Plant People Reunion

Guest Post by Ernie Harder

It’s been said that without a reunion the Eagles are forever young like James Dean. And so it will be when alumni of erstwhile wholesale lumber company Ralph S. Plant Limited gather for a reunion in downtown Vancouver this week. We’ll be trading stories instead of wood. Maybe musings about countervailing duties. Perhaps wholesale cost of refreshments will revert to former terms of Less 5 & 2. We wish. Perhaps it’ll dampen demurrage recollections of unsold transit rail cars at holding points named Capreol, Ontario for orders, or Marshalltown, Iowa for furtherance.  Expect every memory will be precision trimmed of facts, yet sold, like most studs, on a full 8’ count. Nary a late shipment recounted. Every overdue receivable collected. Not a shortage or moisture claim in sight. Afterall, reunions should set the record straight. Right?  plants-reunionAt least that’s how Phil Tindle and I remembered things at Ralph S. Plant when we sat down for a visit with Phil and spouse of 67 years, Taddy, at their retirement community penthouse apartment today. He became an early partner with Paul Plant and Jack Hetherington (this Jack Hetherington not to be confused with the Jack Hetherington of more recent fame in the annals of BCWLA) after Paul’s father died unexpectedly on the day of Paul’s graduation from university. At 90, heart bypass surgeries have tempered Phil’s physical mobility, but not so his detailed recollections of early cold calls to U.S. retail lumber yards in 1954.

Ernie Harder, Phil Tindle (1980)

Ernie Harder, Phil Tindle (1980)

When the BC Wholesale Lumber Association (BCWLA) inaugurated annual selection of a “Lumberman of the Year” in 1980, Phil was a natural initial honoree. His exemplary integrity, reliability of expertise, was widely recognized by suppliers and a diverse, continent-wide customer base. His selection by BCWLA set in motion early aims of branding in which the Association sought to promote full-service wholesalers’ value-adding role in facilitating efficient marketing of forest products. From early days of lumber trading practices, wholesalers like Plants thrived among that unique industrial constituency in which contractual commitments measuring thousands of dollars per order are sealed by simple bonds of firm offer acceptance exchanged via telephone.

In the years when sawmill beehive burners dotted the southern and north central interior landscape, office wholesalers like Plants played a pivotal role as premier channel of distribution for BC and Alberta’s mostly non-integrated, independent sawmills. The ‘60’s brought accelerating change to the forest industry. Pulp mill expansion into the Interior came along with intensified environmental sensitivities. Transportation deregulation, expanding export markets, unstable exchange rates and growing contentious softwood trade issues with the U.S. exacerbated volatility in lumber markets.

In 1969 the Chicago Mercantile Exchange became the first exchange to offer the forest industry listing of lumber futures. It made available new hedging programs that served as instruments aimed at managing risk and moderating commodity price fluctuations. In this environment factors that defined the wholesale function were no less relevant. Along with conscientious move for enhancing quality of product in tune with advancing globalization came demands for a new professionalism and expertise in managing market variables. Trusted wholesale trading partners were uniquely stationed as marketing facilitators and interpreters of change. Advanced technologies paved the way for alternative, competitive building products such as steel and cement and redefinition of lumber grades. In our time the Information Age, shaped by the Internet, has changed communication and piloted ventures into electronic trading platforms, new trade exchanges. We experienced progression of weekly lumber offerings communicated by snail mail; then telex; then fax; and more recently, e-mail. Hacking used to be something we did to bring down trees. Concurrently, trends of consolidation and integration in the industry have intensified competition; shortened channels of distribution. While there is no doubt that technology has impacted communication efficiencies in lumber trading, nurture of personal relationships continues to be the keystone for maximizing sales and marketing effectiveness. It follows that creativity, an axiom of effective marketing, is finding new impact as wholesalers adapt to change in value-adding service to specialty, niche markets. Sawmills and retailers have advantageously partnered with knowledgeable, trusted wholesalers in market-based distribution programs. Lumber wholesalers have seized on opportunities in secondary manufacturing along with expanded distribution yard services and allied building products.

It’s been suggested that successful lumber traders harbor an indwelling, nascent entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes seeking manifestation beyond employment in a privately held firm. The dynamic nature of the lumber business and rapid change itself discloses people as the most valuable asset in any organization. Rapid change realities confirm that a trader’s job security is not necessarily tied to tenure. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many lumber traders, including former Plant people, identified opportunities in subsequent career moves that by the early 70’s saw formation of firms with names like Taiga, Col-Pac, Probyn. (Full disclosure here – After 10 years with Plants, Ernie Harder left the Company with Ran Davidson and Boyd Kelly, to form a new wholesale partnership as Col-Pac Lumber). More recently former Plant people have re-emerged under new wholesale distribution entities like South Beach and Dakeryn, where even second generation lumbermen are said to thrive.

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Paul Plant

By the early 1980’s, Ralph S. Plant Limited was restructured as Plant Forest Products. By then arch-rival Charlie Widman had resurfaced from Cooper-Widman in the form of Widman Industries. There was a brief merging of Widman and Plants, with Company restructure that ensued upon the death of Jack Hetherington, followed subsequently by Paul Plant’s retirement. It should be noted that both Charlie Widman and Paul Plant were earlier honored as BCWLA Lumbermen of the Year. Phil’s proclivity for activity in years following a time of retirement from Plants saw him re-engage for a five year stint in Marketing and Sales with Canfor. We look forward to learning more stories of the reported orderly dissolution of Plant Forest Products even as the spirit that was uniquely alive in its people lives on.

