When it comes to innovation,
Rex Lumber Rules
This east coast hardwood wholesaler has a long history of investing in cutting-edge products and services. In the midst of this year's recession, those business decisions are clearly paying off.
Change, in the lumber industry, takes a much more deliberate pace than it does in the computer industry. There are no wooden iPods.
But a company that's willing to take some careful risks – as Massachusetts based Rex Lumber has – can maintain a pattern of sustained growth that insulates it from the chill of market down-turns. “The lumber industry itself is a fairly low-evolving industry,” says Craig Forester, Vice President and Operations Manager for the company's Acton, Massachusetts, yard. “From a long-range planning standpoint, we just want to keep doing what we do and keep getting better at it. The next thing we get into will be the next thing we see that our customers need. We don't yet know what that's going to be, but if we keep listening to our customers we'll find our what their problems are. And then we'll respond to those needs.”
Throughout its history, that philosophy has led Rex to jump into new ideas before many of their competitors. “We were among the first hardwood wholesalers to bring moulders in-house – in 1956 – so we could offer millwork direct to our customers,” said Forester. “Right from the beginning, we've tried to look ahead and be on the cusp of things. So we continued adding a variety of items at all our millwork yards, whether it was cutting to length, matching, gluing… that whole 9 yards.”
“Value added has become extremely important to what we do, and we're continuously looking to expand on it and improve what we do,” said Tom Murray, Rex's VP Sales/Marketing. “We inventory rough lumber, both domestic and tropical. From there, we sell it in the rough or we have a list of value added capabilities: we can straight-line rip, gang rip, plane, do custom glue-ups, and we can custom mould in any of our 11 moulders to any profile. We grind our own steel so we manufacture our own knives. We do priming and wide plank flooring, end-matching.”
Rex has 4 distribution yards, 3 of which have moulders and the ability to grind their own knives. “Our library of tooling is extremely extensive,” said Forester. “I would say we have in excess of 10,000 sets of knives, all custom ground in-house and available for re-running mouldings as well as the capability of making new knives every day.”
The Rex team seems to relish unusual requests. “We can work with architectural drawings or blueprints or CAD files,” said Ed Godek, Rex's Marketing Coordinator. “I once had a customer send me a 2 by 3 foot slab of wall that came out of a library in New York; it weighed about 60 to 70 pounds. They wanted us to break it up and make it into custom moldings. We did that in-house, in multiple pieces, and that tooling is now available for them in the future.”
The newest addition to the Rex menu is its sanding and finishing line. “We tend to be some of the first people into things. We like to be the leader,” said Godek. “We just put in new lines to prime, sand, or finish our mouldings in-house, but we're also constantly updating and upgrading our equipment as better technology becomes available. We just put in a new state of the art dryer heater that replaced some older equipment.”
None of these services are, by themselves, unique. But by bringing more capabilities together in-house, Rex hopes to offer its customers better quality control. “Each of these value addeds is out-sourceable to one degree or another,” Forester admits. “But if you kiln dry something, mould it, and then send it out and get an inferior prime job on it, you end up with an inferior product.” That level of quality control attracts some interesting clients. For instance, Rex supplies wood to musical instrument manufacturers.
Those kinds of value-added services are only possible with an experienced crew. The company employs a staff of over 300, including 17 outside salespeople. “For 90 percent of us, this was our first adult job,” Forester figures. “People tend to stick around here for a long time.” Craig Forester's grandfather founded Rex Lumber in 1946, and Craig is certainly not the only staffer whose dad worked here, too. “This was the first adult job for about 90 percent of us,” he states. “We have very little turnover. People tend to stay here for a long time.”
Most of the sales people have bachelors degrees in either wood products engineering or forestry, or they had other industry training before joining the company. Murray recruits new hires from wood-tech and forestry schools up and down the east coast.
Rex Lumber's own fleet of trucks travels the east coast from Maine to Florida, and they also service the midwest and California via container and common carrier.
One value-added that is now in demand was initially introduced here with less fanfare back in 2001. “I'm pretty confident that we were the first company of our type to become FSC Certified,” says Andy Godzinski, Rex's domestic purchasing agent and main FSC contact. “I'm pretty proud of that. There's a lot of bandwagon jumping now because it's become cool to be green. Well, it wasn't so cool back in 2001, but we still did it. It really seemed to fit in with who we are as a company.”
