Almost 80 years after Ben F. Chilcutt — Mr. Ben — founded Ben F. Chilcutt and Sons, the family business known widely as New Home Building Stores welcomes the fifth generation to learn the ropes. Only thing, someone may have to eventually do something about that “and Sons.” The fresh face belongs to Ann Marie Chilcutt. The 23-year-old is the first female family member to join the company ranks in a very male-dominated industry.
“It’s a testosterone-driven business,” observed Jack M. Chilcutt, Ann Marie’s dad. He’s been with New Home going on 30 years, alongside his brother, Nathan E. Chilcutt, who has been involved in the building supply enterprise about 25 years. “Of the 350 storefronts in the lumber buying group we’re part of, I think there are only two lady owners and maybe four managers,” noted Jack.
Ann Marie is undaunted. Since coming on board in May, she has begun learning her way around the company started in 1937 by her visionary great-great grandfather. What started then as a wholesale lumber brokerage in Macon expanded into lumber production with its own sawmills and dry kiln facilities. The business weathered the heels of the Great Depression and then World War II to evolve into a full-scale building materials concern with stores in Macon and Columbus.
Ever since Mr. Ben and his sons Jack, Ray and Archie ran the business in its early days, Chilcutt men have been at the helm. So when Ann Marie expressed an interest, it was something of an eye-opener.
“I had never ever considered it before,” Ann Marie said. At one point, the University of Southern Mississippi honor graduate had even looked at medical school. Post-college, this former USM Student Government Association president helped pilot the university’s regional recruiter program. She was living in Birmingham, Alabama, increasing the school’s enrollment by 60 percent in her territory. That territory included Columbus.
“Because of that, I was able to visit with my family often, and I began to realize a couple of things,” she said.
First, she recognized how much she missed Columbus and being around those she cared about. And she started noticing similarities “between me and my dad and granddad.” A few of those were a bold approach to new things, a penchant for hard work and a genuine enjoyment of people.
She also thought back to her volunteer service with Habitat for Humanity, something she began while a student at Heritage Academy. The Habitat house was her first immersion in a building project from ground up, from pouring a foundation to handing keys over to the new owner. It was inspiring work.
“I guess it all got the wheels turning in my mind,” said Ann Marie.
Fire hoses and forklifts
In January, to test the waters, Ann Marie accompanied her father to Dallas and a major building group conference.
“I wanted to expose her to all that, to let her see that there is more to this industry; it’s one of the largest in the country,” explained Jack (now an active Habitat volunteer thanks to his daughter’s participation).
Far from being intimidated by the conference, Ann Marie “fell in love with the industry and the people involved in it,” she said. She soon moved back to Columbus from Birmingham, entering a world of forklifts and building sites, inventories and warehouses. She absorbs all she can from her father, her Uncle Nathan and the helpful, efficient staff — tackling everything from material handling to purchasing and receiving, from working on the web site to toting products home at night to study labels.
“Dad warned me I was going to feel like I’ve got a water hose spraying in my face,” laughed Ann Marie. “I think it’s more like a fire hose.”
The Chilcutt men are watching this full circle process. They’ve been there, too.
“It’s fun watching her step into it,” Jack said. “It reminds me of when I came in, working with my dad.”
Ann Marie doesn’t lack for commitment or work ethic, evidenced by her prior accomplishments as a competitive state level swimmer, her honors status in high school and college and skills on multiple musical instruments.
Nathan observed, “I have no doubt in her abilities; I think she’s gonna take some boys by storm.”
Her fresh perspective is having an impact.
“It’s been good for me,” Jack said. “It’s forced me to go back and think. She’ll ask why we do something a certain way; I can’t just say ‘because we’ve always done it that way.'” The newest face on the team is bringing a new pair of eyes to an ever-evolving business that “just kind of gets in your blood,” he summarized.
All grown up
On a hot day in late June, Ann Marie walked with her dad, her uncle and her grandfather, Ben E. Chilcutt (now retired), to a lumber warehouse behind the company’s main building for a photo. Along the way, their banter revealed the affection and respect they share — important commodities, especially within a family business.
“She’s my girl,” her granddad said, resting a hand on Ann Marie’s shoulder.
Later, Ann Marie shared a vivid childhood memory. She was no older than 4, tagging along to the store — a “big deal” — with her dad. He gave her a duster, saying she could dust the shelves.
“I remember thinking the aisles were so long and the shelves so high,” she recalled. “I felt like I was doing such a huge part.”
In May, on her first day representing the company’s fifth generation, she picked up a duster and relived the role. It was almost surreal, she admitted, and deeply meaningful.
“It’s so exciting to play a part in one of the reasons the Chilcutts are the Chilcutts,” she said. “And that’s a pretty neat thing to say.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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