Centuries in the Making: Alexander Lumber (est. 1891)
The April issue of HBSDealer profiled a handful of lumberyards that have survived and thrived beyond the century mark. One of the keys to success across the board: They move on when opportunities present themselves.
See the April 2018 digital edition here.
What follows below is a look at Alexander Lumber, an Illinois institution since 1891.
Alexander Lumber (est. 1891)
Alexander Lumber, with 18 retail locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, celebrates 127 years in the lumber business.
The company’s roots stretch back to the 1870s when the Alexander family arrived in Wisconsin by way of Scotland and began a sawmill business. Along with retail lumberyards, including 15 locations in Illinois, the company now operates truss plants in Cortland and Le Roy, Ill., and a showroom and sales office in Twin Lakes, Wis.
The first actual Alexander Lumber location opened in 1891 with the aid of two partners, Tom Brittingham and Joe Hixon, and a $5,000 loan from Continental Illinois Bank of Chicago.
John Alexander, the youngest of the Alexander immigrants, eventually expanded the company, which grew with the railroad industry. Alexander expanded west through a series of land leases and “line yards,” which were small-scale yards along the railroad route.
By the 1920s, more than 100 of these small lumberyards were under the control of John Alexander.
The company eventually expanded product lines and built a showroom to serve contractors and builders. Otto Unteed managed day-to-day operations of the company from 1940 until his retirement in 1966.
Russ Kathrein was named president and CEO of the company in September 2014 and Alexander Lumber celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016. The company expanded into Iowa in 2016 when it acquired Nagle Lumber of Iowa City.
“Alexander Lumber has been looking for high-quality companies that will allow us to grow, while at the same time, diversify our business outside of the Illinois economy that has been our traditional base of business,” Kathrein said at the time.
Centuries in the Making: Maze Lumber (est. 1848)
You might recognize the pair of brothers who were pretty good customers for the old Requarth Lumber, the forerunner of The Requarth Co. of Dayton, Ohio. Their names were Orville and Wilbur Wright. Yes, the same Wright Brothers in your history books.
Requarth moved past supplying aviation industry pioneers many years ago. And that’s one of the recurring themes for each of the businesses profiled that have survived beyond the century mark. They move on when opportunities present themselves.
HBSDealer‘s profiles of lumberyards that have thrived for more than a 100 years offer a glimpse of the durability of this industry. Featured yards include:
- Maze Lumber (est. 1848)
- Alexander Lumber (est. 1891)
- The Requarth Co. (est. 1860)
- S.W. Collins Co. (est. 1844)
Read the feature on Maze Lumber below and stay tuned for the other three profiles coming next week.
Maze Lumber (est. 1848)
In 1848, Samuel Nesbitt Maze founded a business that would continue operating 170 years later and has entered its sixth generation of leadership — a historic trait that few lumberyards can lay claim to.
Situated on the banks of the Illinois River in Peru, Ill. — less than two hours from Chicago — Maze Lumber represents the foundation on which the company originated. Samuel Maze began the business by ferrying wheat up the Illinois and Michigan Canal into Chicago. From there, Maze would buy Wisconsin lumber and ferry it back down for sale at his Peru yard.
“Prior to railroads, that was a huge deal and how we got started,” said Pete Loveland, general manager of Maze Lumber and the great-great grandson of Samuel Maze.
Eventually the business expanded its offerings and sold coal — which lumberyards featured to expand sales during the building offseason.
“We sold lumber in the summer and coal in the winter. Typically, you didn’t have builders working steadily during the winter months,” Loveland said, noting that while the company sold hundreds of freight cars of coal, Maze sold its last truckload about three years ago.
Given its location to the Illinois River, periodic flooding has proven problematic. But its current address on 1100 Water St. is likely to be its home for quite some time. Loveland said that despite the havoc the river might cause, the company has no intention of moving: “We just accommodate it. It’s really a matter of being a major inconvenience.”
He described the river’s proximity to Maze Lumber not so much as a stone’s throw away, but rather “a basketball shot away.”
