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Selling Reclaimed Lumber
My business partner and I decided to invest in a project that would provide cash flow, profitability and ultimately an asset at the end. We decided to buy a 115 year old bourbon barn, take it apart and sell the material that was dismantled. We had no previous experience in salvage, demolition or the timber industry. The purpose of this article is to share our experiences. Hopefully the reader will learn from our (mis)adventure. The article is organized into sections titled business model, sales and marketing, and operations. Also included is a story about our barn.
Business model – 6 insights
1. There is no trade association or certified agents in the reclaimed wood market. In general, the reclaimed wood industry is a fragmented market with dozens of local or regional brokers and manufacturers.
2. Buying and selling the wooden product involves at least one, often two brokers. As a seller, brokers do not work for you. They typically get paid by the buyer and then take their fees or percentages and then pay the seller. There is a natural conflict of interest with only one broker involved.
3. Buyers of reclaimed lumber do not always conduct an on-site inspection of the material prior to purchase. Digital photos and samples along with the broker’s advice or inspection are part of the deal. Unfortunately, buyers cannot know what they have received until they read or add value to the material at a later time.
4. The parties often feel positive about the business agreements: buyer, seller and broker(s). Not one of the seven different sales transactions with different buyers and brokers felt that the deal was completed as agreed (filling, final count, type, classification).
5. Part of the reason players feel shafted is that terms are usually not put in writing. No contracts, agreements kept changing (put it in writing). Sometimes players will put it in an email, but mostly it’s over the phone.
6. Fuel increases and a bad economy are hurting our company’s profitability. Because reclaimed lumber is typically used for housing (flooring was the biggest demand), a dip in the housing market hurt our plan. Also, as the wood product is dipped into paper pulp, many potential customers saw new wood compared to our aged wood.
Sales and marketing – 7 points
1. One of the mistakes we made in the project was not selling the material early. In retrospect, we should have marketed the material early to form relationships and find channels to sell our product into. We waited until all the lumber was on the ground and bundled, which hurt our cash flow. It also takes time to meet new buyers and develop networks (if you are joining for the first time). Another mistake we made was not stacking, also known as sticker stacking, our tree when we were disassembling. We learned that a best practice is to acquire the “sticks”, such as tobacco sticks, before taking them down. The pegs are placed between the rows of boards to allow the wood to breathe and prevent rot. Stacking the lumber also makes loading the lumber easier. Our recommendation is not to wait to get the sticks. Unfortunately we had to buy them from a sawmill and paid too much.
2. The more value you can add, the more income you get, the more risk you take on. Value-adding activities could be sorting, cutting, drying, delivery and finishing. We found that counting each stack and marking each bundle with type, board feet and location is really worth the investment. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for shrink issues, lost revenue, disputes, etc. It’s imperative, as basic as it seems, to define the terms of the sale.
3. Species seems to be important to potential buyers, but it seemed like every broker and potential buyer claimed the wood was a different species than what it was or what another expert said. Moreover, the species rarely fetched a higher price for us. More important than species, dimensions were what brought a higher price. The longer and wider the material, the more demand we found for our product, always at a higher price.
4. The use of our material varied. We sold to buyers and brokers who worked in flooring, cabinetry, home improvement and furniture. If the wood has flaws, such as worm holes or bolt holes, it still has value (often more value).
5. Screen potential buyers and brokers carefully. It was usually unproductive to meet buyers on site unless they are serious, established and brokering material as a full-time job. It is important to agree with a broker that he works for you. Brokers can involve several parties to buy your material. There may also be a broker for the buyer and a broker for the seller.
6. The intranet is a good place to start to generate interest in your material. Wood Planet.com, Craigslist and Google searches for “Reclaimed Lumber” generated good leads.
7. It helps to have a good story to tell about the barn you’ve reclaimed (see “Our Bourbon Barn”).
Operations – 9 tips
1. Count the board feet of your material after it is stacked so you know if there is shrinkage and show the buyer that you are organized. It helps to put a placard on each stack identifying the quantity, type, etc.
2. Train your crew in the species so they don’t mix oak with poplar or pine. A knife cut to show grain, a simple chart board or a scale can indicate the different grades and types of wood.
3. Make sure there is room for flatbed semi trucks to be easily loaded and maneuvered.
4. Safety and security: make sure you are careful in the way you secure the tree and equipment. Unfortunately, we encountered several thefts or materials and tools. Ensure the project has safety equipment, processes and training.
5. Capital equipment: we should have bought a long forklift. If you make the capital investment, you can sell it when the project is over. It is an opportunity to reduce labor costs.
6. Organize before you take the barn down. We should have planned better where we wanted to put the wood stacks.
7. Do not work your crew in poor conditions. W spent hundreds of hours working with our crew in muddy, wet conditions where productivity was poor.
8. Make sure you have licenses, insurance, permits and cash. It is important to have insurance for your crew and have the funds to pay the crew. Several of our crew members to include one of the principles stepped on nails.
9. Take lots of pictures of all phases of the project, even before the project. Have samples ready to ship.
My partner says he would never tear down another barn. I disagree. If I got a really good deal, I think the lessons we learned would make the next project that much more profitable and satisfying.
Our Bourbon Barn: A Rich Kentucky History from Its Owners and Descendants
Sir. Wertheimer, of Little Rock, had planned to enter the restaurant business. He met Ripey’s at a party and they entered the liquor business together. Sir. Wertheimer co-owned the Hoffman Distillery Company with the Ripey family (of Lawrenceburg, KY) in the 1940s (shortly before World War II). Sir. Wertheimer’s grandson, Edward, born in 1933, said the distillery and warehouse were built 50-65 years before he was born, dating the barn back to the 1880s. Our barrel barn was the oldest warehouse on the distillery property. There were a total of three warehouses at one time. The other two were erected after his grandfather became part owner. Edward spent much of his youth having fun on the creek in Lawrenceburg. Later, Edward Wertheimer of Cincinnati sold the property to Julian Van Winkle III in 1981. It was renamed the Commonwealth Distillery Company, with the bourbon branded as Old Rip Van Winkle. Julian (of Louisville) sold to the owner (in 2000), we bought it from in 2007. Unfortunately, much of this history is lost (not recorded), which is one of the author’s purposes for the article.
Before World War II, the bourbon barrels were floated down the creek that feeds the Salt River, which connects the bourbon distillery to its original warehouse. Barrel handlers manually lifted the barrels from the stream and placed them in the warehouse. The barrels were full and watertight. After trucks were common place in this region of Kentucky, the barrels were no longer floated down the river. Another interesting fact was that there is a shed across the road where a government surveyor lived. The shed still exists. Each barrel was taxed and had to be stamped by the government employee.
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