Lumber company Weaber reinvents business model, image
Recessions can be opportunities to re-invent your business, as the last one proved to be for leaders at Weaber Lumber.
“Hoping things will get better is not really a plan,” said Matt Weaber, CEO of the company, which is based in South Annville Township, Lebanon County.
Instead, after the housing crisis of the previous decade, company leaders set out to rethink the way they were doing business. Thanks to moves they have made since then, Weaber said, the company is bigger than it was before the recession, even considering the incremental recovery of the housing market since 2011.
“We had to change with the times,” Weaber said.
In 2015, for example, the natural-hardwood lumber company launched a decorative wall-board line. Then, in April 2016, Weaber started a new line of weathered wall boards often used in interior design and sold through retailers, including Home Depot.
“It actually has been a big deal,” said Weaber, the third-generation leader of the company founded 77 years ago by his grandfather, Walter H. Weaber. “We really transformed from commodity lumber.”
The weathered wall-board line made its debut in 400 stores. Now, the products are in more than 2,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada.
The company also has added about 100 workers to accommodate the growth, which has been 20-25 percent overall in the past 18 months, he said. With two facilities in Lebanon County and one in Titusville, the company expects to keep adding to its overall workforce of about 725.
The company took another step in its reinvention last month, dropping the word “lumber” from its name and unveiling a new logo.
The idea was to capture Weaber’s evolution from a sawmill into a modern provider of materials used for interior decorating, whether for remodeling jobs or new homes. The company also makes hardwood flooring and mouldings and markets heavily through social media, including on Instagram. If you search for “Weaber Lumber” at Youtube.com, you will hit on numerous videos on how to install wall boards and other products.
The rebranding recognizes that Weaber is now more of a consumer brand.
“This is a more modern, fresh take for the next 20 to 25 years,” Weaber said.
Weaber studied business, marketing and design in the early 1990s when he attended York College and what would become the Bradley Academy and then the Art Institute of York. At first, he sought a career in marketing and advertising but eventually found his way into the family business, which was then being run by his father, Galen G. Weaber.
The son said he started at the bottom, carrying lumber, and eventually worked his way up. He wasn’t given leadership roles until he proved himself.
“It was hard to get small wins under my belt,” he said. “It was not something that happened over night.”
The company has had a history of innovation, Matt Weaber said. When his grandfather started the company, it was a small lumber mill. In the 1980s and 1990s, it branched into mouldings and trim boards. In 2004, it started hardwood-flooring lines.
Dan Meyer, editor of the trade publication Hardwood Review in North Carolina, covers the national and international hardwood-lumber industry. He said many domestic producers and mills are small, so neither the government nor industry observers can accurately track how many operators work nationwide.
The housing downturn led to numerous companies going out of business, leaving perhaps half as many operating today as there were before the recession, Meyer said. Most hardwood lumber owners sell their product to furniture factories, cabinet makers and others who make mouldings, trim, doors and other materials, where the hardwood’s appearance is critical to the finished product’s overall quality and aesthetic.
Hardwood sales nationwide are booming, but many companies are having a hard time turning a profit because of 2-to-3 percent profit margins, Meyer said. “Margins are razor thin.”
International issues put additional pressure on the market, making it difficult for small, family-owned companies to increase prices to cover the rising overhead involved with running a business, he said.
For example, China now has rules that prevent logging of woodland as part of an effort replenish its forests. That means Chinese companies will pay for whole hardwood logs and have them shipped to hardwood mills in China, cutting out U.S. mills. Demand also is high in Europe, he said.
Companies such as Weaber that reinvent themselves put themselves on a good track, he added.
“Many of us should be doing that and we are not,” he said.
Judd Johnson, a hardwood lumber analyst who also is editor of the Hardwood Market Report, said Weaber Lumber has been known in the industry as an innovator.
“It takes vision,” he said, adding that it is rare for a mill to try different ideas or markets.
But modern technology has allowed for numerous processes that add value to hardwood lumber, Meyer said. Weaber developed a process to age hardwood so that it looks like barn siding. It is a popular look but the real thing is costly to find, Matt Weaber said.
His company’s product offers consumers the look of reclaimed wood at a fraction of the cost, he said, “without having to tear a barn down.”
Weaber said the process is unique, as far as he knows. Such efforts will continue to position his company while the housing market improves.
Daniel E. Durden, CEO of the Pennsylvania Builders Association in Harrisburg, said he expects construction of new homes to pick up this year after a slow recovery since the recession.
“Nobody is booming but everybody is experiencing nice, comfortable, sustainable growth,” he said.
Weaber sees an improving market, too, but says his company’s evolution shows leaders can grow markets without relying on a boom.
The company created a research and development division that seeks new ways to work with hardwood. That effort is leading to a pipeline of products that eventually will make it to market and that will be touted by an in-house marketing team with access to a photo and design studio. One idea is creating decorative boards through an etching process that can carve sayings or drawings into hardwood.
As far as the fourth generation of Weabers, Matt Weaber isn’t sure either of his two children would be interested in taking over some day. The company has established a succession plan that doesn’t include them.
“But,” he said, “who knows?”