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Flitman's Brief, Notable Impact on LBM

By Tony Misura

Flitman's Brief, Notable Impact on LBM
FLITMAN'S BRIEF, NOTABLE IMPACT ON LBM The Construction Supply world first learned on Aug. 28, 2018, that an executive from the food service industry named David Flitman would become President and CEO of BMC. Almost exactly two years later, Builders FirstSource and BMC announced they would merge, and Flitman—who ran the smaller company—became CEO of America’s biggest full-service lumberyard. Now, fewer than two years after the merger took effect, Flitman is gone from LBM, having resigned to become CEO of US Foods. Flitman’s four years in the business are a blip compared to many other LBM executives. While his stint was short, he accomplished a lot. I say this as someone who spends much of my time evaluating leaders. My respected friend and peer, Craig Webb, spends much of his time focused on the numbers. Craig is a speaker, writer, and the founder of Webb Analytics. We decided to sit down and have a conversation on the Flitman years. Tony: Dave was a great example of what happens when the right talent comes from outside the industry and has a huge impact. Lumberyard executives can be a pretty insular group. When you isolate and restrict your search for leaders solely inside that silo, the wrong tradeoffs end up being made. No one wants to hire the tallest midget. Flitman was a true Fortune 500-level executive. At US Foods, he’s taking over the No. 117 company on the Fortune 500 list. Craig: Flitman’s tenure certainly produced a marked change in the bottom line. Consider these earnings percentage for BFS and BMC before and after the merger: Craig: In an industry where 3% net profit is common, jumping to 8.7% net for all last year and 12.9% through Sept. 30 of this year merits some applause. But Tony, we all know these are unusual times. The National Hardware & Paint Association (NHPA) Cost of Doing Business survey found that pre-tax profit for 38 “typical” LBM outlets was 6.9% in 2021, and for 12 “high-profit” dealers the pretax earnings were 10.6% of revenues. The 3% yardstick shouldn’t apply. Tony: Yes, but those LBM companies that answered the NHPA survey tended to be operations with around $60 million in revenue and a heavy retail emphasis. BFS plays a different game. It serves national production builders, which have a history of demanding low margins. Flitman and BFS led margin increases across the nation. Sixty percent gross margins on truss and components became the norm. Independents complain, saying home builders hate BFS, but the independent dealers reaped profits falling in behind the BFS pricing strategy. Craig: Speaking of trusses and components, that definitely was a big part of Flitman’s legacy. Since the merger, BFS has acquired several dozen truss manufacturing facilities. Some of those facilities were from specialists like Trussway while others were part of deals like the one for National Lumber. In Q3, BFS got 26% of its revenue from manufactured products, and when you add sales of windows, doors and millwork, BFS gets nearly half its sales from value-added products rather than commodities. Tony: Truss and wall panels are here to stay in the progressive LBM company’s portfolio; witness how US LBM purchased 13 truss-making facilities in 2022 alone, and opened a greenfield one as well. Flitman made bold moves by buying Trussway and doubling down on manufacturing. Craig: Getting deeper into components is a logical step. In contrast, I got quizzical reactions when BFS spent $450 million to buy WTS Paradigm. One critic asked why BFS was buying a software company when its branches still were running diverse ERP systems. Tony: Do you know how many old white-hairs complained this was a foolish buy? BFS today turns a bid around 48 hours, with full 3D rendering, in four days. The outside sales rep never touches it, and there’s amazing accuracy: Out of 100 custom homes tested, one was missing a handrail on the deck. That's it. And can you imagine the potential impact on home design and component integration, with manufacturing collaboration? The opportunity for SKU optimization for the entire supply chain is colossal. Craig: I remember you doing a podcast with Jim Robisch of The Farnsworth Group right after the merger was announced, in which you talked about the different personalities of BMC and BFS. Tony: Yeah. BMC and BFS had major cultural differences. Flitman pounded through the BMC manufacturing excellence culture and superior BMC leadership/culture (less-political, more consistently performance-based) meritocracy for promotions. Prior to the merger, BFS still had some legacy fiefdoms from when BMC took over Stock and BFS absorbed ProBuild. BFS had been more M&A driven, with operations improvements through a memo approach, and there was not much investment in developing people. Craig: Difficult as that work might have been, I have to think the cultural challenges involved in the merger were significantly less than what executives like Paul Hylbert faced back in the days when ProBuild, Stock Building Supply, and others were rolling up scores of companies. Flitman basically had to combine two cultures. Hylbert and his kin had far, far more. Tony: Yes, timing makes a difference. Flitman was able to stand on the shoulders of Paul Hylbert and Floyd Sherman. Craig: Speaking of timing, Flitman definitely benefited from the COVID-era housing boom, plus the rise in lumber prices. And the stock market responded. Check out BFS’ share price as of January 1 in recent years. Then look at its latest price: 1/1/19 -- $10.66 1/1/20 -- $25.59 1/1/21 -- $41.25 1/1/22 -- $86.20 1/1/23 -- $64.88 That 25% decline beats the 30% decline this year in the S&P Homebuilders Select Industry Index. In 2022, the entire S&P 500 dropped 19%. For all Flitman has done, he can’t beat the tide. Tony: I hear the old LBM guys saying Flitman never was a building industry leader, and that he’s leaving just as revenues drop and inflation rises. What a bunch of BS. He is a Fortune 500 leader. He moved big and fast, and accomplished a lot in just four years. Results matter. BMC proved you can attract top CEO talent from other industries. BFS and Dave Flitman proved sawdust in your veins is not a core tenet to be a successful CEO in the LBM industry. Competency vs. Industry Experience is a dicey trade-off full of bias and tough to navigate. What are your thoughts? Share with me at Interested in hearing more from Craig Webb? Sign up for his newsletter by reaching out at Hire Smarter – Tony Misura
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