According to Forester, FSC domestic and tropical lumber has become the hot product for Rex Lumber. “FSC Certified decking, in particular, has been a product that everyone is trying to source,” he said. “We've really concentrated on sourcing as much as we possibly can, and we focus on bringing it in and having it on the ground.”
A couple years ago, the management team had some discussions about marketing their FSC inventory. “We realized that if you don't have the FSC in your sheds, you can't really provide it,” Forester stated. So they decided to made a conscious effort to keep an adequate supply on hand. “As I view it,” he said, “you can move that lumber in two different ways: you can move it as FSC Certified, or if someone doesn't need it certified you can still sell it as lumber. But when you bring in non-certified lumber, it can only go out as non-certified.”
As a result, Rex's inventory of FSC Certified lumber has grown over the last couple years. “We have some items in inventory I never thought we'd have,” Forester marvels. “10 inch and wider FSC certified hard maple upgrade is something I never thought we'd be able to source. But we have it sitting on the shelf and we have been selling it. Things like that have really helped our sales numbers.”
That wasn't what anyone at Rex Lumber had expected initially. “We didn't get into FSC as a strategic selling decision; if anyone here was thinking that way, for the first 4 years they would have thought it was a failure,” Craig recalls. “We got into FSC because it made sense, and now the rest of the world has caught up with the idea.
“To be perfectly honest,” he continued, “we feel that hardwood lumber, in and of itself, is inherently green. When FSC came along – and SFI and the other schemes – they really just codified a set of practices we were already following anyway. We looked at it and decided there weren't many changes the Rex Lumber Company would have to make in order to fit within that framework. We agree with the general message of all of them, which is that forests produce a crop that should be managed, harvested, replanted, and used productively for human society and for animals.”
Before Rex Lumber could bring in an FSC inventory, they first had to find it. “I had to push a lot of vendors that direction,” Godzinski related. “FSC has been a tough sell to a lot of land owners who feel that they've always been doing the right thing. But more and more landowners have come online with FSC and more sawmills are interested in it.
“Part of that, I think, comes from me poking and prodding them,” he continued. “But I think it's also our company's history and longevity, our size, our reach… and these landowners know we always pay our bills promptly. I believe they see what we're doing as part of the future, and they want a piece of that too,” he concluded.
Rex Lumber took another bold step when they first invested in their Central American operations. “We put a lot of money down there, and at times we thought we had gone a little nuts,” Forester exclaimed. “I remember one guy who came back from there and said, ‘You want to see where your money is going?' and showed us a picture of a mud field. Well, that was supposed to be the sawmill, but the only thing there was the mud field. And that was after we had sent quite a lot of money down to prepare that field of mud. It got a little scary along the way, but we really felt there was a lot of merit to what we were doing.”
It was, Forester admits, a risk. “But we felt it was worth the risk, in both a business and a truly altruistic approach,” he declared. “If you looked at the pictures now from that community with the mud field, or the 8 or 9 other communities we're involved in, you'll see they have things up and running and have a pretty good sawmill. We're rather happy with what we've all done, and with the folks who are actually doing the work in Central and South America. It's enabled us to supply some of these more difficult to get species that maybe weren't being harvested as responsibly as they should have been.”
To those who are opposed to using rainforest woods, Forester points out the alternative. “If you don't want wood to come out of the rainforest, than just plan on having all the trees cut down because people will put cattle or sugar cane there,” he noted.
Rex Lumber's investment in Latin America has helped supply them with a consistent source of FSC Certified tropical woods in addition to the usual eastern U.S. species: the oaks, maples, pines, cherry, hickory, poplar, and walnut. “We are now a direct owner/importer of South American mahogany,” Murray can boast. They also bring in some of the less well known species such as Santa Maria cumaru, jatoba, Mayan mahogany and many others..
Craig Forester would like to see architects, designers, and specifiers for green projects become more aware of those species. “They need to expand their thinking beyond Ipe for decking,” he urges. “People need to get beyond this desire to only go with what they know. You can't just keep taking all the cherry and walnut. Are you willing to exhaust the supply of Ipe because it's today's fad wood?” he asks.
Forester is hopeful that President Obama will appreciate the value of wood in green building as the government embarks on its massive LEED compliant construction and remodeling schedule. “Wood doesn't get as much credit in LEED as it should in terms of life cycle analysis,” Craig contends. “We would really like to see that addressed.”
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