Business Operations

Getting Down to (Essential) Business During the Pandemic

Remote work was the saving grace for many businesses when COVID-19 hit, but it wasn’t an option for everyone in the forest products industry. At Robbins Lumber, for example, keeping our Searsmont, Me., sawmill up and running meant the vast majority of our team needed to be onsite—myself included. 

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REMOTE WORK was the saving grace for many businesses when COVID-19 hit, but it wasn’t an option for everyone in the forest products industry. At Robbins Lumber, for example, keeping our Searsmont, Me., sawmill up and running meant the vast majority of our team needed to be onsite—myself included.

Personnel Protections, Customer Configurations

As a father to a child with respiratory issues, I was keenly aware of the importance of making the workplace as safe as possible so that employees’ families, too, would be protected. And as Robbins’ vice president and sales manager, I couldn’t not be at the mill every day. My personal, temporary solution was to sleep in a camper trailer in the driveway to my house during the initial weeks of the health emergency. True story! My wife and kids would put food on the doorstep, and I lived out of that camper without going indoors to my family for a month or two.

The company’s solution, meanwhile, was to spread workers out within the plant, require face coverings, and focus heavily on sanitation. As we instituted the necessary policies to create viable working conditions for the pandemic, I felt comfortable returning to my own home each night.

Putting those measures in place made it possible to keep the mill humming; but, even though Robbins was still open for business, we had many customers who were less fortunate. At times, we had wheels on the ground carrying lumber to destinations that had been abruptly shut down—often by their state governments—and were unable to accept the scheduled deliveries. Those initial chaotic weeks involved getting hold of trucking companies and turning the loads around. Our priority then became to reduce inventory, which we had built up to a robust level ahead of what we expected would be another good sales year.

To avoid getting stuck holding inventory that we couldn’t sell, we immediately cut back overtime—although I’m happy to report that no one lost their job as a result of this move. That was key, because we needed each and every one of those bodies—and then some.

With Maine declaring forest products, packaging and lumber mills as essential businesses right off the bat, we were lucky to be in a position where everybody wanted our products. So even with some of our customers out of commission—temporarily, for most—we were able to aggressively sell into other avenues in order to keep wood moving. Our goal was to have some sort of surge capacity in case some of our other markets slowed down. We ship quite a bit of product, for example, into Pennsylvania, which basically came to a standstill when things went haywire. However, we also do a lot of business in Tennessee, where business largely carried on as usual. Having that geographic customer diversity, plus good relationships with those customers, is sound business; and it certainly helped Robbins Lumber to effectively manage this first year of the pandemic.

At the same time, one of the biggest struggles has been simply having to say “no” to some business. It is in the nature of salespeople to want to help people and help resolve their problems; the last thing they want is to be the problem. There are customers who need more supply, and we just can’t get it to them. Trying to foster some understanding that the company is doing its best with the production on hand and that the landscape will improve eventually has been a tough order.

NAWLA Remains “Pandemic-Proof”

Another big disappointment coming out of COVID was the cancellation of key in-person events, including Traders Market. Even last year, before the magnitude of the crisis was widely known, I made the crushing decision not to attend the 2020 Leadership Summit in Palm Desert, California. This is a gathering that I already look forward to, and last year was shaping up to be especially memorable. My father, Jim Robbins, Sr., was being honored with NAWLA’s prestigious Mulrooney Award, so we had done some sponsorship of the event and a bunch of family members were traveling to be present for the occasion. After a long Maine winter, we were also eager to taking advantage of the warm-weather location and had worked a major camping excursion into the trip as well. Despite the excitement and anticipation—and considerable financial expense—invested in this trip, we decided that the safest course of action was to stay home.

However, one thing that COVID-19 couldn’t stop or shut down was NAWLA’s 10 Groups, which in my opinion represent one of the major strengths of the association. Because of my NAWLA 10 Group, I was able to communicate with my peers all over the country—from New York to Oregon—whether they were in urban or rural areas and whether they were in manufacturing or in distribution. Members all had different plans and different ideas, but that’s what 10 Groups are all about: sharing information. We had a lot of calls and a lot of ideas circulating about how to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on your business. That’s where NAWLA’s 10 Groups came in handy—no, we couldn’t have some favorite events in person, but your networking forum can meet all the time, anytime. It’s pandemic-proof.

The Importance of Being Essential

Something we often discuss at NAWLA, whether in 10 Groups or other forums, is how the building materials industry is essential. From everything from packaging to toilet paper to housing, it is absolutely necessary. Against the backdrop of this public health crisis, Robbins Lumber also saw a great deal of our low-grade boards going to packaging companies, which used them for medical supplies, including ventilators, that were critical to the pandemic response.

I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic experience to date: in good times and in bad, there is a need for our products. When it comes to attracting future employment, lumber companies can sit there with a straight face and claim to be an essential business. And if you work in an essential business, you’re always going to have a job. Experts had warned that a pandemic was coming and have said that COVID-19 won’t be the last. So being an essential business that won’t be shut down during a future catastrophe is something that we as employers can promote.

Alden Robbins

Alden Robbins is vice president and general manager of Robbins Lumber, Searsmont, Me.

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