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Staying strong

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Staying strong
istock.com//Radule Perisic

Editor’s note: When we sat down to produce this issue, we had a hole to fill in our editorial schedule. The lumber dealer we had planned to feature was unable to gather his team for a photo because his state’s COVID-19 quarantine guidelines said residential construction had not been deemed essential and therefore, lumberyards were not an essential business. Neither was the photographer who was scheduled to photograph the dealer’s yard and team. Like so many others, we assumed the initial threat of the coronavirus would soon pass and it would be business as usual in no time. We were wrong about that. Soon it became clear to us that it wasn’t just hot spot locations like Seattle, New York City, or Detroit that were feeling the effects of the virus; it was affecting our readers nationwide.   As an editorial team, we shifted focus from our usual feature of one dealer profile in the magazine, to a survey of dealers around the country, facing the virus head on and STAYING STRONG.

While the severity and government response to the COVID-19 outbreak varies greatly state-to-state and continues to shift as stay-at-home orders are lifted or extended, LBM dealers adjust on the fly and continue to serve their customers as best they can while also operating from home and keeping team members and customers safe.

Brand Vaughan Lumber Co.

In Georgia, where a stay-at-home order was about to be lifted, Jon Vaughan, president at Brand Vaughan Lumber Co., was recording a video message to email to his team members. Normally, he does this once a week to share company updates. These days, he’s sending the videos more frequently. “Part of what my video was today is saying ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.’ While Gov. Kemp is opening things up, it gives the impression that we’re past this. But we’re actually strengthening our cleaning and our social distancing at our stores,” he said. “I’d rather you’d be safe, than get here and sent home again.”

Vaughan used a humorous analogy in the video, noting that up until 2012 it was legal to own a chimpanzee as a pet in the state of Georgia. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” he said.

Vaughan’s pro builder customers are in the same boat. Work still continues during the pandemic, and no one wants things to get worse. While lifting restrictions is the end goal to get the area economy moving at full pace, there is a hesitation among builders and dealers alike to make sure they are going about getting back to business as usual in the safest way possible.

“We’re asking, what’s that going to look like? How do I stay safe?” Vaughan said. “We’re working with builders to make sure that what we’re doing is also keeping them safe and keeping them working.”

If a second wave of the pandemic strikes the area, Vaughan added, there’s no guarantee that construction would be deemed “essential” by government order. “If it looks like the building industry is part of the problem in spreading, then we might not be essential the second time around. That’s a scenario we’ve got to prepare for and try to avoid.”

As Georgia has faced some of the least-restrictive quarantine guidelines in the nation, Vaughan hasn’t seen a great impact on his business. Sales have still been strong, and he hasn’t had to limit hours for team members. Still, he’s taken precautions to keep staff and customers at safe  distances and many are wearing masks. At each location, signage directs customers to pick up areas. They’re encouraged to text or call in an order. Brand Vaughan staff will load a flatbed, but if the order is going into a pickup truck, the customer should load their own materials.

While the economic impact of a construction ban isn’t evident in Georgia, Vaughan’s team has been planning for worst-case scenarios.

“We’re scenario planning for a small drop, mid drop, and large drop. We need participation and assistance from team members to make sure they’re productive and efficient. We’ll manage our business to the sales that we have,” he said.

Zeeland Lumber

In Michigan, Mike Dykstra, president and CEO at Zeeland Lumber, faced an entirely opposite situation. On March 23, Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order that completely restricted residential construction. Dykstra watched Zeeland’s business drop 80% practically overnight. A month into the shutdown, Dykstra had 70% of his staff on furlough, and just a skeleton crew at his lumberyards. His salespeople who could, were working from home. Of his six locations, two are truss and component plants that were shut down completely.

However, the company’s truss plant across the border in Indiana was still functioning close to capacity because that state had not locked down the construction industry.

“To hit a wall, and go from normal to 80% down overnight is an extreme challenge,” Dykstra said. “But our team has stepped up. We made the proper communications with team members. We’re working on plans to get workers back to our yards.”

Dykstra hopes a May 1 end to the shutdown holds and isn’t further extended. It’s frustrating, he said, because 80% of the state’s COVID-19 cases are in the Detroit metro area, which isn’t anywhere near where his markets operate.

Zeeland’s customers are equally frustrated, he said. The weather is right for construction. There is work to be done, and everyone he talks to shares the opinion that construction, especially of housing, is essential. Shelter, second to food, is essential for a state that is facing a lack of affordable housing.

Agreeing with what he hears from his builder customers, Dykstra said that jobsites are naturally suited for social distancing. When tradespeople are too close on a jobsite, they can adjust schedules to meet social distancing guidelines.

“Some of our customers have now extended the time frame it takes to build a home by restricting the number of trades on a job site per day,” Dykstra said. “Everyone is looking at new OSHA regulations to figure this out. There isn’t a lack of safety awareness. They want to get back to work and they’re willing to abide by whatever safety protocol they need to abide by.”

