In 1962, Richard Lee grew up working in the store that was started by his parents in 1957, and now he and his wife Denise and their daughter, Heather Bruner, are proud to see the fruits of their labor pay off.
For 31 years, Lee Hardware & Building Supply operated with a small 4,800-square-foot store with only three employees to serve the Waycross community. The business expanded in a big way with a new location in 2015 that covers 18,000 square feet across multiple buildings and requires 27 employees to keep things running. Going from 14 to 40 parking spaces means they can accommodate more customers.
When a big-box store came to town a decade ago, Denise said they knew they would have to take a closer look at their business and find ways to compete. Bringing in additional inventory with a larger store was one of their solutions.
Lee Hardware & Building Supply serves a combination of different types of customers—DIYers, contractors, commercial accounts, manufacturers—so they make sure to have something for everyone.
The Orgill retailer now sells industrial, janitorial and safety supplies in addition to the hardware and LBM materials it has always carried. There is also room to display new categories like grills, pool supplies and outdoor products. The paint department went from 600 square feet to more than 2,000 square feet, leading paint sales to triple.
The business has a strong industrial and safety category, which was an area they branched out into as a way to differentiate their business when the first big-box store came to town. “That niche has grown a lot over the years,” Denise says.
Richard points out that they offer 120 types of safety glasses and have even partnered with other stores to teach them how to do commercial/industrial sales.
Sales have grown every year since the previous store opened 31 years ago, and business has increased 50 percent with margins up 3.5 percent over the past five years. “We even saw growth during the recession in 2007, 2008 and 2009,” Denise says. “The fact that we have competed against the big boxes and are still thriving is another achievement of which we’re quite proud.”
She says they work hard to keep their inventory selection fresh and to keep up with local trends. “We listen to our customers when they request a particular item,” Denise says. “We see what the community needs. We can adjust our product selection based on that feedback.”
Having a wide variety of products is key, but Lee Hardware & Building Supply is known for its customer service. “Our customers tell us time and time again that the service they receive with us is what keeps them coming back,” Denise says. “Our knowledgeable employees are what set us apart.”
“They look at customer service from the start of the hiring process, evaluating whether someone can handle working with customers,” adds Heather’s husband, Jamie Bruner, who is their Orgill sales rep.
Employees at Lee Hardware are like family, according to Denise. “We treat them not just as employees, but as part of our family. We’re there to support them, both professionally and personally. I think that personal treatment is one of the reasons so many of our employees have chosen to stay with our company for so many years,” she points out.
Denise adds that they offer paid leave and health insurance, but more importantly they are flexible and don’t count emergencies against them. “One of our employees has been with us for over 20 years,” she notes.
Lee Hardware & Building Supply has been recognized by the local Chamber of Commerce as Business of the Year and with its Helping Hands award and has also received the Valspar Platinum Award and Orgill Pinnacle Award. The company serves on Orgill’s advisory council.
Richard says that Orgill offers the programs they need and they feel like their concerns are addressed. “Their warehouse is one hour away, and Orgill has good pricing and stocking programs. With two shows, we’re able to keep abreast of what’s new in the market,” he says.
Lee Hardware & Building Supply is well-known throughout the community, sponsoring school activities, sports programs and projects with the local recreation department. They support the local cancer society and are members of the Chamber of Commerce.
The Lees have had many family members and employees serve in the military and had an employee who was killed in Iraq while deployed, so the business is a strong supporter of the military.
Every two years they host a trade show that attracts as many as 2,000 people. “We display and demo products, give away $15,000 of door prizes and even have contractor games. We start planning a year in advance,” Denise says.
Future initiatives include working on an online customer account system with Epicor, doing more direct mail advertising and introducing a private-label Lee Hardware credit card. “We know there’s more business out there if we work hard for it,” she adds.
“We are very honored and privileged to win the Beacon Award. It takes all of us working together as a team and a lot of community support to make this possible,” Denise says.