Acorns Don’t Fall Far
From the Tree

Jim, Jay and David Carroll keep pace with evolving building materials technology and busy contractor customers

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Photos: Jeff Clarke

This spring, David Carroll bought a new golf club that his brother, Jim, wanted to try out. Jim laughs heartily as he recounts the tale. “He said just to make sure I put it in his truck after I used it. Later, one of our employees found it on top of a lumber pile out there, and we hung it up and put a sign on it, ‘found in yard.’ He had hit some golf balls and left it out there, and so we pulled the joke on him.” Jim laughs again. “He was calling his wife, blaming his sons ... we’re always trying to rib each other. And it does give the employees entertainment to see how the brothers interact.”

Jim, David and their brother, Jay, are the owners of Rice Lumber Co. in Shelburne. And the plenitude of light-heartedness that’s evident everywhere on site is the perfect foil for the high stress that comes from working to keep building contractors supplied with the right materials at the right time. “As with any business, there’s a certain amount of stress involved,” says Jim. “It’s a very demanding industry; everybody wants everything yesterday — always.” He admits that the brothers get in each other’s way now and then, but that happened much more often when the business was smaller and they hadn’t yet divided the responsibilities to fit their individual talents and tastes.

The Carroll Bros.

(From left) Jim, Jay and David Carroll work hard and play hard. “We’re always trying to rib each other,” says Jim, president of Rice Lumber Co. in Shelburne. The brothers and sister Shelley O’Brien bought the company from their father, Wesley Carroll, six years ago.

The brothers and their sister, Shelley O’Brien (a non-working partner), bought the company from their father, Wesley Carroll, in 1993. The business goes back to the 1930s, when Dennison Rice founded it. Wes went to work for Rice in 1954, and 16 years later bought the business in partnership with two employees, Deek Brooker and Fred DiSpirito. DiSpirito died in 1982, and Wes became the sole proprietor when he bought out Brooker in 1985.

By then, Jay, the middle brother in age, was already working for the company. He came from the construction industry, where he had worked for a time following graduation from Rice Memorial High School. Jim, the oldest, had worked there following graduation from Champlain College in 1976 until 1983, when he had left to join a construction company on a large project in Pittsfield, Mass. Two years later, when his father bought the company, Jim came back into the business. At the same time, David, an electrical engineering major at Vermont Technical College working at Digital Equipment Corp., left school and Digital to join the others.

As the oldest, Jim is president. “My father followed the pecking order,” he quips. Jay is vice president and David is treasurer. They share responsibility, and each oversees a distinct part of the business that might not appear to have anything to do with his corporate title. For example, Jim’s main function is purchasing. “I purchase all the forest products, so anything pertaining to wood,” he says. “That’s probably 60 percent to 70 percent of our inventory.” Jim also works behind the scenes, dealing with bankers, lawyers, receivables and payables. “I gather all the information, and we all discuss it.”

As sales manager, David is largely in charge of pricing jobs and preparing quotes. “I do some purchasing,” he says, “but mainly I deal with outside salespeople, set pricing and build new relationships.” Scott Reiss, the chief estimator, does the job takeoffs, then David works with the contractor to see where the builder needs to be. “I check the purchase orders and invoices, hold meetings and do a lot of training.” This year, he’s been on the road visiting suppliers to gain a broader knowledge of products, which change and improve continually.

About a year ago, Jay stepped into the key position of dispatcher, the place his father held when he was there. All three say it’s the hot seat of the business, and Jay loves it. “Everything comes in and goes out through the dispatch office except purchasing, which Jimmy handles, and quoting, which is David’s job. And I move it. I schedule orders for contractor sales, set up delivery times, manage the millwork division, schedule millwork orders for delivery, quote customer orders and take care of quality control. I come from a building background, so it helps. For example, I know the contractor wouldn’t need windows delivered unless the roofing was on. I also take care of yard help, hiring and firing.”

Dave Bissonette

Measure twice; cut once: Dave Bissonette works in the Rice Lumber shop. In the background: Bernie Campbell (left) and Tim Billings.

Dispatch is such a high-stress position, that Jay first told David he wouldn’t leave his outside sales duties to take on the job. “I still had clients I needed to service,” he says. It was the closing of Moore’s Lumber that tilted things. “There was a big influx of customers, so I hit it at the peak of pain.” He winces as he admits that the infrastructure of the business wasn’t up to snuff when Moore’s closed. “Not enough manpower, and all that extra business came through the door. I call it being force-fed,” he says with a chuckle. “Moore’s had a lot of different clientele. And the do-it-yourselfers didn’t come our way, but the contractors did. We bought another forklift, another truck, added sales force and increased the number of employees, including hiring three former employees from Moore’s.

