Brad Smith sifted through a box of donations Saturday at the Benton Habitat for Humanity ReStore. He held up a shower head.
“How much do you think this is worth?” he asked.
The ReStore accepts most donations of building and home improvement items — flooring, light fixtures, plumbing supplies, furniture — but it takes some knowledge and skill to sort and appropriately price it, he said.
All of the proceeds of the nonprofit’s retail outlet go to providing affordable, decent homes for local residents.
Smith’s savvy business sense transformed the Benton Habitat’s financial situation for the better when he founded the ReStore in 2005 and oversaw the move and renovation to a more suitable permanent space on Philomath Boulevard in December 2012.
But Smith, who served as a board member for eight years and currently leads the ReStore advisory committee, doesn’t mind sorting through plumbing supplies on a Saturday afternoon or helping customers on the sales floor.
In fact, the 62-year-old prefers it. He’s been off the board now for a couple of months, and he volunteers about 15 to 20 hours a week at the store and on the committee.
“I love it,” he said.
His work hasn’t gone unnoticed. He is one of about 20 Oregonians who will be honored Thursday in Salem with the 2014 Governor’s Volunteer Award.
Smith, who was a faculty member of Oregon State University’s College of Veterinarian Medicine for 20 years, quit his job 12 years ago. To fill in the time, he turned the commercial and industrial real estate venture he operates with his wife into a full-time job. In 2002, he began volunteering for Habitat.
He remembers how he and his friends — with three doctorates between them — helped to build a house at Southwest Fifth Street and B Avenue.
“It was the most over-educated siding crew you’ve ever seen,” he said.
Smith joined the board in 2004 and realized right away that the nonprofit was in dire need of a steady income.
“The affiliate was able to pay all of its bills, but it was always lurching from crisis to crisis to ‘OK, we’ve got money to build this house; now how are we going to get money to pay the ED’s (executive director’s) salary?’ — and then lurching onto the next project.”
In came the ReStore. At the time, about five Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the state had opened a building supply retail outlet.
The model could work, Smith thought. The classic example is the half-roll of tar paper that’s been sitting in someone’s garage for 10 years.
“You hate to throw it out. (You think), ‘I’ll use it some day,’ but you’ll never use it,” Smith said. “Instead of looking at it for the next 10 years, give it to Habitat; take a tax write-off. We sell it, and we use the money to build new houses.”
Smith researched, visited all of the state’s ReStores, wrote a five-year business plan and negotiated an affordable lease agreement for an old lumberyard on Ninth Street. The board gave the OK, but offered a pittance for startup. Generally, he said, you get the board to commit to at least $100,000 and one year of planning time.
“We started with 3,000 bucks and had the doors open in about three months,” he said. “It worked fine — we were profitable by the second month.”
The store was run like a business — and it performed. Nine months in, the monthly gross sales hit $10,000. About five years in, profits rose to $30,000. The ReStore brings in enough revenue to pay for most of the nonprofit’s overhead and the cost of building one house per year, Smith said.
Benton Habitat builds two houses a year while helping repair existing houses. But finances are on the verge of being almost ready to support building three houses a year, he said.
The ReStore was successful at its location on Ninth Street, but the space was not ideal. Smith spent about a year and a half brokering a property deal to move the ReStore to its current location at 4840 S.W. Philomath Blvd. Then he spent nearly another year putting in well over 100 hours per week, helping to oversee the $150,000 in renovations necessary to bring the property up to code and to make it Benton Habitat’s permanent home.
The new property is more visible to motorists and is built in a way that promotes better traffic flow for customers and donation drop-offs. The main building features an open, bright sales floor, with affiliate offices and a conference room in the upstairs. Separate outbuildings are for donation drop-offs and storage.
Along the whole way, Smith has kept in mind the main goal of Habitat. The local affiliate has built nearly three dozen houses since forming in 1991, and the impact on individual, hardworking families has been tremendous, Smith said.
“Getting them into a house — that entire component of their life, that worry in their life — where am I going to go, is the landlord going to kick me out, is the rent going to go out? It’s that core, stable housing that your kids can grow up in a house that is their house, you’re not a visitor passing through a space — that’s a huge gift to a family and to kids.”