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Home Depot nabs Cox Lumber

The retailer's addition of the St. Petersburg company is part of its strategy to expand its role in the contractor supply business.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published May 2, 2006


Continuing to build mass in the professional construction supply industry, Home Depot Inc. on Monday acquired Cox Lumber Co., which with sales of $396-million in 2005 was one of the largest private companies in the Tampa Bay area.

Home Depot, which did not disclose the price or terms, said Cox's extensive truss, door and lumber-related products plants and a network of 28 stores across Florida will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the home improvement giant's recently purchased Williams Bros. Lumber Co., which is based in Suwannee, Ga.

The acquisition becomes the next piece in the puzzle as Atlanta-based Home Depot follows through on a strategy to use acquisitions to substantially bulk up its presence in the $410-billion contractor supply business.

The company recently paid $3.5-billion for Orlando-based Hughes Supply and is figuring out how to integrate the company into its burgeoning Home Depot Supply unit.

That unit includes Williams, White Cap Construction Supply in California and National Waterworks Inc., a distributor of equipment used to build, maintain and repair water and sewer systems.

For Linton Tibbetts, the 82-year-old entrepreneur who bought Cox for $1,500 in 1948 and steered it into one of the state's largest lumberyards, the sale was a partial exit strategy.

"After 58 years of waking up and going to work at the same place, it was time. But I am definitely not retiring, '' said Tibbetts, who had arrived in St. Petersburg from the Cayman Islands with $16 in his pocket in 1943. After serving in the U.S. military during World War II, he worked in the local building trades, then borrowed $1,500 to buy a 6-year-old lumber company from T.T. Cox in 1948. The first-year revenues were $48,000.

Tibbetts grew up in tough times in the Cayman Islands, but parlayed his fortune into ownership of dive resort hotels, a supermarket, a lumberyard and several other Cayman businesses. Last year he was honored at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the economy of the Caymans.

''We still have plenty of things to keep us busy,'' he said, ticking off a list of holdings in the Caymans and five properties in Florida that he plans to develop.

While Cox is part of Williams Bros., the name won't change - at least not yet .

"We think it's a great fit with Williams Bros. as we expand our presence across Florida and the Southeast,'' said Paula Smith, spokeswoman for Home Depot.

Home Depot is keeping Cox's 950 employees - 160 of whom work at the company's headquarters in St. Petersburg. Some of Tibbetts' family members on the payroll are joining him at his new company, which is called Tibbetts Holdings, and will export lumber products to the Caribbean.

Home Depot is doing branding studies to determine whether to keep the names of the supply businesses it is acquiring or switch them to Home Depot Supply.

Tibbetts, who piloted Cox Lumber to quadrupled revenues in the past decade, figured that sooner or later he was going to have to sell out to the big box retailers.

"There is a time to hold them and a time to fold 'em,'' he said. ''At our peak, there were 16 significant independent yards in this area. I think we're the last one.''

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

 

Cox Lumber Co.

Headquarters: St. Petersburg.

Locations: 28 stores, 11 truss plants, 15 door plants in Florida and the Cayman Islands.

Annual revenues: $396-million.

Employees: 950.

History: Linton Tibbetts bought a half interest in the company in 1949 and bought out his partner 12 years later. The family-owned business became one of the largest building supply companies in the Southeast.

Caymans Connection: Tibbetts grew up in the Cayman Islands and will keep his extensive business interests there and begin development of some of his family's Florida real estate.