It survived the Depression. It survived a fire that consumed three-quarters of the company’s stock. But perhaps most surprisingly, Cyrus R. Fox Lumber has survived Home Depot–not only survived but thrived.
Not many companies can claim four generations of family ownership and success in an age of big-box stores, but this century-old lumber yard and hardware supply company has kept success moving from father to son.
The company, a fixture in Clinton, is nestled between the South Branch of the Raritan River and Route 78. The premises are rife with historical notes and is rumored to have received wood from the first load of lumber that came through the Panama Canal. The property once housed a Lehigh Valley Railroad station (now a window showroom) and the town’s power station.
In 2005 the company celebrated its 100th year in business. The timing was right; the company also had its best year ever with $22 million in sales. Even adjusting for inflation, the volume of sales was the strongest ever for the company, according to the current owner Cyrus Apgar.
Mr. Apgar is the great-grandson of Daniel Fox, who bought the 5.5 acre property in Clinton in 1905 and founded Daniel S. Fox Lumber and Coal. In the 1920’s it became Fox Brothers Lumber for Mr. Fox’s sons Rhuston and Cyrus. In 1947, Cyrus became the sole owner.
In 1970, after a major fire in 1969 and the subsequent rebuilding, the business was renamed Cyrus R. Fox Inc. The business passed to two of Cyrus’ children, Cyrus Jr. and Helen, who had married Lawrence Apgar. When Mr. Apgar returned from serving in World War II, he joined Cyrus Jr. in running the business along with Rhuston’s son Daniel Fox. In 1993, the Apgars bought Cyrus Jr. out of the business. Now the company is “an Apgar family business,” according to Mrs. Apgar, but for tradition’s sake, the company kept her father’s name.
Not surprisingly, the fire was a turning point. Mrs. Apgar remembers the exact day of the fire, not merely because of the devastation, but because it happened on March 1, her wedding anniversary.
Today the business, at any given time, has about three million dollars of on the ground inventory. The company, which has a hardware store, no longer sells coal, having ended that endeavor because of supply problems.
Change has been a key to the business’ success, according to Cyrus Apgar, Helen’s son and current owner. Rather than a lumber company, he says they are a “building materials” business. The difference isn’t merely semantic.
“Engineered wood products is a big thing now,” says Mr. Apgar. More and more home builders are shunning wood for interiors, decks or siding, in exchange for composite materials that, while looking like wood, are a mixture of plastics and wood, or cement and wood. He ascribes the change to the new materials being “maintenance free” and available in larger sizes. Also, he notes that trees being cut down now for lumber are much younger than the older-growth trees of yesteryear. “Newer (younger) wood is not as strong,” he says.
Changing with the times has helped the company to flourish; however, Mr. Apgar says the key to his company’s success has not. It is all about “quality service, quality products and good prices.” Preferring to work with local businesses, smaller-volume developers and contractors, Mr. Apgar says he is grateful to those who patronize the business, many of them second- or third-generation customers. “We wouldn’t be in business this long without our customers. We don’t push anyone away.”
While Cyrus Apgar has no children, he says his family does plan to keep the business passing through the generations. He owns the business with his siblings: Larry Apgar Jr., Barbara Gates and Patricia Swartz. His brother and sisters aren’t involved in the business, but he thinks one of his eight nieces and nephews will carry it on. “We don’t know who yet,” he said, “but somebody.”