Having worked in the family business for 40 years, Loveland has seen some major changes at Maze.
“Back in the day, you only had contractors come down to the yard and there was no showroom,” Loveland said. “Now you not only have contractors come down, but you have families too.”
Today, special orders are also the name of the game for Maze as opposed to massive inventories. Due to the diversity of products — millwork, kitchen and bath, windows and doors and fireplace products — “you can’t stock it all,” Loveland said.
The customer split at Maze is roughly 60-40 between contractors and homeowners/DIYers. Among contractors, remodelers are the dealer’s primary customers. Operating in a dense, older market, building permits for new homes can be scarce.
“When we were right in the depths of the recession, there were almost no building permits for a year,” he said.
Given the business is approaching its 200-year mark, perception can be a challenge.
“It can conjure up an image of some type of lumberyard that is living in the past and hasn’t come up to modernity,” Loveland said. “But it’s not reality. Once people get into our yard, they realize we are cutting edge.”
Maze also continues to provide a strong balance of service, quality and pricing for its customers. “It might be cliché, but the reality is very few are able to provide all three,” he said.
“Over time lots of lumberyards have come and gone in this town. Those guys would come up with crazy pricing strategies and schemes. How did they stay in business with those business plans?” Loveland asked. “They didn’t, that’s the answer.”
RISI Crow’s Market Recap for March 30
A price index of lumber and panels used in actual construction for March 30, 2018.
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.
SPF buyers entered the market in greater numbers to replenish inventories after limiting purchases for several weeks and awaiting deliveries on late shipments. Many traders returned to their desks after the prior week’s Montreal Wood Convention. Railcar struggles persisted at some mills.
- Southern Pine lumber prices continued to decline, most falling $10-15. While mills sold decent volumes, buyers held off when possible, expecting further price erosion. All widths in upper grades exhibited weakness.
- Increased Coastal species market activity bolstered some prices early while others languished. Both dry and green items felt as though they established better footing, but not all items garnered a firm grip.
- Inland lumber markets experienced what one source termed a “progressively active week.” Early-week action was muted, but the positive effect of futures, combined with the inevitable lemming effect among buyers, led to solid progression in demand.
- After a number of traders returned from the industry gathering in Montreal the prior week, demand for studs improved significantly. Firming and rising prices were not just found in SPF or 2×4 9’, but most other items as well. Futures gains throughout much of the week helped motivate traders to participate even more.
- Ponderosa Pine Mldg&Btr and Shop lumber reflected some of the laggardly tone of mouldings and millwork. Prices adjusted very little in the Shop items, but Shop remained considerably more active than Mldg&Btr. Ponderosa Pine boards were still not comfortably available. At this point, with availability limited, producers were keeping their prices fairly tight. Selects continued to be very stable, showing no changes among mills that brought new stock to market.
- Producers of Western Red Cedar continued to sell at a steady clip. Buyers replenished and continued to bolster inventories for second quarter sales. Several producers noted they had little wood to sell for the month of April shipment. Some had none.
Following a mill breakdown in the US South last week, sagging OSB prices popped back up and continued gains this week, although activity calmed. Eastern producers continued serving western zones, as western Canadian mills are largely OTM.
- More Southern Pine plywood producers felt increased pressure to move quick shipping volumes at lower prices. Mills sold carload volumes at considerably lower price levels. Westside producers were most prone to the deep price cuts, trying to move carloads to both Pacific and Atlantic Coast states.
- After some improved sales activity at the mill level late the week prior and early this week, Western Fir plywood mills firmed quotes and even bumped them higher in some instances. The pace settled down for much of the remainder of the week, leaving a lot of CDX prices somewhat flat. Most mill order files extended only into the week of April 9.
- Canadian plywood markets grew busier as the week progressed, and producers pushed order files out. The market is firm and picking up interest going into the spring building season.
- Particleboard producers continued to report sporadic sales activity from week to week. Heading into April, producers expected demand to improve by now.
- MDF supplies remained tighter than particleboard, as distributors continued to replenish.
For more on RISI, click here.