By Tom Le Vere, President/Shareholder of Weekes Forest Products and 2020 NAWLA Board Chairman
From the November issue of Building Products Digest and Merchant Magazine
Four decades have passed, and I still have the stub from my very first paycheck I earned in the building materials industry: for $4.25 cents an hour! The year was 1979, when I punched the clock as an entry-level warehouse worker for Wickes Lumber. I tucked that first pay stub away for the future, so I could pull it out and proudly show it to my children when the time was right. I’ve done just that, with both of my girls, as they’ve graduated and entered the workforce. It’s basically a reminder to them—and an affirmation to me—that you have to work your way up, whatever industry you choose. You don’t start with the corner office. I certainly didn’t. I graduated from pushing a broom in the warehouse to inside sales to management and went from there to corporate operations, eventually landing in the executive suite. I reached these levels only with a lot of hard work, a lot of help by way of association resources, and a lot of knowledge passed on from the seasoned veterans who taught me the business. Those same components are available today to anyone with the ambition to elevate themselves through the industry. Here’s how they paid off for me and how they can help others.
The beautiful thing about this industry is that while you don’t start at the top, only you can stop yourself from getting there. There is no glass ceiling to speak of, even without a college degree. I worked toward a bachelor’s until the middle of my senior year, when I realized that wildlife biology really wasn’t for me. I veered in a new direction, without that piece of paper to validate me, and still made a name for myself in this field. I’m certainly not advocating that people just skip post-secondary education—no matter what the major is, it’s an achievement to be proud of, something that confirms you had the “stick-to-it-ness” to stay committed for four years and see it through. It’s an accomplishment to be proud of and, in hindsight, I regret that I didn’t finish out that last year. What I am suggesting, though, is that not having a diploma doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker in our business, if you make up for it in all the other ways that matter most.
This industry appreciates people who have a strong work ethic and who really put their nose to the grindstone. With that in mind, it’s critical to understand that work doesn’t necessarily start at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. It’s also important too, if you happen to be married, to try to get your spouse and children interested and involved in what you do. That work/life balance that matters so much is going to be difficult to achieve if you don’t. There are going to be a lot of missed birthdays, anniversaries, ball games, school dances, and the like.
You will dedicate many nights and weekends, for example, to nurturing your personal network. Business with personal relationships is much stronger than just plain business, and many of those affiliations lead to lifelong friendships as well. One of the greatest resources throughout my career has been membership and involvement in NAWLA, which has been instrumental in helping me to form these strong ties and otherwise contributing to my growth and development. When I joined a wholesale distributor called Schultz, Snyder, and Steele Lumber Co. in 1995, my boss—former NAWLA Chair Bill Sheathelm—wasted no time in sending me to the association’s Executive Management Institute (EMI), then housed at the University of Virginia. That intensive training—probably the most difficult courses I’ve ever taken—honed my leadership and management skills while also introducing me to a group of fellow students who continue to be a support circle and some of my closest friends after more than 20 years. It’s kind of like having an external board of directors. If I have a question and can’t figure out what to do, or have a problem, or simply want somebody else’s opinion, I just pick up the phone and call up one of these guys and get great advice. And they certainly know they can call me for the same. Steve Weekes, the founder of Weekes Forest Products (also a past NAWLA Chairman), got me involved in NAWLA’s Education Committee. Sitting on the various committees is another great gateway into making the personal and business connections that will follow you wherever you go and help your career. I eventually went on to chair the Education Committee for a time and also served on NAWLA’s Board of Directors, which I will chair in the coming year. We’re looking to blow the dust off the dormant EMI initiative, grow the Young Emerging Lumber Professionals (YELP) group, rebrand NAWLA to attract new members and appeal to a younger audience, and take other steps to give members of this industry a leg up.
NAWLA, for me, was also a great way to gain more knowledge; and knowledge is power. It’s always been that way but, today, somebody that’s willing to go the extra mile and become the “problem solver” or the “answer person” will own his or her market. A huge void was created when people in our business exited the industry during the last economic downturn that started in 2007-08. From what I understand, we lost more than 650,000 jobs in the construction trades—and a lot of those people never came back. We lost so much experience but, in doing so, opened up some new opportunities. If you have an unending thirst for knowledge and you commit to educating yourself in the products, goods, and services of our industry, you can really carve out a nice niche for yourself. Also, more and more these days, a lot of people my age are starting to retire. I can’t help but think every time someone walks out the door on their last day that they’re taking decades of knowledge with them. So for someone coming into the industry, my best advice is to read everything you can get your hands on about our industry and surround yourself with people smarter than you. And when they talk, listen!
Young professionals who heed that advice will have an opportunity to fill a need that’s been created over the last decade. They’ll also have the chance to work in what is, contrary to the common misconception, one of the coolest industries on the planet. Where else can you rise to become president or CEO with no college degree? Where else can you buy and sell tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of product on a verbal contract? This is an industry that helps fulfill the American dream of homeownership; that is environmentally responsible and sustainable; and that is eager for greater participation from women, minorities, and young professionals.
If you want more than just a job—if you want a career, where this is the last position you’ll ever have to take, with no limits on your earning potential and no limits on your upward mobility, then this industry is worth serious consideration. If you want to work in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment where being entrepreneurial is encouraged, then this is the right place for you. All it takes is hard work, resourcefulness, and knowledge.