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A Special Series by NAWLA
I arrived in the lumber industry, a couple of years shy of my 40th birthday, through a weird evolution of events.
The dynamics actually remind me of a game I played as part of the ground crew at Air Canada. With a four-days-on/four-days-off schedule, my team members and I put our own spin on the game SNAP! to decide where to spend our free time. The first pair of cards we matched, we simply headed to the gate corresponding with that number and caught the next flight out—just for the heck of it. Luck of the draw landed us as close as small towns in British Columbia and as far away as Amsterdam. I admit that I loved the flight benefits and travel, but what was I really doing working at an airline?
I started at Air Canada part-time while studying for a sociology degree but ended up spending the better part of a decade there, with no real plan for the future. When downsizing and layoffs hit airlines after 9/11, I found myself in a new round of SNAP!, job edition. This time, the cards randomly pointed toward insurance. I had no background in the sector, but carved out a 10-year managerial career anyway. Again, just for the heck of it. While I was successful, I never really felt like the insurance business was for me—it didn’t match who I was as a person.
Pining for a Purpose
The next change came when, as luck would have it, a family member introduced me to the owner of a local western red cedar sawmill. I confessed my reservations about the job I’d been doing for 10 years, and when he started telling me about his industry, something clicked. The look on his face, the way he described his job—it all exuded something that I wanted for myself: passion for my work. That conversation sparked a series of conversations with his company, Sawarne Lumber, about joining the small, family-run operation. And, in the end, I jumped onboard!
But, this time, it wasn’t just for the heck of it. Unlike my last SNAP! career move, a lot of deliberate thought went into the decision to transition into a completely new profession at age 38. I received a great start to my lumber career with Sawarne and eventually moved on to my current sales position with Western Forest Products.
I’m now six years in to this business, and I’ve never had any regret. I’ve gotten so much out of this industry: passion for the products, passion for the people I work with, passion for the genuine nature of the business, and passion for the TRUST that defines it. It’s one of those industries where you can still close a million-dollar deal with a handshake. I guess we don’t handshake anymore; maybe now it’s going to be a fist bump! But what I’m saying is that there’s honor in it, and that’s something that really spoke to me. It was less about what I was selling and more about whether I kept my commitment. I found all of that, and more, in lumber.
The inherent nature of the industry has changed me for the better, for instance, making me a more organized, confident, and flexible person. The one thing that you can count on in this business is that everything’s not going to go as planned. In insurance, I knew what each day was going to look like. But in lumber, it’s always a different day. You have to consider how to navigate a fire season, how to navigate snow storms and, now for example, how to navigate this situation with COVID-19.
You almost have to be like a Marine; the military branch’s mantra of “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome” is very much applicable to the lumber industry. There’s always a challenge that you have to try to overcome, so you have to stay on your toes. And the thing is, you’ll want to overcome it. Because, well, passion.
All the Feels
Working in this industry is so much more than the job description. There’s an emotional investment, too. So, even when I’m not on the clock, wood is still a huge part of my life. So much so that I even have an Instagram account (cedarguy) dedicated to learning more about my new profession and sharing what I’ve learned so far. I find a lot of the content for that when my wife and I hike and go trail running here in British Columbia, in the same forests that have been harvested and then replanted.
Those activities take us into the forest, as does the group I joined that makes trail repairs. Often, we’re using western red cedar—a product that my company produces—to lay out the planks on walkways. There’s a lot in pride in those kind of experiences, and a feeling of connectivity.
As another example, a customer of a customer once took me on a drive to a beautiful park while I was visiting Tulsa, Ok. The centerpiece was called The Gathering Place, an amazing wooden structure assembled into a space designed to bring the community together.
“See where we’re sitting right now?” my host asked.
“It’s gorgeous,” I agreed.
“Well,” he went on, “these are the timbers that I bought from you and that the city of Tulsa used to make this place.”
That’s probably one of the coolest moments in my lumber career so far, but I suspect there will be many more.
Looking Forward, Not Back
It took me long enough; but now that I’m here, I’m not following the SNAP! method any longer. I’m nowhere near done with my cedar sales role at Western Forest Products, but there are always options to do more. This is such a supportive industry—from the courses offered by NAWLA, to the customers and even competitors who want to see you succeed, to the lifelong friendships made at events such as Traders Market—so I know that anything is possible.
There are so many exciting things that are yet to come in this industry, and I want to be a part of it all. You should, too. Technology, an area where lumber has lagged, is introducing new roles and new opportunities to participate in what will become a movement. The industry is also gearing up for big efforts when it comes to environmental protection, partnerships with First Nations communities, adoption of an Amazon-style model of business, and the advent of revolutionary mass timber structures and wooden high-rise developments, just to name a few.
All I can say is, oh SNAP!—I’m here for it.