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Fitch turns 100

 

Four generations of the family have kept the locally owned, service-focused lumber and hardware store in Carrboro thriving.

By Kirk Ross
Staff Writer

Doesn’t look 100, maybe more middle-aged, still sporting a kind of ‘70s look.
But there’s a lot more to Fitch Lumber than the familiar mod logo on the front of the building that sits across Greensboro Street from Carr Mill. There’s a spirit there that’s kept an independent, family-run enterprise in business for a century now. On Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon, the company is sharing some of that spirit with a celebration yard sale (along with free hot dogs).

In his office just off the main order area, Mac Fitch, president, says that unlike other small hardware and lumber companies Fitch has been lucky in part because of geography. Lowes and Home Depot moved into the area east of Chapel Hill, far enough away that Fitch’s center-of-Carrboro location remained convenient for a lot of customers.

“Had that gone another way, it might have been a different story,” Mac Fitch said. “Being on this side of town has been helpful to us.”

Another source of the longevity of the company is a strategy of working with custom homebuilders. The move paid off as the area grew. “We have our own little niche here,” Mac Fitch.

And while the geography and strategy have been important, the secret to success has been the people.

Carol Fitch Walker, Mac’s sister, says she’s proud that there have been other families who have had fathers and sons spend their careers with the company. “A lot of generations have worked here — a lot of families and they’re not all named ‘Fitch,’” she said.

Mac Fitch, whose sons Brad and David represent the fourth generation of the family at the company, said the principal philosophy all these years has been service. “We’ve never been the cheapest place around, but people come here because of our service and because we have people who have been around for a while and have a lot of product knowledge.”
The phrase “been around for a while” is an understatement, especially in an industry dominated by warehouse chains. Fitch is a family business with a broad definition of family.

“I’ve only been here 15 years,” Marc Atkins said while working the counter on a recent afternoon. He’s the “new guy” among the crew behind the counter, and laughs before affirming that, indeed, folks are starting to warm up to him. The job, he said, is more than simply waiting on a parade of customers.

“There’s a great, diverse group of people who come in here — everybody from seasoned laborers and journeymen to college-educated engineers. You see the people who moved here as hippies in the ‘60s and ‘70s and stayed. All kinds of people who’ve been through the ups and downs of Carrboro.”

What’s kept him at the counter for so long is the family nature of the business. “It’s not like a big corporation. There’s some freedom and flexibility.”

His fellow workers, past and present, agreed.

“I always cherish that I’m not just a number here,” said Marshall Murdaugh, who’s been working at Fitch for nearly 18 years. “I like working for a place where you know the person at the top of the heap and have confidence in the ability of that person to lead.
Mike Greenhill, who took a job at Fitch just after graduating from Chapel Hill High, said he was looking for something while he figured out what he wanted to do. That was 31 years ago.

“Since I was raised here, it wasn’t like going to work. Each day I’d see friends and people I went to high school with and there was always a tremendous opportunity to learn how to do things yourself.” Greenhill said he’s acutely aware that working somewhere for so long is a rare thing anymore and attributes the staff’s loyalty to the family’s approach.

Peggy Hern, who retired as credit manager at Fitch in 2002, said it was that way from the beginning and started with founder A.B. Fitch.

“He was one of the finest men you’d ever want to meet,” Hern, who worked at Fitch for 40 years, said recently. Her mother-in-law, Ava Hern, started working for the family in 1923, and she signed on in 1962 when her first child started school and Fitch was looking for some part-time help.

“Miles Fitch was like a father to me from the very first day,” she said. “It was a wonderful 40 years. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to go to work hating your job.”

Milton Cheek, who spent much of his 36 years at Fitch working in the planner mill on

Lloyd Street, said he and others felt like they were part of the family as well.

“They were the best people to work for you’ve ever seen,” he said of the Fitchs. “They treated everybody fairly — black, white, it didn’t make any difference.”

For their part, the Fitches aren’t quick to take credit for the accolades. Treating people right and treating employees like they’re part of the family is a long tradition. Listening to a few of the accolades collected from former employees, Mac Fitch paused for a moment, then said: “Well, we’ve been fortunate to have great employees.”

As for the future, both Mac Fitch and his sister say they’re not planning on big changes in the next century.

Carol Fitch Walker said the company is not about to try to compete with the big box stores, including not changing the traditional closing time of noon on Saturday.

“If you want to sleep in and not get going until 11:30, you’re probably not going to Fitch. If you want to come to a place and see the same people — people you know will help you — you come here.”

As for her brother, he says he’ll stay in business “as long as it’s still fun and profitable.”

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