Long Reach of Lumber

By Mark Erickson, Senior Vice President at Blue Book Services

From the March issues of BPD and Merchant Magazines. 

Everywhere you turn, there’s a connection to lumber—from the floors in your home to the furniture that graces it—so the endless list of job opportunities in the industry shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. From the lumber yard to the trading floor to the marketing department, there’s something for everyone. The wood products industry is so pervasive, in fact, that it even touches professionals who hadn’t considered it and who certainly never thought that it would factor into their career trajectories.

Like me.

I have dedicated my entire career after college to the same company, and initially it had nothing to do with wood. I’m still with that company, Blue Book Services; but 30 years later, lumber is now a significant part of my work life. And I couldn’t be happier. Here’s how my lumber story unfolded:

Deep Roots, New Growth

Blue Book’s roots date back to 1901 (well before my time!), when we first offered our sales prospecting and credit rating service to companies in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. In 2007, a remarkable opportunity emerged to expand into a very different—but also very parallel—business. Lumbermens’ Red Book, which had long catered to lumber companies in a similar way that Blue Book Services meets the needs of the produce community, closed its doors that year with no notice.  A lumber industry insider with knowledge of Blue Book reached out to see if we could fill the gap left by Lumbermens’ Red Book, steering us to the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) for guidance. Many NAWLA members had relied heavily on Red Book; and NAWLA itself is based in the Chicago area, where we also are located, making collaboration that much easier.

I was part of the team that helped build out the project, and NAWLA proved to be of great help—not least of all from an educational standpoint. We had to learn the industry, and NAWLA staff and volunteers were instrumental in bringing us up to speed so that we were ready to officially launch Lumber Blue Book in 2009. Since then, NAWLA has been a supportive proponent, introducing us to industry professionals and giving us opportunities to promote our service to their membership base.

I’ll never forget the first NAWLA event that I attended. From the types of people who attended to the issues being addressed at educational sessions, it felt just like a produce convention. Now, with more than a decade of conversations with people throughout the industry supply chain and having learned many nuances of the lumber industry, I now know that it’s much more like the produce business than one might think.

Parallels

Both produce and lumber are, well, earthy. Neither industry is super glitzy—they deal in resources cultivated from the land, and that ties them together. Moreover, forces outside their control in many ways dictate how well their businesses perform—weather events for the former and factors such as interest rates and economic shifts for the latter. Both sectors are also highly fragmented, meaning that there are thousands and thousands of companies on both the supply and buy side. Although there is a growing trend toward consolidation, with the big getting bigger as they try to achieve economies of scale, this trait sets both lumber and produce apart from industries controlled by a few huge companies. To the contrary, they tend to be dominated by small, privately held, and often multigenerational businesses.

A lot of those shared characteristics translate into similar work ethics, too. They speak to the people involved in these businesses. It’s beyond the business owners, however, and includes people at all levels of these companies. They’re overall good, hard-working, entrepreneurial people. And they’re tough competitors. But they’re also friendly rivals—they help each other. That’s one of the beauties of NAWLA, for example. They bring a group of competitors together who truly collaborate for the good of the industry as a whole.

What I also have gleaned from my personal experience and reflections with Lumber Blue Book is that the industry is full of happy and loyal employees. It seems like the people with whom we interact have been with their businesses for a long time. Even the younger people seem to really enjoy what they’re doing. We’ve gotten to know a great bunch of people, creating some true friendships.

All Roads Lead to Lumber?

So, although I never anticipated that my work would tie me in to the lumber industry, it has—and with a favorable impact. I’ve been blessed, through Blue Book Services, with a wealth of opportunity to learn new skills and grow professionally.

Our extension into the lumber sector has taught me a lot about starting a new business division, as well as the many aspects of this great industry. It also has created new opportunities for others as well, with positions ranging from project manager to customer service representatives, to data analysts and sales associates. Our team loves the lumber clients we work with and also enjoys the opportunity to learn more about how wood is used.

The efforts of these team members, coupled with the wise counsel from NAWLA, have solidified the bond with our lumber customers. Lumber Blue Book now reports on more than 22,000 North American lumber firms. Our main goal is to help them succeed, by arming them with the information and resources they need to do their jobs better. That means identifying suppliers and buyers that are reliable, pay their bills on time, and do what they say they’re going to do. That’s how we fit into the equation. And the more we understand what challenges these companies face and the more we understand the industry, the more of a win-win it is. As our CEO often notes, “When our customers succeed, we succeed.”

In a nutshell, lumber is all around us and so are the professional opportunities that come with it—even when they’re in the most unexpected of places. It’s just another example of how diverse the lumber industry is—in terms of its people, its positions, and its possibilities.

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