Volume 27/number 15; December 3/10, 2012
When John Hartenstine Derr started the Derr Lumber Co. in Philadelphia in 1912, he probably didn’t know the business would have what many others could only hope for: staying power. Now, over 100 years later, the company has grown into one of the largest hardwood flooring distributors in the country.
“Changing products, representing quality manufacturers, and exceptional service has kept us in the forefront of what our customers want,” said Chester Derr Jr., current president and CEO. “In every generation, we have done things that have kept pace with the market and have allowed us to keep moving forward.”
While Derr is one of the oldest floor covering distributors in the country, company executives believe age is not the only unique thing going for it. Rather, it’s commitment to service is what sets it apart. Derr maintains a sales organization of more than 20 reps and two architectural specifiers to stay on top of customers’ needs.
“We continually look for ways to differentiate ourselves from competitors, such as through our great sales and marketing teams, training, finance and credit. We want to make sure our attention is focused to the same place as our customers,” said Rick Holden, Derr’s executive vice president.
As one of the larger wood flooring distributors in the country, Derr has diversified its product offerings over the last 30 years and now includes commercial and residential sheet vinyl; commercial vinyl composition tile; wood treads, risers and other stair components; rubber; laminate, and rubber and vinyl cove base.
In addition, the company stocks a complete line of installation products including adhesives, underlayment patch, sandpaper, floor finish and every type of tool necessary for professional installations.
Derr supplies thousands of flooring retailers, independent lumber dealers and professional contractors serving multiple market segments, from new home and commercial construction to residential replacement. Holden noted Derr is committed to helping all trade classes be more competitive and profitable.
During much of this time, Derr has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with one of its biggest business partners, Armstrong. Derr distributes lines under the Armstrong, Bruce and HomerWood names to retailers in the West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia markets. “The key to our long-term success is carrying quality products from great manufacturers such as Armstrong and supporting our customers,” Chester Derr said.
Jim Mahaffey, Armstrong’s Northeast sales manager, said, “I have been working with the Derr organization on behalf of Armstrong for three years. The company is comprised of true professionals who work with integrity.”
Looking back, looking ahead
In the early part of the 20th century, Derr’s business prospered, with the wholesaler joining forces with three large lumber and millwork companies to form the Lumber and Millwork Co. of Philadelphia.
Because of economic conditions from the Great Depression, John Derr left this conglomerate in 1931 and re-established the Derr name with the opening of Derr-Gibbons Supply in the early part of 1932.
Joined by his sons, Chester and Robert, and two other employees, the company began distributing wood flooring and other lumber products including doors, moldings, millwork, wood stair components and accessory products.
John Derr remained involved in the company’s success until his death in November 1970. His sons expanded the company until 1979, when it was decided the business would be better served if it was split into two new entities.
At the end of 1979 Derr Flooring Co. closed and two new companies emerged: Derr Lumber and Millwork Co., which sold doors and millwork, and the Chester Derr Flooring Co., which sold wood flooring. In 1980, the new Chester
Derr Flooring Co., operated from one location in Philadelphia and employed 25 people. After five years, the name was shortened to Derr Flooring Co.
Today the business has grown significantly—employing over 130 people, operating six warehouses in four states, and utilizing 43 vehicles to deliver material to customers.
Five members of the fourth generation of the Derr family are actively involved in various aspects of the business. They range in service from 12 to 30 years.
A second economic depression and the changing face of consumer shopping habits along with the presence of the Internet can’t deter both the Derr family and company from setting their sights on continued growth.
“Our goal is to keep growing,” Chester Derr said.
The key to Derr’s longevity is a focus on quality. “We believe in total quality for both our customers and from our facilities. Quality breeds quality,” Holden explained.
The strong relationship between Derr and Armstrong’s flooring products is a prime example of this commitment to quality, he added. “We have partnered with Armstrong since 1918, and have kept it going because of its great products and service. If you are going to commit yourself to excellence, you need to work with other firms with similar mindsets.”
The value proposition Derr brings to the table cuts to the core of some of the most important factors impacting customer satisfaction in the builder, commercial and residential replacement markets: best value for price, product quality, breadth of product line and complete- ness/reliability of delivery.
“We have a large collection of both solid and engineered wood products, domestic and exotic species, and a variety of visuals—such as traditional, handscraped and distressed— for today’s consumer,” explained Holden. “Armstrong hardwood also includes the Performance Plus collection, which is an acrylic impregnated product that can be used commercially as well as residentially.”
Armstrong’s Mahaffey added, “Derr has a good presence and a high level of execution, from the retail side to the builder and commercial sides of the business.”
In honor of Derr’s 100 years in business, Armstrong present- ed the company with a specially inscribed plaque that summed it all up by stating, “The Derr organization epitomizes the enduring principles of successful multi-generational family businesses. Armstrong is proud to be associated with Derr and to recognize this milestone.”
Derr is certainly proud of its longevity. “Most family-based firms can’t make it past two or three generations,” said Chester Derr. “We are now coming up on our fifth generation.”
With quality products to distribute and a growing customer base, Derr Flooring Co. is poised to continue the company’s growth through and after its 100th anniversary.