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Selling Reclaimed Lumber
My business partner and I decided to invest in a project that will provide cash flow, profitability and ultimately an asset. We decided to buy a 115-year-old bourbon barn, dismantle it and sell the disassembled material. We had no previous salvage, demolition or timber industry experience. The purpose of this article is to share our experience. Hopefully the reader will learn from our (mis)adventures. The article is divided into sections entitled business model, sales and marketing, and operations. The history of our barn is also included.
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. The purchase and sale of wood goods involves at least one, often two intermediaries. As a seller, brokers do not work for you. They are usually paid by the buyer and then take their commissions or percentages and then pay the seller. There is a natural conflict of interest as only one intermediary is involved.
3. Buyers of reclaimed wood do not always inspect the material before purchase. Digital photos and samples along with a broker’s advice or review are part of the deal. Unfortunately, customers may not know what they received until they unload or add value to the material later.
4. Parties involved often feel positive about business arrangements: buyer, seller and broker/s. In none of the seven different sales transactions with different buyers and brokers did we feel that the deal was executed as agreed (delay, final count, sort, sort).
5. Part of the reason players feel cheated is that the terms are usually not in writing. No contracts, deals were changing (write it down). Sometimes players will put it in an email, but mostly it’s over the phone.
6. Fuel increases and the poor economy are hurting our company’s profitability. Since reclaimed wood is typically used for housing (the biggest demand was for flooring), the downturn in the housing market hurt our plan. Also, as wood goods declined due to pulp, many potential customers were looking for new wood versus our old wood.
Sales and marketing – 7 points
1. One of the mistakes we made on the project was not selling the material early. In retrospect, we should have marketed the material early on to build relationships and find channels to sell our product. We waited until all the wood was on the ground and tied into bundles, which hurt our cash flow. It also takes time to meet new customers and develop networks (if you are new to this). Another mistake we made was not stacking, also known as sticker stacking, our wood during disassembly. We learned that the best practice is to get “sticks” like tobacco sticks before taking them off. Sticks are placed between the rows of boards so that the wood breathes and prevents rotting. Stacking the wood also makes loading the wood easier. Our recommendation is not to wait to get the rods. Unfortunately we had to buy them at a sawmill and overpay.
2. The more value you can add, the more revenue you will receive and the more risk you will assume. Value-added activities can be sorting, cutting, drying, delivery and finishing. We found it really worth the investment to count each pile and label each bundle with type, board feet and location. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for problems with psychiatrists, loss of income, disputes, etc. It is necessary, as it seems basic, to determine the conditions of sale.
3. Types seem to matter to prospective buyers, but every broker and potential buyer seemed to claim it was a different type of wood that it was or what another expert said it was. Even the species rarely gave us a higher price. More than the types, it was the dimensions that brought the higher price. The longer and wider the material, the greater was the demand for our product at an ever-increasing 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 defects such as worm or screw holes, it still has value (often more value).
5. Diligently vet prospective buyers and brokers. It was usually unproductive to meet buyers on site unless they were serious, established and brokering material as a full-time occupation. It is important to coordinate with the broker you are working for. Brokers can attract more customers to buy your material. They can also be a broker for the buyer and a broker for the seller.
6. The intranet is a good place 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 great story about the barn you restored (see “Our Bourbon Barn”).
Operations – 9 tips
1. Count the board feet of your material after it is stacked to know if there is any shrinkage and show the buyer that you are organized. It helps if you place a label on each stack indicating the quantity, type, etc.
2. Educate your crew on species types so they don’t confuse oak with poplar or pine. A knife cut showing the grain, a simple map board or scale can show different grades and types of wood.
3. Make sure there is enough room for semi-trucks with flatbeds that can be easily loaded and operated.
4. Safety and Security: Make sure you carefully secure your wood and equipment. Unfortunately, we encountered many thefts of material and tools. Make sure the project has safety equipment, processes and training.
5. Basic equipment: You should buy a long forklift. If you make a capital investment, you can sell it once the project is complete. It is an opportunity to reduce labor costs.
6. Get organized before you tear down the barn. We should do a better job of planning where to put the firewood stacks.
7. Don’t hire your team under bad conditions. W spent hundreds of hours of our team working in muddy, wet conditions where productivity was poor.
8. Make sure you have licenses, insurance, permits and cash. It is important that you have crew insurance and the means to pay the crew. A few members of our team, including one of the principles, stepped on the nails.
9. Take lots of photos of all phases of the project, even before the project. Prepare samples for shipment.
My partner says he would never knock down another barn. I do not agree. If I got a really good deal, I think the lessons learned would make the next project much more profitable and satisfying.
Our Bourbon Barn: A Rich History of Kentucky from Its Owners and Descendants
Mr. Wertheimer of Little Rock was planning to enter the restaurant business. He met the Ripeys at a party and together they started a liquor business. Mr. Wertheimer became co-owner of the Hoffman Distillery with the Ripey family (of Lawrenceburg, KY) in the 1940s (shortly before World War II). Mr. Wertheimer’s grandson, Edward, born in 1933, said the distillery and warehouse were built 50-65 years before he was born, and the barn was in the 1880s. Our barrel barn was the oldest warehouse on the distillery property. At one time there were three warehouses in total. The other two were put up after his grandfather got co-ownership. Edward enjoyed most of his youth by the creek in Lawrenceburg. Edward Wertheimer of Cincinnati later sold the property to Julian Van Winkle III in 1981. It was renamed the Commonwealth Distillery Company, where the bourbon was labeled as Old Rip Van Winkle. Julian (from Louisville) sold to the owner (in 2000) from whom we purchased it 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, bourbon barrels were floated down the creek that feeds the Salt River, which connects the bourbon distillery to its original warehouse. The judges lifted the barrels by hand from the stream and put them in storage. The barrels were full and waterproof. After trucks were common in this region of Kentucky, barrels were no longer lowered down the river. It is also interesting that across the street is the shed where the state surveyor lived. The shed still exists. Each barrel was taxed and had to be stamped by a civil servant.
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