Venerable supplier Fullerton Companies builds on its heritage

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2013 - 3:25 PM

Family-owned, 130-year-old building materials supplier Fullerton Companies evolves while maintaining values dating to frontier days.

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President of Fullerton Building Systems Harry Robinette, board chairman Marna Fullerton, Fullerton Companies CEO and President Dave Walock and Fullerton the Builder’s Choice sales manager Michael Simon looked over a set of Fullerton plans.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Fullerton Companies is proud of its 130-year history as a family-owned building materials supplier. The giant photos of frontier lumberyards, a vintage cash register and other mementos at its Plymouth headquarters are symbols of that pride.

Yet the company is hardly stuck in the past, today's leaders say. While maintaining a long-held commitment to solving builders' problems, they've been busy retooling to position the company for growth while also responding to the Great Recession and increasing competition from big-box retailers.

CEO and President Dave Walock said Fullerton Companies is pursuing new business in multifamily and other expanding construction sectors, stepping up training to improve service at its four regional building materials centers and driving continuing growth of Fullerton Building Systems, the Worthington-based subsidiary that manufactures panelized building components for close to 40 national franchises.

Such change, while adhering to the company's core values, is nothing new, according to Marna Fullerton, who stepped in as chairman after the death of her husband, CEO and chairman James G. Fullerton III, in 2000. Their children, serving in various roles as advisers or on the board, represent the fourth Fullerton generation involved in the company since it was founded in 1882 in Mitchell, S.D. Fullerton Companies moved to the Twin Cities in 1900.

"We have a history of coping and evolving to meet what's critical to builders and to adapt to the changing marketplace," said Fullerton, who is a board member of the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit organizational ethics research center in Arlington, Va. "We went through some tough times, when that housing bubble burst. Fortunately the family has maintained a fairly strong financial position. Not only have we supported it in terms of board involvement but with resources during the tough times to ensure that our customers and our employees could count on us."

Fullerton Companies operates through Fullerton Building Systems and two other subsidiaries: Fullerton the Builder's Choice, its building materials centers in Glencoe and Watertown west of the Twin Cities and in the western Wisconsin cities of Osceola and Ellsworth; and Fullerton Finish Systems, which produces "quick install" exterior wall finish panel systems for national retail and commercial clients at its plant in Tulsa, Okla.

The subsidiaries and the corporate headquarters in Plymouth have 170 employees. Fullerton Companies projected 2012 revenue of $45 million, up from $40 million the year before, according to Walock, who joined Fullerton Companies earlier this year after close to three decades in construction, most recently as vice president at general contractor Bor-Son Construction.

One constant in recent years, Walock said, has been the strong performance of Fullerton Building Systems, which stayed busy as some franchises and other clients built or remodeled locations despite the recession.

The division got its start in the 1960s as Fleetwood Homes, producing panelized home packages -- floor and roof trusses, wall panels, siding, windows and finishes -- sold to both rural and urban buyers from Fullerton lumberyards. When the housing market soured in the early 1980s, Fleetwood, soon rebranded Fullerton Building Systems, began making commercial buildings, specializing in fast-casual and quick-service restaurants.

Brian Weidendorf, owner and developer of Land and Lease Development LLC in Hinckley, said he began using Fullerton Building Systems to build the exterior shell of small-town retail centers, which house a McDonald's and another tenant, three years ago. He built four to six such centers last year and plans to continue at the same pace this year.

The exterior goes up in just five or six days, Weidendorf said, often saving a couple of weeks or more.

"They speed up the process, and it's good, clean, neat construction," Weidendorf said. "I'm definitely sold on it. I couldn't say enough good things about them."

The Tulsa company now known as Fullerton Finish Systems was a supplier of exterior wall finish panels for building systems projects until Fullerton Companies bought and rebranded that Oklahoma business several years ago, Walock said.

Fullerton Building Systems still does some housing work, providing components for apartment buildings, for example. Multifamily housing, Walock said, is part of a broader, more balanced market approach on the part of Fullerton the Builder's Choice.

The company consolidated several lumberyards into its four current locations as the recession approached and single-family residential construction dried up, Walock said. The new approach includes greater emphasis on sales in such growing segments as multifamily, agricultural and residential remodeling.

Salespeople from the building materials centers are pursuing training from vendors to sharpen their expertise in finding solutions for builders, Walock said.

The expert says: Ritch Sorenson, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, who specializes in family business, said of Fullerton Companies: "It looks like many of the good things that come from family businesses are happening in this company."

Only a third of family businesses reach a second generation, and only 15 percent get to a third, Sorenson said. Boosting the longevity of family businesses often is a commitment on the part of family members to the business, its core values and to making adjustments that will sustain the business over time, he said.

"Apparently the characteristics of his family include resilience and commitment," Sorenson said. "They apparently have learned to adapt and be successful across generations."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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