At Legislative Conference, dealers get the word out
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lumberyard owners and suppliers focused on three wide-ranging front-burner regulatory and legislative issues during the 2013 Legislative Conference here in the nation’s capitol.
Reform of the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead paint rule was among the three high-priority items, along with preservation of the mortgage interest deduction and creation of online sales tax parity.
The talking points emerged as NLBMDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ben Gann briefed lumberyard owners and their suppliers on some of the major regulatory and legislative issues facing the industry. A detailed overview of the issues preceded an afternoon of lobbying on Capitol Hill.
The NLBMDA has a long history of objections to the EPA’s Lead: Renovation, Repair and Painting (LRRP). It was introduced in 2010 and requires remodeling and renovation firms that perform work on pre-1978 housing to be EPA-certified. And the firms must keep records of the project for three years.
The NLBMDA supports the Lead Exposure Reduction Amendments Act, which has two key provisions: 1.) It restores an opt-out provision for homeowners in households with no pregnant women and no children; and 2.) It creates a time frame for the EPA to develop a test kit that is commercially available and meets the EPA’s own standard for false positives.
In addition to adhering to good common sense, reinstatement of the opt-out rule, according to the EPA’s estimate, would save $336 million, Gann said.
Another interest of the housing industry is the preservation of the mortgage interest deduction, Gann said. "In many ways this is a critical piece to our housing policy," he said.
Gann said misperceptions linger over the deduction. "It’s not millionaires living in vacation homes on the beach," he said. "Two-thirds of the benefits are claimed by those making $200,000 or less." Even the deduction for mortgage interest of second homes plays an important role, he said.
The third high-priority issue dealt with a level playing field for retailers and online merchants. According to the NLBMDA, far too many online-only retailers are not collecting sales tax at the point of purchase, putting local retailers at a competitive disadvantage.
The NLBMDA supports the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), but Gann said it’s important to understand that support of it is not an endorsement of a new tax.
"This tax already exists," Gann said. "It’s a tax that is already owed. It just allows states to go and get that tax money.
"What the MFA is trying to do is fix the system," he added. "If we don’t do something, it’s just going to get worse. Online transactions keep going up. This is revenue that the states are owed but they are not getting."
Before the dealers took some of those talking points to Capitol Hill, he offered lobbying advice: "Be firm but polite. Obviously not everyone is going to agree with us on every position."
The Patronage Dividend: Who gets ’em? Who needs ’em?
The co-op structure presents to the hardware industry one of the most interesting financial instruments in all of accounting: the end-of-year rebate.
San Antonio-based Alamo Lumber is a small regional lumberyard company serving 14 south Texas markets with a mix of building supplies and hardware store merchandise.
The company is a typical independent dealer in many ways, including its emphasis on opening price points and a tried-and-true emphasis on service. "We encourage our employees to be slow to say ‘no,’ and quick to say ‘yes,’" said Matt Mullin, Alamo president and COO.
More unusual aspects of the business can be found in a couple features of Alamo’s financial structure. Alamo Lumber believes in the power of the incentive and profit sharing to motivate employees.
"It’s a profit sharing program where we open up the books to all the employees," Mullen said. "And to the extent that we beat the budget, we share the profits."
Here’s something else: At the end of fiscal year in 2012, Alamo received a $1,272,291 patronage dividend from its co-op, an unusually high figure, even for Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Do it Best Corp., which takes pride in saying that it has dispersed more than $100 million in member rebates for nine consecutive years.
Alamo Lumber uses its rebate check to fuel growth and fund its profit sharing plan. It also supports expansion, capital improvements to existing locations, equipment and additional inventory where needed.
"It’s part of our profit structure," said Mullin. "It’s a very nice cash infusion. We budget for it and we’re happy for it."
There can be little disagreement over the value of a million-dollar-plus check once every year. But the balancing act that a hardware co-op performs in dispersing its patronage dividend can certainly be a source of debate.
In fact, here’s how a recent posting to an online hardware store message board framed the issue: "It is neat to get the rebates. But I wish it was just taken off the end of each statement, or the original hardware group would just lower their prices."
Across the co-op universe, other voices online and elsewhere call for a higher percentage of the profits to be dispersed back to members. And others believe the capital can often be put to better use for the good of the co-op’s members by investing it in marketing, research and development.
The role of the patronage dividend within the co-op structure is simple and logical. The cooperative is owned by the member owners, who share in its profits. The patronage dividend is the mechanism that allows owners to receive what belongs to them, with dividends based on the percentage of purchases with the co-op.
But the story gets complicated when one asks: What is the right balance between returning equity to the members and investing in the future of the co-op?
"This is a question that has really challenged and befuddled co-ops over the years," said Dan Nutley, a specialist in cooperative accounting and a partner of Moss Adams, an accounting and business-consulting firm.
"The main criteria — and a lot of people don’t look at this — is what are your competitors doing," Nutley said. "You need to see the organizations you compete against. Are they investing in their brand; are they doing a lot of research and development?"
