Dealer Profile: Grogan Building Supply of Texas

Wood millwork has been a profitable niche for Grogan Building Supply, Houston, Tx. Here, president Greg von Baden shows a Southern Shutter Bahama shutter to a customer.

Houston, we have a problem. Okay, this time it wasn’t an astronaut’s alert to a scary situation. It was Greg Van Baden, owner of Grogan Building Supply, assessing his city’s economic freefall in the ’80s, when oil money ran dry and bankruptcies, instead, erupted.

Greg is the fourth generation owner of the outfit he and his wife bought from his dad, who’d taken on the location his Grandma Grogan launched in the 1940s. That was after her own forbears got too old to run the steam-operated sawmills and surrounding timberland that began the whole endeavor in 1886. 

“I’m the last part of that picture,” says Greg, who grew up in the family lumberyard, hanging out with grandpa as a kid, then working during school vacations. “I didn’t really have a choice; the company needed my help. So I got married in 1980 and went straight to work.” (His wife joined the company in 1992 as CFO.)

But the business came with problems, Houston. “I knew lots of improvements were needed, so I started to turn it around. Whenever I made some money, I’d use it to build and improve it, and add more vehicles,” which today include six trucks and four forklifts. 

“Grogan’s has been in this same location—called The Heights—since the Forties,” says sales professional Diane Easley, “while the neighborhood went up and down, depending on the economy and housing. During the ’60, ’70s, and ’80s, people started fleeing to the suburbs.” Which meant fleeing revenue for Grogan. “We were down to four or five employees,” Greg remembers: “My wife and I and a few helpers.” 

… until those city dwellers started fleeing back again. The Heights is now hot-hot-hot, designated as an Historic Neighborhood. “It’s undergoing a renaissance,” reports Diane. “People are buying up old bungalows, older houses.” But, those newly-desirable homes needed cleaning up and fixing, you bet! And Greg bet, too.
He quickly recognized a lucrative niche when he spotted it, and started specializing in wood windows (Jeld-Wen is a prime vendor), a major chunk of his current business. “Wood windows saved us,” Greg declares. “People were motivated to renovate—lumber, windows and doors, and special orders—those became our niche. We’ve become known as the go-to for hard-to-find stuff; even the competition sends customers to us. Special orders,” he swears, “have kept us alive.”

Lots of pine goes into the custom millwork Grogan turns out to match the vintage siding and mouldings in these older houses. Mahogany doors, too. And cedar. “I sell a lot of cedar!” He utilizes high-quality (and high margin) old-growth stock which his distributor can deliver in just one day, popular for projects like pergolas and decks.    

“But I’m not after selling framing packages. We can, but there are much bigger players in the market. We’re a lot better off with custom orders. In fact, two salesmen here, that’s all they do. We can make whatever you can draw,” he’s won the right to boast. And to guarantee it: “We hired a full-time tech just to work on the windows and doors we sell; he’s on the road every day, taking care of any issues. Not everybody can offer that,” Greg underscores. And to maintain skills and info, the boss sees to it that employees attends PK seminars and participate in vendors’ plant tours.

Seventy percent of Grogan’s clients are pros, working on those renewal projects. “But as the neighborhood changes, we’re getting the DIY trade, too, a new clientele—the high-end home owners who need something for their projects. Still,” he makes it clear, “our main focus is taking care of the professionals—trucks, equipment and a rental department for the pros. They appreciate the convenience and quality of shopping here; they’re not just looking for the lowest price.

“Why do they like us?” he ponders. “It’s a lot to do with relationships. If a new builder comes to town, he asks around and they say, ‘Go to Grogan’s; they’ve taken care of me for 10 years.’ They don’t go to Home Depot, where you park and have to walk a mile, and then the guy sells lawnmowers and can’t mix your paint.” (Speaking of paint, Benjamin Moore is another prime vendor that sets Grogan apart.)

When Greg ran out of room at the original location and decided to expand, he also decided to inaugurate another service (and cash cow). Thus, three years ago he added a Design Department (along with needed office space) in a warehouse two miles distant. “It came at the right time; we were growing, big-time. The economy was taking off again. It’s staffed by four salespeople and displays all our windows and doors and siding, painted in different Ben Moore colors. It also provides a conference room where builders and architects can sit down with their clients, with a big TV for presentations, wi-fi and refreshments.” 

The timing for that new addition was ideal, because, says Diane, “new construction is gradually bouncing back after it hit bottom in 2008.” And Grogan’s is doing business, beyond remodeling, with these single-family custom builders, too (“No tracts,” swears Greg, “we’ll leave those for the big guys.”) And that means adding contemporary looks to Grogan’s traditional stable of Traditional styles. 

Sifting through photos of projects on the company’s website is like paging through a glossy shelter magazine. Yup, there’s the façade of Restoration Hardware—one of Diane’s clients. And that coup has led to loads of other new business, as homeowners swarm in saying, “I want windows and doors that look just like that!” Check out, too, the photos of the Idea House in Galveston that Grogan supplied—“really cool,” agrees Diane. “Plus, that developer just came in and wants to work with us again.”

Grogan utilizes that website to spread the word, supplemented by a very active presence on Facebook, where each location has its own page. A designated person updates them every weekday, celebrating everything from birthdays to new products and projects.

Builders’ Appreciation Day is another of Grogan’s effective efforts to capture loyalty. Sure, many a yard slates such an annual event, but Grogan’s vendors swear this is one of the best: “Your crowd’s very involved; they ask questions. They visit all our booths; they’re not just here for the free food.” Oh, not to worry: There’s food, too. There’s also a popular contest for the best booth and raffles and give-aways that culminate in a grand-prize getaway at a swell resort. 

So, what does the future look like? Houston, is there still a problem? Diane reports, “People are still cautious, putting off decisions, waiting to see. Oil prices are still low, too, and it can be hard to get bank loans. There have been some layoffs and consolidations around town. Lots of existing homes for sale, too.” 

But, you know what? That’s what keeps Greg on his toes. “It’s fun. I love waking up each day.” And that’s what matters. 

Add your comment: