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May 2014
Concrete Reputation
By Zenda Douglas

     Charlotte-based building supply company Tucker-Kirby has been a well-known and respected name in the Charlotte business community for many years now. Founded in 1920 by W. F. Tucker Sr. and Robin S. Kirby Sr. as Tucker-Kirby Hardware Co., it was originally located at the corner of W. Ninth Street and Railroad.

     “You can still see a portion of the foundation of the building,” beams Terry Ward, vice president of Tucker-Kirby, who recently located the exact site.

     A couple of years later, the company moved westward to Palmer Street and Railroad, where it remained for over 80 years before eventually losing the property to railroad acquisition. In 2004, it moved to its present location anchoring the Wilkinson Park Business Center. Says Ward, “We’re still on the same route, just farther down.”

    Bill McKinnell IV, company president, explains, “We needed to expand, but we needed to still be in the vicinity of uptown. Much of our business is generated by uptown construction, and being close to uptown is good for ‘pickup business’—work that can be handled by pickup truck.”


Set in Cement

     For more than 90 years, Tucker-Kirby Co. has been a recognized provider of concrete, masonry, waterproofing and geotextiles for the residential, commercial and industrial building markets in the Carolinas. It sells to general contractors, subcontractors and top masons involved in the building of high-rise buildings, schools, medical and sports complexes, dormitories, supermarkets, big-box stores such as Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs and others.

     It has been a supplier for a major Camp LeJeune military project, the largest masonry project in North Carolina’s history, the Apple Data Center in Lincoln County, and the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s zMAX Dragway Complex.

     In addition to its headquarter facilities in Charlotte, Tucker-Kirby now has two other branches, one in the Raleigh/Apex area and the other in Columbia, S.C. These expansions have allowed the company to continue to grow its presence in the Carolinas and to follow its contractor clients into other states including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

     The products Tucker-Kirby sells represent six divisions of the 16 divisions of construction as defined by the Construction Specifications Institute’s MasterFormat. They are: Site work and Drainage, Concrete, Masonry, Waterproofing, Finishes, and Specialties. The bulk of the company’s multi-million-dollar revenue comes from sales related to the concrete, masonry and waterproofing divisions.

     Products include such items as ADA mats, concrete stains, curing and sealing compounds, epoxies, expansion joint material, concrete form materials, reinforcing mesh, rebar, vapor barriers, masonry cement and mortar, reinforcing wall bracing materials, flashing, anchors and ties, silicone and urethane caulk systems, rubberized asphaltic sheet membrane, fire safing insulation and rigid foam insulation.

     “We don’t sell ready mix concrete, but we sell all the accessories—everything that’s below that concrete—and we don’t sell brick and block, but we sell the accessories to make them work,” explains Ward.

     “When you see a concrete or masonry building, it’s not just a box,” continues McKinnell, “there’s quite an infrastructure to it. You have to tie that masonry in with metal ties and anchors and waterproof it. On a typical project, we could have $100,000 in materials in a building and none of it would be visible once the building is finished.”

     Currently, approximately 60 percent of revenue comes from masonry-related sales and 40 percent concrete-related sales. Tucker-Kirby also sells pre-mixed bag goods, primarily for construction projects in urban areas too tight for the big concrete mixer trucks to get on site. “Ten days out of the month we are sending tractor trailer loads to Wal-Mart construction sites,” says McKinnell.

     The bids that Tucker-Kirby prepares and the products it sells are “spec-driven,” or specified by the architectural plans and specifications of a given construction project.

     “For this reason, our sales people are well-trained; many are certified in masonry and/or tilt wall casting,” says McKinnell, who credits much of the company’s success to its knowledgeable sales force. “Our people know the product line, the industry and they can read the plans and specifications. Our customers can feel confident that our quotes reflect the plans.”

     “We don’t have order takers,” adds Ward. “We have true salespeople and we truly want to be a partner to our customers.” He says that Tucker-Kirby works closely with the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association and participates in its certification programs: “They used to be just for masons; now we send our people to them.”

     With regard to competition Ward says, “Everybody’s prices are basically the same. There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between our prices. It boils down to us having the knowledge and the service to get the business,” says Ward. “Some of our competitors have tens of branches; others have hundreds, but we—with our three branches—are the workhorse for the masonry and the tilt side of construction in the region.”


A Cohesive Block

     The Tucker-Kirby sales force starts out in the warehouse. “I came up through that route,” says McKinnell. “It makes a difference. The average person wouldn’t know anything about this business. We have 10,000 different products to learn about.”

     Between the three branches, Tucker-Kirby employs 28 people. “A business is no better than its people and we have great people,” affirms McKinnell

     Tucker-Kirby is the quintessential family business. While none of the company’s ownership, management or staff have been related to either the Tucker or Kirby families since the McKinnell family bought the business in 1984, a significant number of them are related to the McKinnells as spouses, in-laws, siblings, sons and daughters.

     “We have lots of family members who work here, not just our family but multiple members of other families,” says Ward, who is married to McKinnell IV’s sister who also used to work for the company.

     “Nepotism laws don’t apply here,” assures Bill McKinnell III, who represents the second generation of McKinnells to own Tucker-Kirby. “We like it this way. We operate as a family and it works smoothly.”

     His father, Bill McKinnell Jr., attended The Citadel in Charleston and went to study at Kings Business School in Charlotte. Mr. Tucker and Mr. Kirby approached the school for possible candidates to work in their company.

