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Man behind Cox Lumber in rebuilding mode again

Linton Tibbetts sold Cox Lumber Co. to Home Depot as part of Home Depot’s attempt to advance in the commercial building materials and equipment business. Now, Tibbetts is jumping in again.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Linton Tibbetts sold Cox Lumber Co. to Home Depot as part of Home Depot’s attempt to advance in the commercial building materials and equipment business. Now, Tibbetts is jumping in again.

You would have thought that at 88 years old, Linton Tibbetts would have retired after making a fortune selling his builders supply chain to Home Depot just before the business cratered in the Florida home building collapse.

Obviously, you have not met Linton N. Tibbetts.

"We sold, but we didn't fold," said the inveterate dealmaker who has resurrected his Cox Lumber Co. as Tibbetts Lumber Co. with a plan to rebuild it from scratch "as fast as we can."

"We ran one of the largest lumberyard operations in Florida, so we're going to pick up where we left off to go another 60 years," he said. "I've seen recessions come and go and always found them the best time to expand because you can buy lumberyards at a bargain price."

Skeptics say he's taking a wild risk.

But to Tibbetts, it's just a matter of time before Florida's boom-or-bust housing industry booms again. Meanwhile, he sees enough business maintaining the state's homes with specialty products and custom millwork — ranging from beams to pilings and doors to decking — that rivals Lowe's and Home Depot never carry.

State Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is one of nine grandsons with a stake in Tibbetts' far-flung business empire who urged him to rekindle his Florida lumber business.

"We've got the cash, the talent and the real estate," he said. "I learned long ago never to bet against my grandfather."

Brandes remembers driving the boondocks of U.S. 41 and 301 when his grandfather — a confessed "land-o-holic" — would unexpectedly pull over, dart in a house and return with terms of a sale scribbled on a napkin.

Indeed, over his lifetime Tibbetts has successfully run his family's grocery stores and three dive resorts in the Cayman Islands. He started two museums, Red Carpet Airlines and a power plant that brought visitors and electricity there. Queen Elizabeth honored him at Buckingham Palace for contributions to bolster the island territory's economy.

Born on sparsely populated, Cayman Brac 90 miles from Grand Cayman island, Tibbetts has seen his share of tragedy.

At age 9, a hurricane storm surge flattened his family's home and killed his grandmother, sister and infant brother. Two of his own four children who held key roles in the family business died in their early 50s. His father, a master shipbuilder, was forced to learn retailing for a livelihood after blood poisoning from a fish trap cut cost him his right arm.

"My life is like a bumper car ride at the carnival," he said. "You keep getting hit from all directions, but keep driving forward."

Like most other natives, Tibbetts left 12-square-mile Cayman Brac as soon as he could at 16. He worked the docks in Jamaica, Belize and Panama, attack-proofing the canal after Pearl Harbor. Opportunity in America intrigued him upon learning less experienced U.S. canal workers who held the same job he did earned three times the pay.

After landing in Tampa as a seaman on a coconut ship with $16, he spent the war years working troop ships in the U.S. Merchant Marines. That led to dual citizenship and homes in St. Petersburg and the Caymans.

T.T. Cox hired Tibbetts to work in his lumberyard. By 1949, Tibbetts had saved $500 from working after-hours construction jobs, which became the down payment on his $1,500 purchase of a half interest in Cox Lumber. Tibbetts later bought out his partner, but kept the Cox name.

Supplying home builders whose subdivisions filled with insatiable waves of Florida migration made Tibbetts a rich man.

"Ours is a handshake business built on competitive prices, customer service and keeping your word," said Juan Quesada, chief executive of Tibbetts Lumber, which draws 80 percent of its business from builders.

Tibbetts stockpiled plenty of loyal handshakes helping nurse Florida builders through hard times, often with big-picture solutions.

For instance, in 1972 he made a killing when a cement shortage threatened to shut down construction sites. Tibbetts flew to Honduras, sealed a distribution deal for the eastern seaboard with a supplier new to the United States, then bought a ship and reopened Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg to its first freight since the war. Profits from the first load paid for the ship.

When cement prices fell two years later, Tibbetts sold the ship for more than he paid for it.

Tibbetts never retired. He's embroiled in helping his home island — leveled by a 2008 hurricane — out of an economic stall. He kept Cox Lumber alive in the Caymans and supplied it through his lumber-exporting business in St. Petersburg.

He set up Tibbetts Lumber in late 2009 in a corner of the export yard, opened in Fort Myers and Land O'Lakes, and has a fourth store set to open in Brevard County. The remodeled original flagship hardware and lumberyard recently reopened at 3300 Fairfield Ave. S to gear up for a Sept. 29 grand opening. All are sites of former Cox Lumber yards.

Of the company's 101 employees, 96 are Cox Lumber veterans. Tibbetts predicts a payroll twice as big within a year.

Annual sales of $15 million now equal Tibbetts' export lumber business that supplies the forest-poor Caymans.

There's nothing flashy about the new St. Petersburg store, which clings to the old-school lumberyard look. The floor is vintage asphalt tile. There's a replica of Cox Lumber's first Ford delivery truck that Tibbetts once drove. Each column sports U.S. and Cayman flags. Voice mail is banned as impersonal, and a sign hangs by the door listing the 14 lumberyards in St. Petersburg that Linton Tibbetts outlasted over 62 years.

Home Depot did not disclose what it paid for Tibbetts' 26-store network of hardware stores, 15 door and 11 truss plants that had revenues of $396 million in 2006. Neither will Tibbetts, except that it was "an offer far too good to refuse."

His banking buddies gave him a glass crystal ball for clairvoyance for "selling at the peak of the peak" of Florida's building binge.

The sale was part of Home Depot's ill-fated multibillion-dollar gamble to tighten its grip on the commercial building materials and equipment business. But the whole strategy unraveled fast.

Home Depot sold most of the leftover Cox Lumber yards to ProBuilder, a chain with 10 locations today in Central Florida. Nineteen of the original Cox Lumber yards are vacant. Tibbetts might try to get them back or use real estate he already owns to open six more locations around Central Florida.

Tibbetts, who still uses his 32-foot power boat to satisfy a passion for "bottom fishing," knows competitors are baffled.

"They said I was crazy when I built the state's first lumberyard branch for Cox in 1958 near Port Richey, too," he said. "I learned from my father to branch out to where the business is."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Man behind Cox Lumber in rebuilding mode again 08/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:51pm]
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