Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Whit Davis celebrates 60 years

Whit Davis’ son, John Davis, left, with company president Terry Toney. Toney, along with John Davis’ three children, now own the business.

Leader staff writer

John Davis remembers the school bell ringing to signal the end of his academic duties. That bell also meant he had just 10 minutes to get to work at Whit Davis Lumber in Jacksonville, the company his father started 60 years ago.

Whit Davis will celebrate its anniversary April 4-6 with special sale prices at its three locations — 723 School Drive in Jacksonville, 340 Arena Road in Cabot and 80 S. Broadview St. in Greenbrier.

On Saturday, April 6, there will be free hamburgers, hot dogs, vendor demonstrations and KSSN radio station at all the stores.

There will be an animal adoption unit and car seat safety checks at the Cabot location.

During the event, visitors can register for a chance to win $1,000. The name of the winner will be drawn the week of April 8.

Davis said his dad’s name was Whit, his mother was known as “Mrs. Whit” and he was called “Little Whit.”

“Little Whit” said his parents bought Oliver Lumber Company on April 1, 1953 for $12,000, but they spent more than that because Oliver’s inventory of lumber was low.

His parents got the business started with just one truck driver, Max Pierce. Whit Davis employs more than 100 people today.

Davis was 11 years old when the store opened.

The entire family pitched in, working for the company.

Davis made 75 cents an hour sweeping up, waiting on customers, checking shipments in and more. He learned the business firsthand.

“My dad taught me a lot,” Davis said.

Although his mother was responsible for bookkeeping, she did other things, like driving the truck to pick up inventory in Little Rock.

Davis said, “She did what was necessary. We all did what was necessary.”

He continued, “I remember, as a kid, having to work hard. It was 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week in the summer.”

Whit Davis was first located at the western end of a shopping center. The center, which has been demolished, was located where the Jacksonville Senior Activity and Wellness Center is now. The company’s first address was 100 Victory Circle, Davis said.

He recalled that Jackson-ville was a town of less than 2,000 people, and the Little Rock Air Force Base wasn’t there yet. Construction of the base started in 1955, Davis noted.

“So, Whit Davis got to grow with the community. Jacksonville has been very good to Whit Davis Lumber Company,” he said.

The company has put customer service first since the beginning.

Davis said, “We had a saying that if we didn’t have it, we’d have it the next day. Most people weren’t in a hurry like they are today.”

He noted that customers who wanted items his parents’ store didn’t have would have to wait or get the product in Little Rock. The drive there was 45 minutes on Hwy. 161 because Hwy. 67/167 didn’t exist.

Most of the customers preferred to wait, Davis said.

He said the way his father managed the company was influenced by how hard life was in the 1930s. His father was born in 1906.

“Most people in getting through the Depression they learned what the word frugal meant. Daddy used those principles in business,” Davis said.

In August 1956, a 50-by-70-foot Whit Davis store and a 70-by-100-foot warehouse were built on School Drive. The warehouse has been torn down and replaced with a taller building.

Davis said the building was expanded twice. It gained 50 feet the first time and 35 feet the second time.

Whit Davis managed the company until his death in 1985 from kidney failure. But John Davis started handling a lot of the operations for four years before that because his father was on dialysis.

The company’s president, Terry Toney, started working at Whit Davis in 1985. Davis said Toney started at the bottom and is president today because of his dedication.

In 1994, the company acquired the rodeo arena in Cabot and converted it to a drive-through lumber yard. The Greenbrier store was built in 2006. “We are proud of our three facilities. They are what I would consider first class,” Davis said.

The first computer at Whit Davis was installed in 1986.

“It was probably the biggest change in the company as far as saving time,” Davis said. He recalled having to handwrite everything. Calculating contractor prices took weeks instead of hours and minutes, he said.

Davis described the Jacksonville store, which was constructed in 1988, as a 15,000-square-foot “showroom.”

Despite the company’s growth over the past 60 years, some things haven’t changed.

Davis said his parents always valued employees, and he is proud of the company’s tenured workers. “That is the greatest asset we have,” Davis said.

The company has also always been a family affair.

Davis said, “We have a lot of family in Whit Davis.”

His sons, Dan Davis and Paul Davis, both work for the company. Dan Davis is the general manager at the Jacksonville store. Paul Davis buys lumber and commodities for all three stores. Davis’ son-in-law, Don Millar, is head of the installation division.

On Jan. 1, ownership of Whit Davis Lumber Company was turned over to Toney, the company’s president; Dan and Paul Davis and their sister, Stacey Millar.