Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Business

Home Depot vice president J.T. Rieves bleeds orange to please professional builders

J. T. Rieves is the man behind a recent charm offensive launched by Home Depot Inc. to win more business from professional builders — from the neighborhood handyman to contractors who remodel apartment buildings.

As vice president of the pro-build desks for the world's largest home improvements retailer, he directs a team that provides a separate entrance, credit options and checkout for pros in 2,200 stores. He also supervises an office-bound sales team of 183 nationwide that caters to the biggest customers. Pro builders spend about $20 billion a year at Atlanta-based Home Depot. Born in Bradenton and hired by Home Depot as a hardware stock clerk 23 years ago in Fort Myers, Rieves, 46, chatted recently about the new effort, what's changed since home building cratered and how he stumbled into a mercurial career at Home Depot.

Home Depot is best known for do-it-yourselfers and homeowners willing to hire you as a go-between for home improvement projects. Yet the commercial side has always been a bulwark. Why this rediscovery of the pros?

We always knew that they were vital, but didn't have all the data points down to the transaction level to understand it all until now. We found that pros — and customers who buy like pros — are 4 percent of our customers yet responsible for 30 percent of all sales. For years we heard what they really cared about, but we didn't fully listen. Now we have. They use us mainly as a convenience. The average transaction is about $100 and down slightly, but there are more of them. They rely on other suppliers for larger buys. It isn't very sexy to build a whole strategy around being a convenience store. So we built one around what they need to win more of their business.

How does it work?

We get them in and out faster. We put in special parking by the door. During the busiest time of the day we use portable devices to work through any line or check them out right in the loading area. We cut out three to four hours of daily administrative work that frees store associates to spend more time talking with the customer. We turned the registers so the associates face the customer, do role playing exercises to get them to engage customers, learn their business and pain points so we can see what else we can do for them.

Then what?

We equipped them to demonstrate how we can do more for them under one roof than driving all over. We make a big deal that we beat any competitor's price by 10 percent. If they buy in volume, we have a sliding scale of 10 to 20 percent discounts for annual activity. We'll ask if their paint store (which as a group controls more than half the commercial business) delivers free any order over 24 gallons.

Home Depot bought a place in the larger construction supply business by acquiring lumber yards and builders supply houses and creating HD Supply. That ended when the building industry collapsed and HD Supply, which had $15 billion in sales, was sold in pieces in 2009. How did that affect your $20 billion in sales at pro builder desks.

Not that much because we were never that big in the home building industry. People who were remodeling still are or are flipping foreclosed houses for property managers or investors. Our biggest customers are more like the U.S. Navy and 7-Eleven that have thousands of workers carrying our payment cards.

Has product selection changed?

It's still basic building materials, but constantly evolving with technology that's greener, more energy efficient or saves time. We have a drywall that's 30 percent lighter to lug up a set of stairs. We have combination primer/paint, so you don't wait for primer to dry for a second coat. Lithium ion batteries make cordless power tools lighter, recover faster and don't do a slow fade before needing a recharge. We are broadening our own brand of EcoSmart LED lighting that lasts 30,000 hours versus 2,000 for an incandescent and uses a tenth of the electricity. We have a $9.97 screwdriver for electricians that strips wire, turns the perfect bend in a switch and has a bit to hold a screw known to slip out.

Your credit programs for builders were farmed out to Citigroup? Any thought to running it yourself like a builders supply because small contractors can be higher credit risks and complications of construction lien law?

Not currently.

What about Hispanic pros?

In many trades Hispanics are more than half the workforce. So I cannot have a pro desk that does not reflect the community it serves. It only starts with language. We put languages spoken by bilingual associates on a shirt badge and post a sign at the door identifying each language spoken by department. Sometimes it's product preferences. Mexican flooring teams are accustomed to working with Jamo adhesives.

How did your upbringing influence your career?

My parents were very hard working people. Even after they retired they kept a calendar as busy as mine by volunteering right to the end. My father helped found community colleges like Edison College in Fort Myers. He was a trained psychological counselor skilled at getting people to open up, which helped me. Just months before he died at 82 he was counseling physical therapy rehab patients. My mother was my second-grade teacher. She was tougher on me than other students. Before my senior year in college, I planned to spend a summer at home until my father said "you're getting a job."

Is that how you got to Home Depot?

First, I drove out to the airport where a high school friend was making good money as a skycap. He blew me off. On the way home I drove to a corner that had a Scotty's, a Builders Square (both driven out of business years later by Home Depot) and a Home Depot, which was the easiest turn. I knew nothing about Home Depot because they only had two stores in southwest Florida in 1988. Carla Branch, a classmate from elementary school who still works there, put in a good word. I stocked hardware.

And 23 years later you're still there?

I would have thought you were nuts if you suggested I would be in charge of 122 stores doing $3 billion in business in four states in my early 30s. What kept me there was this vibe, an energy in the stores. Shoppers went there just to see what was new. We had a cultlike group passionate about working there. There was so much camaraderie, we said we bled orange. I see it here again.

Staff Writer Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

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