” Reichert says. He’s not sure if any of his four boys will want to take on the business one day, and he’s in no hurry to steer them in that direction.
Instead, he says, his focus right now is on keeping the business profitable for years to come, since three of his four sons will be in college at the same time. After college, Reichert says, he hopes that his sons will pursue their own dreams. Someday, he says, if they want to circle back and have an interest in the lumberyard, then that’s great.
After all, it was Reichert’s experience as a husband, father, and lawyer that gave him the perspective to pursue the lumber business, a decision that has left him with no regrets. “I have learned things as a lumberman and as a business owner about people and about life. There have been so many great experiences that I would not have had had I continued being a lawyer,” he says. “I’m exactly where God wants me to be.”