Besides, it’s been said that lumber traders never die; they just trade away. This week we’ll mostly be trading memories. Kudos to Ray Pauwels, Cavin Bachert and Derek Belyea for organizing plans and details for getting people together. Not surprising. It’s what wholesalers do.

Economy Grade

When referencing “Economy” in relation to lumber, we’re talking falldown or lower grade. That’s not to say there can’t be value in economy grade. A whole industry of utilizing lower grades finds economic viability around remanufacturing lower grades of wood. At the same time, bottom-line, results-driven users of lumber are recognizing benefits of enhanced value in quality in planning construction inventory needs. It’s understandable that suppliers concerned with building brand recognition around quality, both in terms of service and product, tend not to build that awareness around ‘economy’.

In the airlines industry, ‘economy’ defines a supposed base line of minimum, acceptable service. Or so we thought. But not so much anymore. In an effort to redefine coach by re-grading passengers, it’s reported here a number of airlines are introducing a section with even fewer perks than economy class. The “deprivations” United passengers will be experiencing with implementation of “basic economy” suggest levels of service that will not allow for any overhead bin space – and declaration for boarding last. Presumably everybody still lands at the same time.

This trend is interesting considering the inferior quality of products and service being promoted seems to be ‘flying’ in the face of other aspects of commercial/industrial/consumer trends. In this age of heightened branding awareness, the airline approach seems to be contradictory to what their branding goals purport to represent. In the lumber business, “adding value” has built-in connotation for upgrade of quality in product and service, not a dumbing down of those variables. In fact, in the event of a new hybrid tax and quota softwood lumber agreement, some suggest that ‘economy’ could be the first to go.. on a slow boat to China.

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From NLGA, Standard Grading Rules for Canadian Lumber

Forest Bathing

The focus in 2017 is going to be how to achieve a deeper sense of “wellness” in everyday life, reports The Vancouver Sun here. Defined as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest,” forest bathing involves immersing “in the calming, leafy greenery of a woodland/forest environment – to relieve tension and stress and to experience a more heightened sense of well-being.”

The term forest bathing comes from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, which means taking in the forest atmosphere. “Knowing the pleasure of being outdoors is nothing new to people here on the West Coast, but the terminology ‘forest bathing’ is something new to our ears. As a result, more people are predicted to go for a walk in the woods if they think of it as ‘bathing’ in nature rather than just taking a rustic ramble.”

Psychology Today explains “what sets forest bathing apart from simply taking a walk in the forest is that we consciously take in the sights, sounds, smells, and the whole experience, rather than allowing our minds to do the things they habitually do, like putting together a mental grocery list.”

This theme of forest bathing certainly fits into progressive thinking for stewardship of the forest. It recognizes value in the holistic approach that plugs into Mike Apsey’s thinking on forest management that appreciated value in the woods beyond “the price of a 2×4”.

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Frictional Factors

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with Clark Ellis, LMC Forest Products Expo (4 Nov 2016)

Frictional Factors are said to impede process or progress. One of the highlights each year of the LMC Forest Products and Building Materials EXPO in Philadelphia is the keynote speaker at Friday’s breakfast. This year featured Clark Ellis, Founder and CEO of Continuum Advisory Group, a management consulting firm that works exclusively with the homebuilding and construction industry. His hi-speed presentation explored ways to improve your business in a world of rising demand and constrained resources. While re-confirming that the biggest constraints in the U.S. housing market recovery are land and labour, he stressed the need to minimize frictional factors. “Complexity is the enemy of velocity!” declared Ellis. “Reduce complexity throughout your organization to increase velocity and enhance your flow rates.”

Ellis talked about the Margin vs Velocity Mental Model, explaining that because “margin is what we know and it comes naturally to us,” companies tend to focus too much on margin. According to Ellis, “in a resource-constrained environment, collaboration trumps adversarial cost-based selection every day of the week.” Rather than focus on ‘more work’ and margin, build strategic relationships with suppliers and customers. “Instead of asking for more, ask ‘how are we doing?'” advised Ellis.

Ellis stressed that feedback – from both employees and customers – is critical. “If you are not measuring employee engagement on at least an annual basis, you are missing one of the most powerful and critical indicators of future business results.” Ellis argued that customer experience must also be measured, tracked, and used to make better managerial decisions. “Mapping and optimizing ‘customer touch points’ is crucial.”

Continuum’s four biggest opportunities to improve your business in today’s constrained environment:

  1. Understand and visually represent your business processes
  2. Drive a velocity mindset through your company and its external network
  3. Change your concept of trade and supplier engagement
  4. Understand that employee engagement drives customer experience which drives business results.

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Market Minute 

The 2016 LMC Forest Products and Building Materials EXPO was brimming with lumber dealers feeling upbeat about 2016 to date and bullish on 2017. However a number acknowledged significant business was pulled forward/covered in advance of the October 12 standstill expiry. Moderating activity since that time also helps to explain the present supply-demand imbalance. The skittish tone and extreme hand-to-mouth buying patterns in evidence suggest dealers, wary of winter and working down inventories for year-end, are perhaps content to “run out the clock” on a good year.