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January 2010
Nurturing Leader
By Ellison Clary

     His customers can be what he calls cowboys and he likes his independence, but the president of Würth Wood Group also is a people person, nurturing employees and encouraging them to advance.

He’s also hypercompetitive.

     Perhaps that’s the secret to success not only for Roger Debnam, but for the Charlotte-based woodworking company he leads as president.

     It certainly helped him climb the corporate ladder, from a territory salesman to the company’s sales manager. Then, when Charlotte Hardwood Center sold to German conglomerate Würth Group in 1999, Debnam became vice president of the newest American acquisition, Würth Wood Group Inc., and eventually president.

     “My philosophy is that we talk to our employees about running the company like it’s their own business,” says the straight-forward Debnam.

     “We are very transparent,” he continues. “We share our financials with management at all our locations. And we are very competitive. We look for that spirited drive in every hire.”

     “I don’t believe in organization charts,” he adds. “In my mind, a chart says ‘I’m the guy.’ Quite honestly, our people are ‘the guys’. My job is to support them. That’s how we run the business.

     “We roll up our sleeves and do whatever needs to be done. I’ve driven a truck a forklift and I’ve cleaned the toilets” he says. “I want our people to see what I do and I want to understand their challenges firsthand.”

     It’s an approach that has worked for the supplier of lumber and plywood, surfacing products, finishes and specialty hardware. From Baltimore to Ft. Lauderdale, Würth Wood Group is a leader in distribution of raw materials to manufacturers of custom cabinets, furniture, store fixtures, and millwork.

     The company serves commercial customers that may be building bank teller counters or grocery store checkout islands. Just as likely a customer is a subcontractor building custom cabinets for a homebuilder or a high-rise office developer. Or Würth Wood might supply those constructing a hospital expansion.

     Further, at its 14 locations in seven states it maintains retail centers, or pickup stores, that cater to woodworking enthusiasts. These are frequented mostly by craftsmen—people doing small woodworking projects or maybe even more complicated remodeling work in their home.

     Though relatively few people are aware of these centers, they are pulling their weight in the financial slowdown. Marketing manager Scott Sittler is determined to enhance their profile and increase their share of this business.

 

The Last Bastion of Cowboys

     “Our industry is what I call the last bastion of cowboys,” Debnam says. “There are a lot of people who are entrepreneurs and don’t like working in an office. They like doing things with their hands. It’s kind of a dying breed.”

     “Our value proposition,” Debnam says, “is that pretty much from soup to nuts, you can buy everything you need to do your project from our company.”

     Verifying that is Keely Grice, owner of Grice Showcase and Display Manufacturing, Inc., also based on Charlotte’s west side. He’s known Debnam for 20 years and counts him as a friend.

     Grice’s company performs commercial and retail upfits and is big in store planning and design for jewelers.

     “The company itself is phenomenal,” Grice says of Würth Wood Group. “We couldn’t have a better business relationship. And it’s not just the quality of the product, but also the talent of the staff.”

     That speaks to Debnam’s concentration on culture.

     “Our people are fantastic,” Debnam says of the 60-plus employees in Charlotte and the 269 system wide. “They’re good at sharing their ideas, which I think is key for growth. We don’t want management that is always pushing down. I challenge our people to push back.

     “Some of the best ideas I’ve gotten have come from our people,” he acknowledges with a smile.

     Debnam was born in Raleigh and also lived in Atlanta and St. Augustine, Fla., while growing up. He studied engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and, at 6 feet 6 inches, thought of walking on to the basketball team. Unfortunately for him, it was the year that Cedric Maxwell started leading the nucleus of a squad that, a few seasons later, made it to the NCAA Final Four.

     But Debnam did meet wife Dreda at UNC Charlotte and they married in 1975, the same year he started work at the family roofing and sheet metal business.

     As the Debnams nurtured a family that grew to two daughters and a son, he progressed through several companies, owning part of one. They were always related to the construction industry.

 

Business a Natural Fit

     Now 54 and soon to be a grandfather, Debnam reckons he’s a bit like some of his customers.

     “I think I’m a lot like our customers. I like to build things.” Debnam says. “And I’m not a ‘typical’ corporate kind of guy. I don’t like to sit behind a desk. I like to be out in the open with our employees. So the business is kind of a natural fit for my skill set.”

     By 1993, Debnam was general manager of a wholesale distribution company that still operates in Union County. But he was unhappy.

