After decades of making cabinets and countertops for convenience stores in Virginia and beyond, even the managers at Hanover County-based Merchants Fixture can’t say for sure just how many stores have had the company’s work installed.
Walk into a convenience store in the Richmond region, and “there’s a good chance Merchants Fixture had a hand in it,” said Lin Wright, the company’s vice president, who estimates it has done work for hundreds of stores in the area.
A family-owned business founded by George Wright in 1978, Merchants Fixture has a plant in the Hanover Industrial Air Park where it can produce, yearly, about 10,000 millwork pieces — wood cabinets and other fixtures — which go into convenience stores around the country. The company’s work includes checkout, product display and food service counters, and beverage bars.
For many years, Merchants Fixture focused on the Virginia market, making cabinets for Ukrop’s grocery stores and convenience stores such as Fas Mart, Rennie’s and Lucky’s. “We were known as the convenience store guys,” Lin Wright said.
Now, the company has broadened its geographic scope to become a national player, selling its fixtures to what Lin Wright said is “a great mix and blend of national accounts, regional accounts, local accounts and independent accounts” and even making some sales in international markets as well.
The company has seen a lot of change in its marketplace over 40 years. It has lasted through economic recessions, and it went through a period under the ownership of another company before being reacquired by its founder in 2009.
In recent years, the convenience store market it serves has seen a lot of consolidation, with regional and national chains growing bigger, while the design and construction of stores has changed, too.
The company is now passing into the hands of its second generation — George Wright’s sons Lin, Brandon and Neil Wright. The three brothers, all in their 30s, are leading the company to innovate and diversify as the commercial and retail marketplace evolves.
For instance, in the 1990s, the average store size was around 2,200 square feet, Lin Wright said. Now, it is closer to 5,000 square feet, and food service has become more integral in store designs.
“Convenience stores, for a long time, were just gas, beer and cigarettes,” Lin Wright said. “Now, customers want more — something better and different. Now, you can get a full meal.”
“Convenience stores have had to adapt, and we’ve adapted with them,” he said. “We’ve given them solutions, and we’ve become the experts.”
There are nearly 155,000 convenience stores in the nation, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
U.S. convenience store count has increased by 55 percent over the past three decades. The growth rate of new stores last year was about 0.3 percent, at a time when many types of retail are pulling back on new openings.
Convenience stores that are opening tend to be bigger and offer more amenities, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the association.
“As retail is challenged by the internet, it really has become more about not so much the products you sell as how you sell it,” he said. “It is more about customer experience and what your store looks like.”
Merchants Fixture doesn’t just serve the convenience store market.
The company also is making a stronger push into a marketplace it has always served to some degree, but never really branded as a core part of its business — making high-quality cabinets and counters for office and education spaces, including health care facilities, schools and banks.
George Wright started Merchants Fixture with just a handful of employees, as a small refrigeration business that supplied convenience stores.
He previously had worked for grocery wholesale distributor Richfood Co. in the early 1970s and for another refrigeration company.
The business was originally located in Scott’s Addition in Richmond.
George Wright also enjoyed doing store layout designs, and he moved the company into cabinetmaking in the early 1980s as a side business to refrigeration.
“It was because I could not find a cabinet shop that would make a cabinet heavy enough for a convenience store environment,” he said. “So we hired one cabinetmaker and started making cabinets in a small room, and it grew into what it has become today.”
The company eventually expanded to dozens of employees and built a client base around Virginia, but the early 2000s recession hurt the business.
George Wright said one of its largest customers went bankrupt. So in 2002, he sold the business to a competitor, a North Carolina-based cabinet company, and Wright continued to operate Merchants Fixture as a subsidiary. “I worked for them for eight years, and then they offered to sell it back to me, and I bought it,” he said.
His three sons grew up doing chores around the office, and they have since joined the business at different times, bringing different, and complementary, skill backgrounds with them.
George Wright remains president and continues to maintain relationships with many customers, who often go to him for advice. All three of the sons are vice presidents in charge of different aspects of the business.