As Dykstra looks forward to a May 1 ruling that will hopefully lift the construction restriction, he’s also assessing other challenges. When the ruling was made that construction was not deemed essential, that put a stop to all the building officials who do permits, certificates of occupancy, and inspections. Even if a home was 99% finished, builders couldn’t get a certificate of occupancy.

“It will already have a lasting impact,” Dykstra said, adding that, “but from a business standpoint, we’re ready to start back up.”

Kodiak Building Partners

Perhaps no one is more aware of the staggering differences between regulations from state-to-state than Steve Swinney, CEO of Kodiak Building Partners. From his home in Colorado, he has tracked each of his company’s businesses and “experienced a little bit of every extreme,” he said.

Kodiak is weathering the state-by-state variations of its businesses ranging from Boston, Michigan and Washington state locations that face some of the strictest regulations, to operations in Wyoming and Texas that aren’t nearly as restricted. The company also operates different business segments which are affected differently by the pandemic, from lumberyards to millwork and manufacturing facilities. “Some are holding up really well and staying busy while most of the country seems to be experiencing some level of slowdown. In some extreme spots, local or state governments made it practically impossible to be open,” Swinney said.

Swinney said his company has gone through specific phases while the pandemic has spread throughout the U.S. First came the shutdown orders, when he said it seemed like every day brought a new local executive order for his company to navigate. First it was in Washington, then Boston, then Michigan.

“Those were the toughest ones,” he said. “And they’re not one-size-fits-all. We have to approach it with our local teams. In every case we were able to keep operating, we have to look at what we have to do to stay open safely for our employees.”

Swinney said it’s his HR team that took on a big role in coordinating data from businesses in each state and creating a central repository for guidelines and operations.

“They were the epicenter of all of our communications,” he said. As local teams would share how they communicate with customers, the HR department would merge those communications into what would work for other areas of the country.

Because of the variations in the way local governments were responding to the virus, it gave Swinney unique insight into how Kodiak’s local teams should react.

“What I think we’re learning is A) we’re still in business and B) for our people who can’t work from home, they’re finding ways to work and being safe.”

As for reopening fully when it’s safe to do so, Swinney said he predicts that different parts of Kodiak’s businesses will pick up at different times depending on what stage of the construction process it’s in, whether that’s lot prep, lumberyard operations, drywall, or appliances, and cabinets.

“We’re going to see it ebb and flow throughout our different businesses,” he said. “I think we’ve got a really interesting rest of the year.”

When shutdowns are lifted, LBM dealers say continued communication with builders during the shutdown will keep them prepared and set up to meet challenges of any restrictions that may remain.

Mill Creek Lumber & Supply

Gary Poulos, lumber division president at Mill Creek Lumber & Supply in Oklahoma, continues to communicate with his customers via email with messages like the following:

“For the health of our employees and customers, and following the most recent recommendations from the CDC and Governor; we have opted to close our showrooms to the general public. Mill Creek Lumber & Supply is still open and shipping, but for the foreseeable future, orders must by placed through your salesperson or by calling in to the location. We will only accept orders from account customers or with a credit card to minimize personal contact. Phone in orders well in advance to allow for orders to be picked ahead to minimize wait times. We recommend planning well in advance for all business. Mill Creek and our suppliers are having the same personnel and supply chain issues as everyone else. The industry is already beginning to experience delays, closures, curtailments, and shortages of raw materials. Be prepared for product back-orders or the need for substitutions. Have a plan “B.”

“For our customers that must have access to our showroom for selection purposes; visits will be by appointment only and can be arranged through your salesperson. The rules for on-site selection visits are: 1) Appointment only. 2) Must not be showing signs of illness (coughing, fever, sore throat, body ache, etc.) 3) Must follow CDC guidelines: hand washing/ sanitizing, social distancing, etc. 4) Only two people max in addition to Mill Creek employees. No one under 16 years old.

“Thank you for your understanding during these unprecedented times. At Mill Creek, our goal is to continue to supply our customers to the best or our ability while protecting the health and safety of both you and our teammates.”

Marcus Lumber

In Iowa, Grant Leavitt at Marcus Lumber has taken extra precautions at his family’s lumberyard, even though he wasn’t required by the state to do so. Marcus Lumber has temporarily closed the doors to its showroom, which is now open by appointment only. The business has gone to pickup and deliveries only, which Grant said hasn’t affected them a whole lot since 90% of their business was deliveries.

Before closing down, Leavitt said he contacted several lumberyards in the region and found that they were planning to do the same. He gave employees the option to work from home, but most still come to the office and maintain safe distancing and disinfecting of common surfaces.

Leavitt talked to each staff member individually to hear their concerns and work with them on a solution that worked best for them and their families.

“For us, it was a core value thing,” he said. “Family is a core value. We wanted to make sure we did the right thing that way.”