Hanbys Hand Down Tradition of Service

Robert "Butch" Hanby said he thought his son-in-law had lost his gourd.

Hal Hudgins, vice president of Hanby Lumber Co. in Berryville, suggested in 1998 that the then 142-year-old family lumber and hardware business should get a retail makeover. Hudgins wanted to increase the 14,000-SF operation's retail space from 1,500 SF to 5,000 SF and its inventory by 50 percent to about 1,000 different items.

Hudgins suggested knocking down walls, bringing in new shelving and introducing computerized bookkeeping to the store just off the downtown square. The polish of modern merchandising eventually became a sizable investment for what's believed to be the oldest continuously operated for-profit business in northwest Arkansas.

Hanby Lumber, founded in 1856, is preceded locally in its now 148-year existence only by a couple of churches. It's the eighth oldest continually operated business in the state.

Another Berryville business, the weekly Star Tribune newspaper, is one of five businesses tied for No. 15 on the list of the state's oldest companies. It dates to 1870.

Hudgins said his suggestions sent Hanby's arms up in the air and the great-great-grandson of the company's founder out the door to his car. Hanby came back, though, for a few months.

"I thought, 'Well that's it. We're down the tubes now,'" Hanby said. "'He's wanting to change things too much, and here we are still this little old-fashioned country lumber yard.' I was shaking my head, but I was wrong. As soon as I retired from operating it daily, Hal started moving things around, and his sales have been on a gradual increase since.

"He's got a good walk-in trade. Used to be you never saw the lady of the house come in. It was a chewing tobacco world, and they spit on the floor and everything. Now women come in to pick out paint colors, cabinet hardware and all kinds of things."

Hanby joked that if his own father, Bob Hanby, had to have completely adapted to co-ed clientele, "it would have put him in the hospital." But the store's recent successes are a testament to its resiliency through five generations of family ownership.

Hanby said revenue has been up as much as 10 percent annually, and that's during a time when many small retailers have struggled. Hudgins, 35, was even one of two retailers selected last July to win the National Hardware Retailers Association's Young Retailer of the Year Award. He won in the multi-store category.

Innovations, Service

Bill Clark, a retail district manager for Handy Hardware Wholesale Inc. of Houston, is a vendor to Hanby Lumber, and he nominated Hudgins for the award. Clark, who served Grant and Jefferson counties in the state House of Representatives from 1976-86, operates out of Sheridan and covers Arkansas and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee for Handy.

He said Hudgins took what was "really an old, dilapidated-looking building and turned it into a remarkable retail center."

"What impressed me most about him was his position in the community," Clark said. "He's active in civic and religious affairs. But also the independent hardware and lumber dealer is an endangered species. In the face of all the big-box retailers permeating into our communities, Hal had the wherewithal to make a big investment to expand his inventory.

"It was a big risk that he's done very well with. You don't see that often from a young man like Hal."

Butch Hanby, although retired from day-to-day operations, is still the sole owner of the Berryville store Hudgins operates. The two are partners in Hill Country Hardware & Lumber Co. in Eureka Springs. The business are run separately and employ five people at each location. The owners declined to disclose revenue figures for their privately held stores.

Although Hudgins has received some notoriety for his innovations, he said Hanby is responsible for the company's strong reputation. Although the layout of the store may have changed, its emphasis on making customers feel welcome has not.

That's apparently what keeps commercial clients such as Richard Smith, owner of Richard Smith Construction Inc. in Berryville, coming back. Smith said he's been a Hanby commercial client since 1970.

"When I go in there, they start getting stuff out," Smith said. "All these other stores don't care if they wait on you if you're just someone flying by. I buy everything at Hanby's. They are very competitive on their pricing, too."

Hudgins said among the merchandising techniques he's employed in recent years was simply identifying which contractors the firm wanted to have as customers. The busiest ones aren't always the ones who pay their bills, Hudgins said.

One Spring Day

Hudgins started working for Hanby in 1993, and the two had opened their Eureka Springs store by 1994. Hudgins' turn to run the main store came on one beautiful spring day in 1998. Neither he nor his father-in-law is completely sure of the date, but both agree Hanby walked in and said, "I'll see you later." Three days later, Hudgins called to see if his father-in-law was ever coming back.

"Butch was hot and heavy about riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle back then, and it was a nice day so he was out the door and gone," Hudgins said. "Usually, he told me where he was going and when he'd be back, but he just left. A little while later, a customer came in and said he'd seen Butch on the town square and that Butch said, 'I just retired today.'"

Hanby took over the business himself in 1985 after his father died. He said he could see Hudgins would do a good job, and he'd realized watching his grandfather and dad over the years that the "next generation won't do it to suit you, so you're better off letting go and letting them run it themselves.

Hanby had worked in the store since the 1960s, other than when he traveled for a few years for Ozark Sash & Door in Springdale. That business was a wholesale offshoot of the original Hanby Lumber company and remains a family-owned business run by relatives.

Damn Yankees

The Union Army burned Hanby Lumber's Carrollton sawmill to the ground during the Civil War, although Hanby said details about the dates are sketchy. The Hanby's sawmills numbered into the teens by that time, though, and so they never really stopped operating their lumber business.

Hanby Lumber was founded by Gabriel Hanby in Carrollton and continued by his son, Rufus. Butch Hanby said the story goes that the Union Army commander was a mason by trade and that the only buildings he spared in Carrollton were the homes of masons he found on a list at the local Masonic Lodge. That saved the Hanbys.

In 1875, the county seat was relocated to Berryville and the business' headquarters moved north with it. At one time caskets were made in the basement there.

Butch Hanby said during the time of his grandfather, A.L. Hanby, the company had a hardwood flooring business. Before the railroad left town and killed that venture, Hanby's oak timber was shipped to finish the floors in the Arkansas State House and even the Capitol in Oklahoma.

Butch Hanby's father, Bob, and uncles, Carroll and Jack Hanby, later worked at the store before Carroll and Jack started the wholesale building supply business. Butch Hanby's cousins, Phillip and Pat Hanby, took over the wholesale business and didn't retire until last year when another generation took over. Another relative, Brent Hanby, is an executive at National Home Centers Inc. in Springdale.

The greatest lumber or hardware innovations Butch Hanby said he's seen through the years are Redi-mix concrete and 50-pound nail boxes instead of 100-pound nail kegs. He said customer service hasn't changed since the 1800s.

"You don't stay in business this long by dinking people around," Hanby said.