In the hardware sphere, the answer is a resounding yes, as Lowe’s and Home Depot seem at times to blanket the air waves with branding.
"In the hardware and building supply business, look at the amount of money that Lowe’s and Home Depot invest in their brand and their image," said Nutley. "True Value and Ace are investing in the brand also. They have to be dealing with the public to create the same brand awareness and the same brand loyalty that Lowe’s and Home Depot are trying to create."
One reason — but not the only reason — why Do it Best rebates are high is the co-op’s decision to abstain from advertising on a national basis.
"We’re very bullish on advertising; we just take a different approach to it," said Do it Best CEO Bob Taylor.
"We don’t do national advertising because we have such a diverse group of retailers," Taylor added. "You couldn’t craft one message that could work well across that landscape. It’s not that we don’t believe in advertising. We do. But we want to give the dollars to the stores’ own efforts to build their brand in their own community. We think it’s a more effective path for our membership."
It’s a strategy that Alamo Lumber embraces. "We feel Do it Best is differentiated by not advertising nationally, and in our little markets that seems to work for us," Mullin said.
At Ace Hardware, executives believe they have a brand that sets the pace for the hardware business, and they have multiple J.D. Power awards to back up their claim. Ace spends more on advertising than it’s co-op peers, and it recently unveiled a new national advertising spot, highlighting the friendly and neighborly service available at Ace in a spot called "Meet the Aces."
"We’re making a major commitment to bring back the Ace jingle ("Ace is the place …") revamp our campaign, double down on our national advertising budget, as well as the local advertising budget," said Ace CEO John Venhuizen. "Because we believe that investments in that brand make a difference."
According to the accounting expert Nutley, there are some co-op members, both in and out of the hardware industry, who take a dim view of a co-op holding their money. He articulates the viewpoint this way:
"Why don’t you just give me the cheap price at the front end," he said. "Why make me wait a year or eight and a half months to get the benefit of the patronage dividend? Why don’t you just make a very accurate good budget and put your prices down so you are bottom-line break even?"
The answer depends on the strategy, and the strategy depends on the competition, Nutley said. "Your competition is out there to make money, and therefore you need to make money and return it to your members so your members see your benefit."
Back in San Antonio, Alamo Lumber is looking ahead to its next cash infusion through the patronage dividend.
"I think it’s going to be similar to what it was last year. Maybe a little larger," he said.
Mullin added: "There’s an old retail quote from Stanley Marcus: ‘Retailing is like show business, you’re only as good as your last performance.’ "
Market Recap: RISI Crow’s Construction Materials Cost Index
A price index of lumber and panels used in actual construction for April 5, 2013
*Western – regional species perimeter foundation; Southern – regional species slab construction.
Crow’s Market Recap — A condensed recap of the market conditions for the major North American softwood lumber and panel products as reported in Crow’s Weekly Market Report.
Lumber: The SPF lumber market weakened to a point where discounting became more prevalent. Mills in the East openly discounted while those in the West tended to hold closer to quoted levels established in weeks prior. Southern Pine lumber producers discounted where buildups occurred and held prices on those items produced less. Buyers found scattered deals, primarily consisting of straight lengths at mills. Most #2 prices ended flat to up $5 to $10. A moderate increase in sales at the week’s end failed to give Coastal species #2&Btr prices any lift. Buyers perceived the potential for market weakness and held off purchasing when possible, especially on the dry side of the market. The Inland species lumber market started the week on a somewhat subdued but still firm tone. This activity carried through until a rally in the futures market on Thursday breathed a little more life into the market. Radiata Pine prices for stock from New Zealand took a dramatic increase. Sales of Ponderosa Pine in the lower grades continued. Both #3 Shop and P99 sold readily, even when quoted for shipment several weeks out. Ponderosa Pine board producers reported a steady but uninspired market. Buyers paid published levels, or slightly higher, although the number of sales was lighter. ESLP #3 remained sought after and prices moved up. Eastern White Pine producers reported strong sales for Industrial in any width and 1×12 in both Standard and Premium. Western Red Cedar producers continued to try to push prices higher, citing higher log costs as the reason. Others stood fast at their price levels, not wanting to elevate prices when demand did not warrant increases.
Panels: The two-tiered OSB market continued this week. Producers held close to their asking levels while secondaries sold contract loads below replacement levels. The volume of mill sales was light but enough to keep mill asking prices on firm ground. Strong sales led to significant price increases in the Southern Pine plywood market. Mills went off the market or raised prices aggressively in an effort to control buying after garnering order files ranging from the week of April 29 out into May 6. A stalled Western Fir plywood market, in comparison to its Southern Pine counterpart, finally sprang to life, allowing mills to increase sheathing prices more than at any time since early February. The market for Canadian plywood was uneventful. Producers reported light sales activity. Mill order files out to the week of 4/22 helped keep prices. A few particleboard producers in the Southeast announced a second price increase for particleboard for May 1. MDF maintained a strong pace.
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