In 1962, Carl Gillman founded Gillman Brothers Lumber in Brookville, Ind., mainly to service his own construction company. His son, Charlie, worked alongside him in construction for years and was the only one of 10 kids interested in joining him in the lumber business.
It took Charlie nearly 20 years to open his own lumberyard, but today Gillman Home Centers operates 12 Do it Best stores in Indiana and southwestern Ohio.
Charlie Gillman’s retail strategy is to locate stores in smaller towns, carry a deep product selection, price aggressively and offer unmatched customer service. He puts his cell number on his business card and encourages employees and customers to call him 24/7.
Charlie’s son Curtis serves as COO and runs day-to-day operations. His other son, Travis, is special projects manager and oversees tool rental and manages their fleet of 100 trucks, including a repair garage with three full-time mechanics.
The company has been on an acquisition kick, growing its store count 50 percent in the past year. New stores in Lebanon and Frankfort, Ind., were added on August 1st of this year. Gillman Home Centers held a grand opening for a new store in Eaton, Ohio, in October 2017. Aurora Lumber in Aurora, Ind., which dates back 150 years, was also acquired by Gillman last October, even though the location sits about 300 yards from a Lowe’s store.
“We’re like Depot in a small town, with a 17,000-square-foot store to serve a town of 2,500 people,” says Charlie. “Customers tell us all the time that your stores just have everything.”
Charlie says Do it Best Corp. has been instrumental in helping his business be successful through the years. “I like the fact that Do it Best is very responsive to our needs. If we want to bring in a certain product they listen to us. Their lumber department is huge for us.”
Even though Gillman Home Centers has nearly 300 employees, they have very little turnover. “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers,” Charlie says. “When I hire someone, I demand that they love coming to work. You’re either going to love working here, we’re going to fix it or you’re going to move on. I hire slow and fire fast.”
Charlie and his wife Donna host an annual summer party for employees in their backyard, with over 300 people attending. Charlie hires a band and there is a professional fireworks show. Then the next weekend they do the same thing for customers. “There is not a company that cares as much about its employees and is as passionate as we are,” Charlie says.
If you want your employees to go above and beyond for customers, it helps if you practice what you preach. Charlie shares the story of Donna’s old minivan that they were getting ready to sell. He decided to keep it and make it available so any employee can use it to take on a family vacation—free of charge. The minivan gets nearly non-stop use.
Charlie is an avid book reader, so he started a Book of the Month Club. “If anyone wants a copy of that month’s book we’ll give it to them for free,” Charlie says, noting that his HR person now has a library of 300 to 400 books for loan.
Gillman Home Centers sells building materials all over, including $70,000 of shingles to Florida. Other big categories are home decor, cabinets, flooring, paint and wholesale plumbing.
Charlie likes opening stores in small towns where other retailers are not doing what they are doing. “We bring people back to town,” he says. “Frankfort is a town of 16,000 people and we will be the only hardware or LBM store in town.”
The company gets 65 to 70 percent of its sales from pro customers. Three of the stores even sell mattresses, while 11 out of 12 have rental. “We don’t have cookie-cutter assortments but tailor our stores to the towns we’re in,” says Charlie.
Gillman Home Center’s sales have doubled over the past five to six years, much of it organic growth. As Charlie likes to say, “In business as in life, do what you’re good at. All our stores are home centers offering everything needed to build a house.”
Although the home center chain remains focused on growth, Charlie and his management team also keep in mind that the goal is to be the best home center company they can be. “We don’t acquire stores just to say we have them. We only go in if we can do well,” Charlie says.
Although being honored with the Beacon Award is nice, Charlie says taking care of customers is the best award. As he explains, “If you work hard and treat people the way you’d want to be treated, then things have a way of working out.”