Lumber Liquidators keeps its culture

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In just over 10 years Lumber Liquidators has become the largest specialty retailer of hardwood flooring in the U.S. It has more than 140 stores, 800 employees and $400 million in annual revenues. Nonetheless, founder Tom Sullivan goes out of his way to remind employees that the Toano-based company wasn’t always big.

“We started in the back of a beat-up old pickup truck,” he says. Before Sullivan opened his first store, he bought up leftover wood from area companies, made up fliers and sold his inventory at outdoor weekend sales. “Even though we’re extremely successful now and publicly traded, I don’t ever want us to get too bureaucratic.”

That drive to retain a small-business culture is one reason Sullivan was named Ernst & Young’s national Entrepreneur of the Year for 2008 in the retail and consumer products category.  “Despite its massive growth, it’s still the same business Sullivan started when he held that first weekend sale,” judges for the awards program note.

Sullivan says his company thrived because he was willing to go against industry tradition. He relied on advertising and direct-to-consumer sales to move product. Plus, he says, the company always put a premium on hiring good managers and employees.

Despite the sharp decline of the residential real estate market, Sullivan is bullish on Lumber Liquidators’ future. He projects that the company will open 30 more stores in 2009 and increase revenues another 20 percent to $480 million.

He says that homeowners who planned to sell their houses but couldn’t are now investing instead in upgrades and renovations. “We’re seeing more of that kind of work, and since we’ve always sold more to consumers then to large builders, we’re better off,” Sullivan says.

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