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E.C. Barton & Co. Gets Big Man at TopLock Icon

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Steven H. Brimner, who stands 6-foot-7 and played college basketball in Montana, has been learning a new playbook since Jan. 1 as the new president and CEO of E.C. Barton & Co., the 102-store building materials chain based in Jonesboro.

Brimner also had some big sneakers to fill.

Niel Crowson retired last year after 24 years as chief executive at the company, which dates back to 1885 and has stores and discount warehouses in 17 states under the brands Barton’s, Surplus Warehouse and Grossman’s Bargain Outlet.

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A titan in northeast Arkansas business circles, Crowson helped E.C. Barton & Co. grow from $63 million in annual revenue at the start of his leadership to just under $300 million, according to a company news release. That figure ranks the chain at No. 37 on Arkansas Business’ list of the 75 largest private companies in the state.

Crowson, now 65 and E.C. Barton’s president emeritus, is a trustee of Arkansas State University, his alma mater, and a former chairman of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Brimner, 54, was a vice president at Dollar General and a 20-year Kmart veteran before being chosen in a yearlong nationwide CEO search that included 100 candidates and hundreds of hours of interviews.

“My first few months were all about getting a feel for the organization,” Brimner told Arkansas Business amid a flurry of meetings last week as he went before the company’s board for only the second time as CEO. His priorities include plunging into e-commerce and pushing for expansion. “I’ve met hundreds of partners along the way, learning what makes them and our company special.”

“Partners” is E.C. Barton & Co.’s term for its 684 employees, company spokesman Jeff Chastain said; the chain has been 100-percent owned by its workers since 1993 through an employee stock ownership plan initiated in 1975. Brimner, 54, says hopes to build on that “culture of ownership” with initiatives “to improve the everyday lives” of workers and customers.

The focus on teamwork reflects his background in athletics, including his four years as a basketball standout for the Montana State-Billings Yellowjackets.

Experience is one hallmark of E.C. Barton’s workforce, Brimner said, pointing to the average length of service — 10 years — and the fact that 12 percent of employees have been at the company 20 years. “They are our competitive advantage,” Brimner said, “and providing them with the freedom to experiment and generate new ideas will benefit their teammates, customers and the communities we serve.”

The new chief executive also hopes to listen better.

“This includes anonymous feedback tools that allow every single one of our partners to communicate directly with me,” he said. “We followed up … and found ways to streamline processes, remove redundancies and save money.”

Brimner joined the company after nearly a decade at Dollar General, where as a vice president he oversaw more than 100 vendors delivering merchandise to 7,000 stores.

“Steve has a high commitment to the values we all share as a company,” said Chris Gardner, the Jonesboro lawyer and company general counsel who took over last year as chairman of the E.C. Barton & Co. board. “He is a high-energy guy who sets high expectations for others and demonstrates the kind of strategic and visionary thinking needed to lead a 21st century company.”

Brimner hopes to apply logistical insights he gleaned at Dollar General to operations at E.C. Barton & Co., where 2017 total sales were up nearly 10 percent to $296 million, according to the industry journal ProSales Magazine.

“We are preparing for a phased deployment of e-commerce and new store models that will not only enhance our ability to grow and compete in new markets, but better serve our customers,” Brimner said. “This, along with our logistical changes, will position our company as both an employer and a building materials retailer of choice.”

Plans call for a streamlined e-commerce platform and for two new store types to improve ordering and design processes. While it’s too early for granular details, Chastain said, the new stores will offer goods with or without keeping inventory on-site. “This will be more homeowner and landlord friendly, while allowing us to capture newer customers,” Chastain said. “These stores would cost less to open and operate, and open the door for new locations at lower costs.”

The e-commerce platform will begin as a site-to-store model, where customers’ orders are shipped to a store location for pickup, but will eventually evolve to direct delivery to customers. “This is going to be a major convenience for our customer base that does repeat business with us, such as landlords, property managers and individuals or companies that ‘flip’ investment property,” Chastain said.

Three Retail Divisions
The company’s Barton’s stores are 8,000- to 20,000-SF traditional lumber yards with 11 locations in Arkansas and Missouri. Its 53 Surplus Warehouse locations, generally 25,000 to 30,000 SF, specialize in discount plumbing, millwork, flooring and kitchens, serving customers in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

In 2006, E.C. Barton acquired the 56-store Grossman’s Bargain Outlet chain from Jeld-Wen Inc., then in Oregon but now based in Charlotte, North Carolina. No purchase price was revealed, but the deal doubled E.C. Barton’s footprint overnight and became a key to the company’s future. “Strategically, it fit us because the Grossman’s Bargain Outlets were discount building material stores very similar to our Surplus Warehouse stores,” Crowson told Arkansas Business in 2011. “It was a good fit for our company and allowed us to increase our footprint overnight.”

The warehouse segment, including the 37 Bargain Outlet locations in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio and Pennsylvania, has been the company’s main revenue producer in recent decades. The company also operates Builders Material Co. in Jonesboro and ECB Brokerage, which buys truckloads of discount and salvage building materials and sells them to dealers nationwide.

Past and Future
Named for Eugene C. Barton, the company was actually founded in 1885 by his father, P.C. Barton, as a single grocery store in Jonesboro. The town lacked a lumberyard, so P.C. Barton had a load of building materials delivered to his store. Impressed customers began buying, and Barton soon discovered that the markup was better on lumber than on groceries. Barton Lumber & Brick was born in 1902, and the company name soon took its current form. The shift to employee ownership began after E.C. Barton’s death in 1967.

The company faced some bumps in 2017 as Crowson announced plans to retire and give up his role as chairman of the ESOP Administration Committee. Secretary-Treasurer Tom Rainwater took over the committee role in March 2017, but as the CEO search continued, he and Greg Smith, the chief purchasing officer, left the company in July.

Controller Gary Beasley succeeded Rainwater, becoming CFO and ESOP panel chairman. Rainwater, who worked for E.C. Barton & Co. for 30 years, is now CFO of Engines Inc. in Jonesboro, according to his LinkedIn webpage.

“Our company has operated for the last few decades under a mantra: ‘Excellence. Everyday. Everyone,’” spokesman Chastain said. “That philosophy is being further expounded upon, and will be rolled out to all partners and the external public soon with an updated mission statement, vision statement and core values.”

Brimner said that one challenge he faces as the new boss is honoring E.C. Barton & Co.’s rich history while injecting a spirit of innovation. One thing he doesn’t plan to change, though, is his workers’ sense of having a stake in company success.

“Our partners have a vested interest in providing our customers with expert advice and top-quality service at the guaranteed lowest price,” he said.

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