     “The school recommended my father,” says McKinnell III. “He came in 1930 and stayed for 45 years, moving up the ranks from sales to management to part-owner of the company in 1964.”

     McKinnell III then came on board in 1966. “My Dad said he would continue to call me Billy but everyone else had to call me Bill and I was expected to carry my own weight. I didn’t want to be just like everybody else; I wanted to do better,” says McKinnell III.

     Before retiring in 1975, McKinnell Jr. witnessed the sale of the company in 1974 to a Florida-based entity that had a building supply division.

     “It was a good marriage for a while but the Florida company got into financial trouble and started draining the cash assets of the former Tucker-Kirby,” says McKinnell III. The company was involved in Florida real estate and went under, forced to turn the business over to the bank in 1984. By this time, Bill McKinnell IV had been on board since 1977. McKinnell III and McKinnell IV, father and son, bought out the company in 1984. Ward started work at Tucker-Kirby in 1985.

     “We refer to that time prior to buying the company as ‘the dark days,’” says McKinnell IV. “It was a learning experience and a bump in the road.”

     It was more than a decade later, in 1997, that McKinnell IV and Ward describe how they helped prompted McKinnell III’s retirement in a good-natured way. “He had been talking about it for a number of years, but hadn’t set a date or planned anything,” says Ward. “So, Bill and I got together and threw him a surprise retirement party with 300-400 people in attendance, including customers.”

     Nowadays, McKinnell III admits, “I don’t come here much anymore, but I’m always interested in what they’re up to.”

     Ward and the McKinnells are all natives of Charlotte. Ward came to the company straight out of high school. McKinnell IV was just 15 credit-hours shy of earning a degree from UNC at Charlotte. “A job opened up that I wanted and I promised my folks that I would go back and finish,” says McKinnell IV. That didn’t happen but the company presidency ultimately did.

     “Very few of our employees have four-year degrees but they are highly trained professionals; knowledgeable in their jobs,” affirms McKinnell IV.


Strength in Construction

     For Tucker-Kirby, the downturn in the economy hasn’t inhibited their growth. In 2008 when the downturn began, the company was able to increase staff in the Charlotte office and expand into the Raleigh/Apex market.

     “Luckily for us, we had a good bit of work coming in from projects with Duke University Health System, Durham Bulls Stadium and dormitories and other buildings on the campuses of UNC at Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and UNC at Charlotte. Plus, we had branched out to military work,” says Ward. “Federal monies were made available for military and civic work. This pretty much kept us going through the slowdown.”

     “Our sales staff had to expand on their core territories to find additional work, but we didn’t suffer any loss of staff due to the downturn,” says McKinnell IV.

     Importantly, Tucker-Kirby had also begun to get involved with tilt construction projects, here in Charlotte, the Raleigh area and states outside the Carolinas.

     Tilt construction is essentially concrete wall casting for large construction projects. Massive walls are built (poured) sideways on top of the building’s concrete floor slab or pad before being tilted (lifted) into place by a crane.

     “We sell the release agent that is applied so the wall won’t stick to the pad,” explains Tim Stewart, Tucker-Kirby’s tilt specialist. The walls are built with lifting inserts that enable the crane to erect the walls without breakage. Walls can be stories high or several walls stacked on top of each other.

     “One of our vendors has recently come out with an insert capable of supporting 24,000 pounds,” continues Stewart. Only two companies in the nation are authorized to sell these—we are one of them.”

     Tucker-Kirby also owns bracing equipment that can be taken to construction sites. “That also gives us an advantage in the marketplace,” says Ward.

     The expansion to Raleigh has paid off.

     “Since opening the doors in 2007, the Tucker-Kirby Raleigh location has focused heavily on the service aspect of contractors’ needs along with a great sense of urgency on delivery schedules. Growing the product offering has also been a major focus aligning the company with top-ranked equipment lines in the industry like EDCO Masonry Saws, EZ Grout Mixers and STIHL,” says Guy Harrigan, operations manager of the Apex office.

     “This, in addition to the material inventory levels in stock, speaks volumes about Tucker-Kirby’s partnership commitment to the contractor and has allowed the company to grow even in a very sluggish economy,” he adds.

     Looking down the road, Ward expects the company to expand to other areas. “We’ll do our research on places and figure out where we need to be.”


A Uniform Mix

     The masonry industry has its fun and competitive side. One of Tucker-Kirby’s vendors sponsors the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500, an annual fastest bricklaying trial competition between regions. The winner enjoys a trip to Las Vegas for the company’s annual convention, and has the opportunity to compete for the World’s Best Bricklayer title against winning masons from around the globe.

     “Last year we were asked to host the trial competitions,” offers McKinnell. “Well over 200 people were in attendance at our facilities. We’ve been honored to be chosen to host the event again this year,” says McKinnell.

     Despite the ownership changes from the original lineage, the McKinnells were never tempted to change the name of the company. “The Tucker-Kirby name was so well known when we bought the company,” says McKinnell, “that changing the name would have been a big mistake; it would have required a total rebranding. It was a case of ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”

     “We’ve even had the same phone number for decades,” adds McKinnell III with a chuckle. “Customers know us.”

     It’s not surprising that the company has an adage that says, “If people come to work at Tucker-Kirby, they retire at Tucker-Kirby.”

     “It’s always been like that,” attests McKinnell. “It’s a good solid company with a good reputation and fair pay. I think that’s what’s made it so successful.”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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