Jim talks about the changes brought about by the growth in the last 10 years. “We’ve added more equipment. We had one old boom truck; we now have two brand new ones in the last two years. Used to have two forklifts; we now run four. We probably had 19 to 22 employees in 1989, and right now we have 31. Our business has more than doubled in that time frame. One of the reasons was hiring outside salespeople, becoming computerized. A lot of the changes in the business come from the innovation in the products. These days, there are different floor systems taking the place of conventional lumber framing: There are floor trusses, truss joist systems. You’re always trying to keep up with the changes in the industry.”

One of the major changes in the business is the source of construction decisions. “Back 10 years ago,” says Jim, “contractors were the primary driving force behind purchasing decisions. They would decide where they were spending their dollars. Now, since the early ’90s and the recession, there’s more a ‘buy-it-yourself’ attitude among homeowners. They’re hiring builders to work as a general manager for a fee and then hire the labor force.

One of the services the brothers have instituted is the woodworking shop. It’s a real bonus to contractors, who can bring challenges and special requests from their customers. Jim says he’s not sure if other lumber companies have that capability. “We do custom woodworking, like different types of moldings, we tongue-and-groove boards, we do a great variety of tasks,” Jim says. The tasks include the more mundane things like assembling window units to the more artistic, such as making custom-curved railings. “A lot of it is services we offer our contractors and hope it makes them more competitive with their customers by giving them flexibility to offer different options.”

David Prior & David Winer

Rice Lumber caters to contractors, but often sells to homeowners whose contractors went to Rice for building materials. Pictured: salesmen David Prior (left) and David Winer.

While the focus of the business is selling to contractors, the brothers don’t turn away individuals looking for materials to do their own work. “We are really mainly a contractors’ yard,” says Jim, “which is not to discourage do-it-yourselfers.” Members of the general public who venture into Rice’s sales store are often likely to be people whose contractors went to Rice for building materials. “They built the house with us through their contractor, saw what we could do and know where to go,” Jay says. “We call those ‘regular customers.’”

The store (including the offices upstairs) is being renovated. It covers approximately 3,000 square feet and carries a wide range of products. Jim says it would be easiest to list what they don’t sell. “We will supply anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the cost of a new home. We do not sell plumbing fixtures, no kitchen or bath items, no electrical and no carpeting. But we sell everything else: framing, insulation, roofing, windows, interior and exterior doors, moldings, anything that pertains to wood product, roof and floor trusses, paint and hardware, tools and hinges (but not decorative hardware, which is available on special order).” Other items seen for sale during a site visit include dowels in dozens of sizes, tiles, loads of eye hooks, lock sets, nails and a pretty decent collection of magazines, including Fine Homebuilding, Finishes & Finishing Techniques and This Old House magazine. “We are not a home center by any means,” Jim says. “We are a commercial construction yard. There’s no lawn and garden — no bird seed here,” he laughs.

Scott Reiss & David Waller

One challenge in a thriving economy with low unemployment is finding quality help. It’s the biggest problem Jay Carroll has. Rice Lumber has openings for truck drivers, salespeople and yard workers. Pictured: Scott Reiss (right) works with contractor David Waller.

The brothers might work hard, but they also play hard. Jim, a newlywed, has begun to discover the joys of homeownership, which he expects to keep him pretty busy. Jay and David live with their families in two homes right on the company’s 13 acres. All three love hunting and boating. Jim and Jay own a power boat together on Lake Champlain. David owns one with a friend. Jim plays in recreational basketball leagues and rides his Harley Heritage Soft-tail whenever he gets the chance. David loves to hunt — especially whitetail in Alberta and Maine, although he proudly mentions a turkey he shot last fall and smoked for his family. Jay leans more toward wintertime activities, such as hunting and snowmobiling. “Summertime is work time for me,” he says.

The pastime that really has these brothers enthralled is golf, a new hobby for them all. They mention it more than once during their interviews. Jay claims he’s recently taken up the game to “keep up with them,” referring to David and Jim. David says, without hesitation, that if he couldn’t be running a lumber yard with his brothers, he’d like to own a golf course. Jim comes closest to the truth. “David and I just started golf,” he says. “This is probably our third year, which, hopefully doesn’t cause too many problems, because if that golfing bug hits ...,” he trails off, grinning.

Virginia Lindauer Simmon is a free-lance writer and editor who lives with her cat, Moneypenney, in Colchester, Vt. Her work has appeared in national, regional and local publications.