     “I made a decision many years ago that when I was not having fun, I would find something different to do,” Debnam says simply.

     Good friend David Mashburn, who had started Charlotte Hardwood Center in 1983, along with Robert Stolz, brought Debnam on board in 1993. They were operating on land in Third Ward that they had gotten from Stolz’ father-in-law. It was the last significant tract needed for what has become Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. Through a swap, the company arrived at its current site on Golf Acres Drive.

     Debnam acknowledges he benefited from a close association with Stolz and Mashburn, as well as with Kris Lynch, long-time vice president.

     “I’m probably the motivational guy,” says Debnam. “But sometimes I get tunnel vision. David listens better than I do and he picks up nuances. Kris is my financial arm and helps me through an area where I’m not strong.  And Robert is just a great leader. He’s the consummate politician.” Together the group’s unique chemistry created a strong platform that helped fuel the growth of their business.

     In 1999, the company sold to The Würth Group of Künzelsau, Germany, a $10 billion operation which operates worldwide with 400 companies in 84 countries and about 58,000 employees. Four years later, Stolz joined the board of the company.

     Stolz’ appointment opened the presidency at The Hardwood Group and Debnam stepped in, with Stolz’ strong backing.

     The Hardwood Group officially changed its name to Würth Wood Group in 2006, but the parent company allows a great deal of latitude, Debnam says. However, Debnam oversees an extensive reporting structure that keeps German management close to the operation. He meets with that management typically three times a year, both in Germany and in Charlotte.

     Though Stolz is executive vice president for North America, his office remains at the Charlotte location, making him a constant advisor to Debnam. Stolz answers to chief executive Robert Friedmann and chairwoman Bettina Würth, daughter of founder Dr. Professor Reinhold Würth. At 75, Reinhold Würth is chair of the supervisory board of the Würth Group’s Family Trusts.

 

Going Back to Basics

     Debnam likes the way the elder Würth built his behemoth from scratch.

     Whereas Debnam finds many European business people “very stodgy,” he admires the Würth track record because it is one of entrepreneurial innovation.

     “He was always cutting-edge,” Debnam says of Dr. Reinhold Würth. “Since the 1990s, they’ve grown very rapidly into a worldwide organization.”

     The Charlotte-based operation was building business by double-digit percentages annually until the economy turned sour in late 2008. Debnam has cut the work force by about one-third.

     “While positioning the company to remain strong has been an exciting management challenge, the hardest thing I had to do was let some people go,” Debnam says solemnly. “Those were people who were friends and family.”

     Debnam believes he’s found a way to return to strong growth. He’s going back to basics. He thinks the company got off track, spending far too much energy on trying to stay profitable while losing sight of the importance of selling.

     He’s refocused on selling and predicts that 2010 will be better.

     He’s seen some recent signs the economy is improving but admits it’s still uncertain. “One of our customers laid off his entire work force recently,” he says. “Other guys have got some business, but not what they used to have. And the jobs are smaller and getting them is much more competitive.”

     For his own competition, Debnam says he doesn’t directly vie with the big box stores. Their woodworking product lines aren’t nearly as extensive as his.

     “Nobody really does quite what we do,” he says. “We are soup to nuts, so we have different competitors in various parts of our business.”

     “Our opportunity for our customers is to spend less time in the acquisition of the product and more time on developing their business,” he explains.

     So even in hard times, Würth Wood Group harbors expansion plans.

     “We’re looking at some internal expansion of product lines,” Debnam says. “We do a lot in hardwood lumber but we see an opportunity to grow. We’ve never really gone after the truck-load business. So we see huge potential growth just in a product line we’ve already got.”

     For geographic expansion, Debnam points to a wide separation between the firm’s Atlanta presence and its operation in Miami. He’d like to fill that either through startup or by acquisition. Other areas the company is eyeing include Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana.

     Outside of spending time with his family, Debnam works with a physical trainer his wife insists he see once a week and he pursues his passion as a private pilot. He owns a Cessna 182 with business partners Mashburn and Lynch.

     At work, the challenges of building the business and expansion promise to keep Debnam busy with his love for engaging his employees.

     “I coached athletics a lot when I was younger,” says the one-time basketball player whose sports-related injuries forced him to abandon the game.

     “This is like a big coaching job,” he says. “To me, it’s just the greatest experience in the world to see somebody who might not have had an opportunity get a chance and then succeed.”

     He smiles and adds: “The owners have allowed me to do what I wanted to do. I’ve enjoyed every part of this experience.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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