"Look in the rear view mirror and you will see the road is littered with people who did not adapt to change," said Sam Howard, president of Sparr Building and Farm Supply, of staying in business for 70 years."
It's not easy staying in business for seven decades. Especially when you are a purveyor of farm and building supplies and new businesses such as Home Depot, Lowe's, Tractor Supply and Rural King keep popping up. And when the economy tanks — more than once — in those 70 years.
Sparr Building and Farm Supply, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, has succeeded through lean and boom times and has an eye towards keeping the family-run business around through the next generation of Howards.
Sam Howard is the president of the business; his brother Paul is vice president. Sam said they are "equal partners" but he earned the title of President by being the oldest.
In addressing the challenges of staying in business all these years, he said, "We've never been afraid of competition. In the short run, like when the first Home Depot opened in Orlando, people lost business in Marion County. With Rural King coming to Ocala, we will likely lose some business. But when the newness wears off — same with Tractor Supply — pretty soon people realize the ones that provide great service.
"You have to bring your 'A' game or go out of business. And when the weaker ones go out of business, we get a bigger piece of the pie."
The business was started in 1945 when Elbert M. Griggs returned home from World War II. His father bought a small grocery store for him on the southeast corner of what is now the intersection of County Road 329 and Jacksonville Road in Sparr. Elbert and his wife, Mary Howard Griggs, ran the store.
In 1947, Mary went to Tallahassee to visit relatives. Her husband was tired of dealing with food spoilage and converted the store to carry hardware and building materials instead. He named it Sparr Farmers Supply. Needless to say, Mary was quite surprised when she returned.
Before long, Edgar Wellhoner, who grew up "across the river" from Elbert Griggs — meaning Wellhoner lived in the Ocala National Forest on the other side of the Ocklawaha River from Griggs — began working at the store. Wellhoner remained an employee well into the 1990s. During this time, the business grew to be one of the largest in Central Florida. Goods were brought in by truck and rail, and many homes were built with supplies bought at the business.
Sam Howard said that from the mid-1960s to 1981, the business declined due to labor costs, competition and the recession of the early 1970s. Sometime in the late 1960s, his uncle changed the name to Sparr Building and Farm Supply.
In 1981, W.T. Howard, Mary Griggs Howard's brother, acquired the business. He and his wife, Ruth, offered their sons Sam, Tim and Paul the business in exchange for "sweat equity." The young men accepted the challenge.
Sam Howard said they immediately added inventory and remodeled the store. The two employees, Wellhoner and Rudy Thurman, were given raises.
In 1982, the movie company filming "Cross Creek" set up an account and became one of their best customers for about a year.
"They happily bought anything and everything that was old and out of date, which helped us to profitably clean up old inventory and bring in fresh stock," Howard said.
He said that relationship led to doing business with subcontractors working with Arthur Jones, who was building Jumbolair in Anthony. The property required substantial fencing — one of the business's specialties, then and now — to contain the elephants, reptiles and other exotic animals Jones brought in.
"We earned their loyalty," Howard said.
And speaking of animals, when some loggers found an orphaned baby squirrel in a downed tree in 1983, they brought it to the store. Wellhoner built an elaborate cage with runs that went around the ceiling. The squirrel became "quite an attraction for years," Howard said.
It was in 1984 that Jackie Beard came to work with the company. He is from a long line of Beard family members who have attended schools in north Marion County, a number of whom were exceptional athletes. Beard, who is black, was a member of the first integrated class at North Marion High School. Each year during Black History Month, he visits area schools on company time to share his history and talk with students about changes over the years.
"When I started here, I was fresh," Beard said with a wide grin. "I didn't know what a 2 by 4 was, but they gave me a chance."
Beard is well known to many longtime customers and is quick to help new ones. His history as an employee overlaps personal interactions with members of the Howard family, such as officiating at the marriage of Sam Howard and his wife.
"I always feel like I'm part of the family," Beard said. "We have had lots of good times."
"He is a loyal and beloved employee," Howard said.
It also was in 1984 that the Howards decided to host the first Sparr Spring Wing Ding.
"We started the festival to increase sales, but after the first year realized that so many people showed up we had to close shop and focus on the event. By the third and final year, we had bands on two stages, a parade that included ugly-truck contestants, games, carnival rides and Holly the Trolley taking people back and forth to Reddick," Howard said.
In 1987, employee Nell Lowe came on board. That also was the year the company became a partner with Sparr Elementary. Howard said he believes that continuing relationship is the longest of its kind in the county.
Recent charitable endeavors include providing materials to help create the West Ocala Community Garden. Howard said that over the years the company has given more than $1 million to support local organizations.
Sam Howard is a board member of the Marion County Farm Bureau. The organization's more than 4,500 members represent agriculture locally from raising beef cattle to peanuts to marketing. The bureau is one of the largest of the 63 that make up the Florida Farm Bureau, the state's largest general agricultural organization.
"Marion County Farm Bureau is an example of the old 20/80 rule, where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. The folks that volunteer their time with community organizations, like Farm Bureau, are part of those 20 percent that make things happen," said President Todd Dailey.
"Sam and Sparr Farm and Building Supply are very supportive of the rural community. Marion County Farm Bureau is one of the many avenues that Sam has elected to show his/their support," Dailey added. "I don't recall how many years he has served as a county director, but he has participated with many local board activities and is our go-to guy when we are in need of supplies for an event. His knowledge about our local farms, farmers, commodities and concerns, is a big plus when it comes to understanding the issues facing our local ag community."
Tim Howard decided in 1988 that he did not care for the retail business, Sam Howard said, and moved his family to California.
Around this time, plans began to unfold to build a new store and warehouse across the street. It was completed in 1990.
"Over the years, we'd acquire properties contiguous with ours as they came on the market," Howard said. "Our current footprint is a consolidation of about 14 pieces of real estate."
Expansion soon became the watchword. In 1999, the Howards bought the Williston Feed business and turned it into the second Sparr outlet. The next year, they built the store that currently exists. In 2001, they built an additional warehouse and lumber shed for the store in Sparr. And, two years later, they bought Hatchers Feed in Wildwood, which became the third Sparr outlet. They also bought a tract of land one mile west to build a "dream store."
In 2004, they expanded the Williston location. Three years later, they opened a 30,000-square-foot facility on 14 acres on a busy highway just off of Interstate 75 in Wildwood.
By then, the company had 165 employees. As the Great Recession kicked in, however, things got rough. Howard said at one point they were down to 80 employees. The current roster is 125.
"When we took over in 1981, there was only Scotty's. We competed with Seminole and Gold Kist up the street in selling feed. Over the years, we had to adapt to changes in laws, such as with septic tanks and creosote," he said.
Technology also changed how the business operates, including the recent launch of an online store.
On the horizon is the possible addition of a fourth store and renovations to the property in Williston.
Howard said he attends the annual Sunbelt Ag Expo in Georgia each year, which has generated a lot of business. They also do business internationally, which started when the late Leroy Baldwin, a noted local cattle rancher, organized a number of international activities.
Howard's son and daughter-in-law work in the business, which, he said, is "presently the largest independent feed and agricultural fence dealer in the southeastern U.S."
How they got there required a lot of hard work, abiding by the Golden Rule and changing to meet ongoing challenges, he added.
"Look in the rear view mirror and you will see the road is littered with people who did not adapt to change," Howard said.