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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, dismantle it, and sell the material that was dismantled. We had no previous experience in salvage, demolition or the wood industry. The purpose of this article is to share our experiences. Hopefully the reader will learn from our (mis)adventures. The article is organized into sections titled business model, sales and marketing, and operations. Also included is a history of 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 producers.
2. The buying and selling of the wood product involves at least one, often two brokers. Like the seller, brokers do not work for you. They are usually 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 being involved.
3. Buyers of reclaimed wood do not always conduct a 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 may not know what they got until they download or add value to the material at a later date.
4. Parties involved often feel positive about the business deals: buyer, seller and broker/s. Not one of the seven different sales transactions with different buyers and brokers did we feel that the deal was carried out as agreed (load, final calculation, species, grading).
5. Part of the reason why players feel cheated is that terms are not usually written. No contracts, agreements kept changing (put it in writing). Sometimes players will put it in an email, but it’s mostly over the phone.
6. Fuel increases and a poor economy are hurting our company’s profitability. Since reclaimed wood is typically used for housing (flooring was the biggest demand), a dip in the housing market hurt our plan. Also, as the wood product dipped for pulp, many potential customers were looking at new wood versus our old 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. We waited until all of the wood was down on the ground and bundled, which hurt our cash flow. It also takes time to meet new buyers and develop networks (if you’re in it for the first time). Another mistake we made was not stacking, also known as sticker stacking, our wood as we disassembled. We learned that best practice is to get the “sticks”, like tobacco sticks, before putting them down. The sticks are placed between the board rows to let the wood breathe and prevent rotting. Stacking the wood also makes it easier to load the wood. Our recommendation is not to wait to get the sticks. Unfortunately, we had to buy them from a sawmill and overpay.
2. The more value you can add the more income you will get also the more risk you take. Value added activities could be sorting, cutting, drying, delivering and finishing. We found it really worth the investment to count each stack and mark each package by type, board feet and location. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for shrinkage problems, loss of revenue, disputes, etc. It is necessary, as basic as it seems, to define the conditions of the sale.
3. Species would seem to be important to prospective buyers, but it seemed that every broker and potential buyer claimed that the wood was a different species than what it was or what another expert said. Also, the species rarely fetched a higher price for us. More important than species, dimensions were what fetched a higher price. The longer and wider the material, the more demand we found for our product always at a higher price.
4. The uses of our material varied. We sold to buyers and brokers who worked in flooring, cabinetry, home improvement and furniture. If the wood has defects, such as wormholes or bolt holes, it still has value (often more value).
5. Screen prospective buyers and brokers diligently. It was usually unproductive to meet buyers on site unless they were serious, established, and broker material as a full-time occupation. It is important to agree with a broker that he works for you. Brokers can bring multiple parties to buy your material. There can also be a broker for the buyer and a broker for the seller.
6. The intranet is a good place to start generating interest in your material. Wood Planet.com, Craigslist, and Google searches on “Reclaimed Lumber” generated good leads.
7. It helps to have a great story to tell about the barn you 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 label on each stack identifying the quantity, type, etc.
2. Train your crew on the types of species so they don’t confuse oak with poplar or pine. A knife cut to show grain, a simple map board or scale can indicate the different grades and types of wood.
3. Make sure there is room for flat bed semi trucks to be easily loaded and maneuvered.
4. Safety and security: make sure you are diligent in the way you secure the wood and equipment. Unfortunately, we encountered multiple thefts or material and tools. Make sure the project has safety tools, processes and training.
5. Capital equipment: we should buy a long forklift. If you make the capital investment, you can sell it after the project is completed. It is an opportunity to reduce labor costs.
6. Organize before you take down the barn. We should have planned better about where we would put the piles of wood.
7. Do not work your crew in bad conditions. W spent hundreds of hours working our crew in muddy, wet conditions where productivity was poor.
8. Make sure you have licenses, insurance, permits and cash. Having insurance for your crew and having the funds to pay the crew is important. Several of our crew members stepped on nails to include one of the principles.
9. Take lots of photos 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 much more profitable and satisfying.
Our Bourbon Barn: A Rich Kentucky History of its Owners and Descendants
Mr. Wertheimer, of Little Rock, planned to enter the Restaurant business. He met the Ripeys at a party, and they went into the Liquor business together. Mr. Wertheimer became the co-owner of the Hoffman Distillery Company with the Ripey Family (of Lawrenceburg, KY) in the 1940s (shortly before WWII). Mr. Wertheimer’s grandson, Edward, born in 1933, said the distillery and warehouse were erected 50-65 years before he was born, dating the barn to the 1880s. Our barrel barn was the oldest warehouse on the distillery. There were a total of three warehouses at one time. The other two were set up after his grandfather received co-ownership. 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, where bourbon was labeled under Old Rip Van Winkle. Julian (from Louisville) sold to the owner (in 2000) we bought it in 2007. Unfortunately, much of this history is lost (not recorded), which is one of the goals of the author of the article.
Before WWII, the bourbon barrels were floated down the creek that feeds the Salt River, which connects the bourbon distillery to its original warehouse. Barrels manually lifted the barrels from the stream and put them in the warehouse. The barrels were full and watertight. Once trucks were common in that 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 meter used to live. The shed still exists. Each barrel was taxed and had to be stamped by the government employee.
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