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Learning from the Past, Preparing for the Future

A Special Series from North American Wholesale Lumber Association When a fondness for carpentry and a knack for sales intersect, what do you get? (A) A lot of doors slammed in your face (B) Too many contacts in your “log” book...

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A Special Series from North American Wholesale Lumber Association

When a fondness for carpentry and a knack for sales intersect, what do you get?

(A) A lot of doors slammed in your face

(B) Too many contacts in your “log” book

(C) A career in lumber trading that allows you to leverage two of your interests

Of course, the correct answer—at least in my case—is “C!” The story begins with my grandfather, a “weekend carpenter” who instilled in me a love for lumber and building from a young age. I took to it so much that friends in high school and university nicknamed me “Bob Vila.” Working part-time in the communications department of a Future Shop, a Best Buy subsidiary, I also discovered that I had a talent for sales.

As I neared the end of my undergraduate studies and started thinking about the future, I knew that I could take those newfound sales skills—along with my economics and accounting background—with me to just about any industry. But I considered a professor’s wise words that have always stuck with me. To paraphrase, the message was: Follow your passion! If you do what you love, you will enjoy work, which will bring happiness and success. With that advice firmly rooted in my head, I chose a professional path in the building products industry.

It didn’t hurt that I’d already had a taste of the sector, and liked it. For three years, I was hired on as a summer student with Nicholson and Cates Forest Products. I hadn’t necessarily been looking for interim work in the industry; I simply wanted something a little more polished to put on my resume than the sailing school job I usually worked during the summers. The position in Nicholson and Cates’s Specialty Building Products division fit the bill; so when it fell into my lap, I was happy and grateful for the opportunity.

It was a humble and dusty introduction to the industry, spent visiting building product retailers to stock shelves, train staff, and build or deliver displays. Yet I enjoyed it. Even back then, I appreciated the old-school way of doing things and the welcoming atmosphere. And I still love that competitors may be your rivals when it comes to business, but don’t harbor hard feelings on a personal level. Someone at a company that you beat out for a sale, for example, still might invite you to dinner when they spot you at a convention.

My favorable impression of the industry only deepened when, during the second summer with Nicholson and Cates, I found myself immersed in the sales environment. At the very first sales meeting, I boldly (and naively) announced plans for a tenfold sales increase on our waterproofing product line. That was a pretty tall order to achieve in the span of four months and, of course, I fell short of the goal. I ended the summer with my head held high, though, and with sales up a respectable 7.5 times from where they had been. The company, perhaps recognizing some potential in me, brought me back for a third summer before making a full-time job offer once I graduated. I’ve been with the firm ever since.

My “Aha!” Moments

With the official title of lumber trader, I started from scratch. That meant I had no account base to speak of and spent much of my time cold calling to try to build one. That’s when I experienced one of my first “Aha!” moments.

I wasn’t very busy in those early days, and it was rare to ever receive a voice message. Actually, I’d almost say it was rare to actually even have an incoming phone call—if I was talking to somebody on the phone, most likely that was because I had called them. But this particular day, I received a message from a customer who had a complaint about his lumber delivery. I returned the call within a couple of minutes, and he was FLOORED by the quick response time.

“Look,” I told him, “I just want to assure you that if there’s a problem we stand behind it and we’re here to work with you to fix it.” The customer was so appreciative that he decided to see if he could just work with what he had.

Although this was an isolated case—most problems don’t work themselves out quite so easily—it did teach me that it’s better to get out in front of an issue. Treat people the way you want to be treated, and when you do that to people, it almost takes their guard down. They become more flexible and more willing to work with you.

Many more lessons would follow in the years to come. In fact, about a decade and a half into my career, I’m still learning. Some of the best gems have come from my participation on the Nicholson and Cates committee that sponsors and organizes the NAWLA regional meeting, which kicks off the Montreal Wood Convention (although not this past year, for obvious reasons). For the 2019 event, we featured a series of speakers who read to the audience letters they had penned to their younger selves.

The musings from these senior-level managers touched on lessons they’ve learned while working in this industry, including stumbling blocks, mistakes, and relationships that have made a difference one way or the other. The inspiration came from a published collection of similar writings from celebrities ranging from Rod Stewart to Arianna Huffington. Although as an organizer I was not on that stage baring my soul to the crowd, I can certainly imagine, based on my experiences to date, how I might advise a 22-year-old Morgan Wellens.

The various words of wisdom I’ve garnered over the years probably transfer to any relationship-based business, but perhaps especially so in one where a $100,000 railcar of lumber can be purchased over the phone with very little legal paperwork. Perhaps they’re also highly applicable in a North American industry that exports a surprising amount of lumber to other countries, where trust is also at a premium. So guidance like—

• be grateful to those who open doors for you, and don’t disappoint them

• don’t burn bridges, and do everything you can to not lose a customer, and

• a great reputation takes years to earn, but minutes to lose

— are all solid pieces of advice whether you’re dealing with your North American counterparts or, say, someone representing a European sawmill. If you stick to these leadership directives, you’ll no doubt make the lasting connections you need to succeed.