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All in the family: Linton N. Tibbetts and the Florida lumber industry (part I)

Bill DeYoung

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Linton N. Tibbetts, O.B.E. The Cayman Islands native was honored by Queen Elizabeth with the Order of the British Empire in 2003.

First of two parts

By Bill DeYoung

According to family legend, Linton N. Tibbetts arrived in St. Petersburg in 1946 with $16 in his pocket and a head full of big ideas. Born and raised on the tiny Caribbean Island of Cayman Brac, he’d sailed dangerous seas during World War II as a seaman with the Merchant Marine, and when all that was done he immigrated to the States with a mind to grab a piece of the American Dream for himself. He was in his early 20s.

Over a 65-year career, Tibbetts – who held dual citizenship – virtually created the Florida building materials industry.  He also brought electricity, progress and commercial viability to his homeland, and was honored by Queen Elizabeth, the monarch of the Cayman Islands Crown Colony, for his efforts.

When he sold his flagship Cox Lumber Company to Home Depot in 2006, the company had posted a previous-year profit of $396 million.

“He’d had many offers to sell the company,” explains grandson Michael Tibbetts, a director of JEM Worldwide LLC, the family-owned holding company for its various businesses and properties. “He saw the forces in the building materials industry changing, and he recognized the challenges in transferring a business to the next generation. He figured it was the right time.”

The sale included 28 stores, 15 door plants and 11 truss plants. The family has never disclosed the actual sales figure.

“He said later that this was an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Michael says, “and he also said that sometimes you have to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.”

The bottom fell out of the housing market not long after the sale was finalized. “He really couldn’t have timed it any better,” his grandson believes.

Linton N. Tibbetts grew up without electricity, or running water. His grandmother, sister and infant brother perished in the hurricane of 1932, which devastated Cayman Brac with 200-mile wind gusts and an estimated storm surge of 30 feet.

His father, a master shipbuilder, lost his right arm to blood poisoning, and spent the rest of his life operating some of the island’s first retail ventures.

Tibbetts, right, with his first business partner, A.K. Harper. Tibbetts bought Harper’s share of Cox Lumber in the early 1950s.

Three years after landing in St. Petersburg, Tibbetts scraped together $1,500 and purchased a half-interest in Cox.  Eventually, he bought out his partner, and grew it into Florida’s dominant building-supply enterprise.

“It grew very slowly, conservatively,” Michael Tibbetts explains. “He didn’t take on excessive debt. Just a business that he continued to re-invest in, opening one location after another. The company was just incrementally profitable through its history and grew in a steady, calculated way.”

He’d learned to trusts his instincts. “My grandfather’s father owned some little shops on Cayman Brac, which is only about 12 miles long,” Michael Tibbetts explains. “From him, my grandfather learned the importance of having branches, or different locations, for having goods to sell on the island. All the other building distributors in St. Petersburg just had one location, and that was it.”

Linton Tibbetts opened his second Cox location in 1958, in Port Richey. After that, he never looked back.

He and his wife Polly had four children, and they all grew up and raised families of their own in St. Petersburg.

“We’d spend a few weeks in the islands every summer,” Michael remembers. “In the early ‘80s, there was no electricity. You had to rely on cisterns for water. There was only one phone on the island. We had to bring in all of our own food.

“It was really quite an interesting place. We learned a lot of lessons about being self-sufficient, being down there at a young age.”

The first Cox lumber yard, circa 1949, at 1275 28th Street South, St. Petersburg.

In 2009, three years after he sold Cox, Tibbetts – against the advice of industry experts – got back into the lumber business.

The spark: Home Depot sold off its supply division, the actual purchaser of Cox Lumber. This rendered the five-year non-complete cause Tibbetts had signed, invalid.

“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 at the time. “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.”

“At that time, obviously the market had fallen off tremendously for building materials and home construction in Florida,” Michael explains. “And many members of the leadership team at Cox Lumber Company were looking to get back into the business – either they were unhappy with the way they were currently employed, or were not employed. So he was able to re-assemble most of the team, including the prior president, to start Tibbetts Lumber Company.”

Kyle Hooker, Michael’s cousin (his mother and Michael’s dad were siblings) had been general manager of Cox Lumber’s Ocala property. After the sale, he went into real estate, in the Knoxville, Tenn. area and was doing quite well when his grandfather called him back with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Today, Hooker is Executive Chairman of Tibbetts Lumber Company, and of Cox Lumber Ltd. in the Caymans (which was not included in the Home Depot sale). He is the only family member actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the lumber business.

A big secret to his grandfather’s success, he believes, was his personality, which brought the best and the brightest to him like moths to an incandescent bulb.

“He wanted to get to know everybody’s name, which is so rare in companies these days,” Hooker says. “In larger companies, you’re a number. There’s really no personal connection. He went very much out of his way to make sure everybody who worked for him felt like they were a part of his family.

“With 28 locations, it’s very hard to know everybody’s name, but he would study the rosters before he got to each location. That was a big way that he connected with so many people. He’d walk around, and when he saw somebody working a forklift with a seatbelt on, he’d hand them a $20 bill. And say ‘Thank you for keeping our company safer.’ Things of that nature make you want to work for somebody.”

These days, they want to work for Kyle Hooker. In March, Hooker says, Tibbetts Lumber will post $82.5 million in sales for 2017 – a 13 percent growth over the previous year.

“Our family’s always tried to handle ourselves with integrity, with dignity, and to own up to that responsibility as a business family,” Hooker reports. “And we treat our employees, our vendors and our customers all the same. That’s very rare these days, when larger companies are trying to just beat up on their vendors. We make quarterly mill trips to visit almost all of our vendors in person.

“Other companies say they’re into customer service, but they’re not really. We honestly live it.”

Linton Tibbetts died at the age of 88 in October, 2011 – just a week after the flagship Cox location, at 3300 Fairfield Ave. S. in St. Petersburg, was re-dedicated (after extensive remodeling) as the fourth Tibbetts Lumber location.

Tibbetts Lumber now has five locations in Florida. “The leadership team that we have now is essentially  the same leadership team that was running Cox Lumber Company when it was 28 locations, and a much bigger entity,” Michael Tibbetts says.

“So I think we have a pathway for further growth in the future. But we’re going to continue the model of re-investing in the company, expanding gradually. And continue to build our market share.”

In Part Two: A closer look at the Tibbetts family’s three Cayman Islands resorts, and their plans for the future.

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