The DIYer’s best friend

Homax, a maker of do-it-yourself products, is perhaps the quietest 90-employee company in the city. But with a slew of new products heading for shelves and the buyouts of a number of competitors, that may be changing.

Ross Clawson, Homax’s president, said the company has grown from one employee working from his garage (Homax founder Don Stern, a former Allsop staffer) to more than 90 workers in the Bellingham headquarters alone, with gross sales last year of more than $100 million.

   As evident by its humble home next to Dairy Queen on Westerly Road, marked only by a small company logo on the glass doors in its entryway, Homax goes about its business in the community quietly.
   Inside the company’s 15,000-square-foot headquarters things are bustling, however, with nearly 90 people working for the venturesome supplier of hundreds of do-it-yourself and contractor products, which grosses more than $150 million annually.
   “I think Homax is Bellingham’s best-kept secret,” said mild-mannered company president Ross Clawson, 46.
   While the company has happily flown under the radar for years, its hushed presence has served somewhat as a hindrance recently as, in a time of rapid company growth, it has failed at times to find local employees for key positions.
   “We’ve always been happy to not attract a lot of attention, but we’re growing so fast,” Clawson said. “Today, we need to attract employees quickly.”
   In the past, that wasn’t the case, as Homax was more one-dimensional and focused on finding placements for its original product, the spray texture gun, developed in 1982 by company founder Don Stern, a former Allsop employee.
   A do-it-yourselfer, Stern was doing some remodeling in his home, and needed a way to apply texture to the walls. At the time, said Clawson, about the only way for an individual to do such a job was to go to a rental yard and buy a professional-sized spray gun and 40-pound bag of texture.
   “If you’re only patching a little area, that’s an overkill,” Clawson said.
   So Stern set about finding a solution that would allow homeowners and others to do small texture jobs.
   He came up with a spray gun in which a jug of textures could be gravity-fed into a chamber and then sprayed on surfaces via pressure from an air-powered pump. An adjustable nozzle allowed for a wide variety of spray patterns.
   “It’s a little awkward,” said Clawson, as he demonstrated the spray gun recently. “It’s hard to believe that this company developed from this original product.”
   While the spray texture gun got Homax’s foot in the door with a few regional distributors, the company still didn’t gain widespread notoriety.
   For about 10 years, Homax continued to toil, manufacturing spray texture guns, power paint rollers and drywall tape dispensers, with its handful of employees working out of a home in Fairhaven.
   “We used to joke about our ‘corporate campus,’” Clawson said. “A lot of people described it as two barns and a house, and that’s pretty much what it was. My office was in a loft and you needed a ladder to get to it.”
   Finally, in 1992, said Clawson, Homax came out with a product that put it on the map with leading retailers — small cans of aerosol spray textures.
   “It became very, very easy to patch drywall texture,” he said. “It was as easy as using a can of spray paint. Suddenly, the company went from being a regional provider of sundry paint products to being able to sell products nationally.”
   After several years of considerable growth, a private equity group out of St. Louis, the Harbor Group, bought Homax from Stern in 1996. Clawson, a former CPA who’d worked as a controller and general manager with the company since 1993 after relocating to Bellingham from Los Angeles, moved into his current position in 1998.
   Soon after Homax was acquired, the company caught another break, Clawson said.
   The Harbor Group, which had originally bought Homax as a tuck-in acquisition to a larger company, was forced to turn its attention to Homax when the larger company ran into operational problems and was sold off.
   Homax officials were ready with a plan to grow the company further.
   “We knew we had a great product for opening doors and that we could get a foothold in most hardline retailers (stores that typically sell products such as appliances, electronics and sporting goods) around the country, but by going out in the market and looking for a small company with quality products, we felt we could offer more products to the national retailers,” Clawson said. “We felt we’d have more success because all the national retailers are driven to consolidate their vendor base. They reduce their own costs by dealing with fewer vendors.”
   The strategy proved to be effective; as Homax’s product offerings increased, so did its business with large retailers.
   Since 1998, with acquisitions ranging from $2 million to $25 million, Homax has acquired 10 smaller companies, including Goo Gone and Rhodes American. The most recent acquisition occurred last month, when Homax purchased the stock of Stone Care International, a manufacturer of countertop and floor-care products in Baltimore, Md.
   Homax itself was acquired by Connecticut-based Olympus Partners last year.
   Today, there are more than 400 aerosol, drywall, painting, steel wool, cleaning, odor-control, kitchen and bath products sold under the Homax umbrella.
   In addition, Homax products are sold at a variety of retailers, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Ace Hardware, Bed Bath & Beyond, Safeway and Walgreens.
   “The strategy has worked extremely well because we’ve been able to supply more specialty products to our customers. (Customers) also gain confidence in us and, as that happens, they give us more opportunities,” Clawson said. “In addition, these acquisitions have allowed us to strengthen our sales force and management team because we’ve kept many of the executives of the companies we’ve acquired. Also, (the strategy) has certainly allowed us to increase the depth of our customer base.”
   Dean Hendricks, co-owner of Lynden’s Ace Hardware and Sports, said Homax products have a good reputation, especially with homeowners working on do-it-yourself projects.
   “They’re very easy to use,” he said. “I think they fit a real need.”
   Indeed, said Clawson, DIYers, small contractors and homemakers are the key consumers of Homax products.
   Along with the DIY phenomenon, Clawson said other factors have helped spur Homax’s growth.
   “As interest rates declined, the percent of people who own their own homes has increased significantly, and people like to spend money to fix their own homes,” he said. “Taking pride in homes occurs in good times and bad. I won’t say we’re in a recession-proof industry, but it’s a very stable one.”
   Homax, which has about 250 employees at 10 locations around in the U.S. and Canada, will continue to grow with future acquisitions, Clawson predicted.
   The company moved its headquarters to its current location (the former Horizon Air call center) this year, after spending the previous five years at another Cordata-area location, and could add as many as 15 more local jobs in the next year, Clawson said.
   At Homax’s Bellingham headquarters, most jobs, including customer service, accounting, information technology and research and development positions, pay around $40,000 a year.
   While many family-wage positions are available at Homax, Clawson said he has had a hard time recruiting local employees and believes a large portion of the community is unfa
miliar with what the company does.
   Recently, Clawson said, when the company was installing an Enterprise Resource Planning system, most new employees hired for the job came from outside Whatcom County.
   “We need employees with large-firm experience who have knowledge of world-class manufacturing and distribution systems and who are accustomed to working in a high-growth facility,” he said.
   While most Homax manufacturing locations are in California and throughout the east, Clawson said the company will likely have a long stay in Bellingham.
   “The reason we stay in Bellingham is because of the people who have been here through the growth of this company,” he said. “There’s way too much human capital invested here in Homax to ever consider relocating our corporate office.”


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