Wright said he is proud about his sons taking leadership roles in the business. “That is something about starting a business — you always have a dream of someone carrying it on,” he said.
Brandon Wright started working at the business as a teenager in 1995 and joined full time in 2005 after finishing college. He oversees manufacturing. “I’ve always been good with building things. I’m more hands-on,” he said. While he has worked in stints in the office environment, “I eventually demanded they put me back in the shop.”
Lin Wright joined the business full time in 2009 and focuses on sales. “I’ve worked in the plant and run the machines, and I was not any good at it,” he said. “They realized I was correct, that I needed to be in sales.”
Neil Wright, the youngest brother, joined the company about a year ago, having worked previously for about nine years as a consultant managing capital projects for health care companies on the East Coast.
He is focusing on building the company’s business in the office, health care and education space, which he said has a high demand for quality millwork, and where the company’s ability to make fixtures that meet standards for health care settings offers an advantage. “The Richmond market alone affords a lot of opportunity” in those areas, Neil Wright said.
Technology has changed the company’s operations.
Thanks to equipment upgrades and a computerized project management system, build times have dropped dramatically.
Seven years ago, it took the company about two weeks to manufacture the cabinetry for a convenience store. “Now, it is down to about two days, with about half the people, and probably one-fourth of the footprint of manufacturing,” Brandon Wright said.
Merchants Fixture has 30 employees now, with about a dozen working in the production plant and others in sales, purchasing, administration and other office roles.
“We don’t just build cabinets,” Neil Wright said. “The service we provide, and how we manage the process, is where the value comes in.”
“We have the people in place, and we have implemented certain tools to allow us to do the job better,” said Neil Wright, calling the company’s strategy “a combination of new school and old school in means, methods and technology.”
While the company can produce more output with fewer people than it once did, the jobs require more technical skills now.
Part of Neil Wright’s job is to develop the company’s future workforce, which means the difficult task of finding and recruiting skilled tradesmen. “They don’t grow on trees,” he said. “It is really hard to find the 20-year guy in today’s market.
“I have been engaging with local trade schools, high schools and networking organizations,” he said. “We are getting our brand out in front of kids, who after high school or maybe getting an associate’s degree, know they want to go into a trade.”
Merchants Fixture doesn’t just build fixtures — it works with clients in the design of floor plans.
Innovations have included the company’s “C system” line of pre-engineered cabinets, which enables store owners to customize floor plans. Last year, the company introduced a new line of cabinets that are “waterproof, rustproof, rotproof and insectproof,” Lin Wright said.
One example of how Merchants Fixture has evolved to meet market changes is the work it has done for such clients as The Wills Group Inc., a Maryland-based company that owns the Dash In chain of more than 50 convenience stores.
Merchants Fixture custom millwork can be found in Dash In’s stores such as a new, 5,600-square-foot store in Midlothian, which is larger than the chain’s typical stores. It also offers extra amenities such as eight craft beer taps, a kitchen, an indoor bar and customer seating.
“Our business has really grown in the last five or six years, because we have a pretty aggressive expansion plan going on right now,” said Steve Stookey, engineering and construction manager for The Wills Group. “We have been building stores and remodeling a lot of the stores.”
“Merchants was instrumental in helping us design the millwork and custom cabinetry,” Stookey said. “They really do build one of the best products in the custom cabinetry millwork arena.”
Lin Wright said the company considers itself “experts not just about the cabinets and fixtures, but on the store itself.”
“We know how certain parts and pieces will work inside of a store, and we know how the cabinets can help showcase a product, how air moves through, and how to push heat out. We have learned all of that throughout the years. Instead of just building a box and putting a top on it, we know how to make it work and make it more efficient.”
“We started out truly as a three-man shop to what is now a 30-man shop,” Neil Wright said. “It is still a small, homegrown Ashland firm, but we are installing our product in California and Maine and outside of the U.S. That’s pretty cool.”