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A dealer well-versed in the law

Meet the incoming chair of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association

BY Ken Clark

Bob Sanford, the incoming chairman of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, remembers very clearly the thunder bolt that sparked him to seek out a legal education. It came in the form of a lawsuit directed at his family business – Sanford & Hawley of Unionville, Conn.

The suit was brought against the lumberyard back in the mid 1980s for selling second-generation fire-treated lumber that turned brittle due to a defect in its treatment – through no fault of Sanford & Hawley. The lumber was used in five prison buildings, which all had to be rebuilt. And the dealer that has served Connecticut since 1884 was hit with a $60 million lawsuit.

“It was staggering,” Sanford said. “I remember reading the lawsuit that said ‘the defendant Sanford & Hawley knew or should have known …,’ and I thought ‘How would we ever have known the treatment was defective.’”

Ultimately, with representation from Lumbermen’s Mutual and after four years of litigation, the case was settled for far less than the $60 million sum. A relative success story, but it was still an expensive and frustrating experience for the company.

“That case was one of the solid reasons I decided I was going to go to law school and learn more about the law and how all this nonsense worked,” said Sanford, who received his law degree from nearby University of Connecticut. The lawsuit was also one of the reasons Sanford is passionate about tort reform and the Innocent Sellers Act, one of the NLBMDA’s marquee legislative efforts.

As the incoming chairman of the NLBMDA and an experienced participant of the legislative committee of the Lumber Dealers Association of Connecticut (and the 2008 LDAC Lumber Person of the Year) Sanford feels strongly about a number of issues affecting the industry.

There are banking regulations, for instance.

“I think some of the recent roll back and easing of regulations has been beneficial, particularly as it relates to the Dodd-Frank Act,” he told HBSDealer. He explained that an unintended consequence of the act has been to accelerate the mergers of large banks, while at the same time placing excessive burdens on smaller, community-focused banks – the ones that have stood by the construction supply industry during tough times and “understand local builders,” he said. “It would be unfortunate to find ourselves in a place where all we have are big banks.”

There’s also the matter of international trade, an issue in which Sanford stands with the NLBMDA on the side of free trade. The association has consistently called for more focus on negotiations with Canada to reopen the pipeline of critical Canadian softwood.

“I’m certainly a big proponent of free trade,” he said. “Tariffs have been extremely detrimental. Price stability is critical for housing. Unstable prices are not good for builders, not good for lumberyards, not good for anybody, and as the costs have escalated in the last 18 months, I’m sure it has deterred some building.”

Sanford came to his role as incoming chairman of the NLMBDA in the usual fashion – networking with current members. Past Chairman J.D. Saunders of Economy Lumber in Campbell, Calif., is credited as the successful recruiter.

Sanford will officially take his title from current Chair Rick Lierz, of Boise, Idaho-based Franklin Building Supply at the upcoming ProDealer Industry Summit. (The Summit is hosted jointly by the NLBMDA and HBSDealer.)

Another event that Sanford champions is the annual Legislative Conference that brings dealers from around the country to learn, network and meet their representatives in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve been going to that conference since the 1990s and I’ve only missed one year,” he said. “It’s definitely an event that’s worth the time and effort and energy. Sometimes you feel like you’re hitting your head against the wall, particularly with legislators who don’t necessarily see business interests all that clearly. But it’s still important for them to hear our message and our thoughts.”

Like all NLBMDA chairs before him, Sanford is a lumber dealer first and foremost. He operates the business with the help of his brothers Frank and Ted, who handle sales and operations, respectively. Bob’s children Robert and Abigail have also shown interest in the business, giving the company confidence in its succession planning.

“I tell my children it’s absolutely a fantastic opportunity for you, but you need to have a passion for it and if you don’t, then run the other way,” he said.

The company’s flagship store in Unionville  – “The Red Store on the Corner” – has more charm than most New England art or antique galleries. The Roaring Brook actually runs through the heart of the complex which includes cedar-clad barn building with a showroom on the second floor and drive-through lumberyard facility.

Sanford expressed admiration for his Connecticut competitors – a list that includes Ring’s End and Ridgefield Supply. And his company is a big believer in sharing information through roundtables and store visits.  “There’s nothing like having another lumber dealer walk through our yard and give us constructive feedback, and there’s nothing like walking through another yard to see how they operate,” he said, during a tour of the Sanford and Hawley distribution yard.

The sharing of ideas will factor heavily in his approach to his new role at the NLBMDA: “I think the big goal I have is to continue the work of my predecessors — helping the dealers, suppliers and manufacturers understand the value of the association and the benefits of participation.”

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