Mansfield, Mass. — Steven Kaitz of National Lumber, remembers a time in the 1990s when he saw a lumberyard competitor unload a Moffett at a job site somewhere in Massachusetts. His team recognized immediately the efficiencies and the benefits delivered by the portable forklifts that ride piggyback on trucks. And it didn’t take long to jump on the bandwagon in a big way.
“We went out and bought two, and then bought ten more right away,” said Co-CEO Kaitz. “They had one, we had 12. And we even got involved in helping Moffett design their first four-way machines.”
Dipping toes in the water is for other companies. National Lumber dives right in.
That’s the mindset that has helped propel National Lumber to its status as a New England powerhouse with 14 retail locations, and a family of related businesses — component manufacturing, millwork, paint stores and kitchen remodeling showrooms among them.
Led by siblings and Co-CEO’s Steven and Margie Kaitz Seligman (grandchildren of the founder) and President Manny Pina, the company of 750 employees, including designers and specialists, has shown a bias to action combined with a nimbleness and willingness to invest in new opportunities.
These qualities propelled National Lumber to its status as the 2020 ProDealer of the Year. The award recognizes a lumberyard company that displays high performance combined with the willingness to adapt and embrace the best practices and best values of the LBM industry. The selection is the combined responsibility of HBSDealer and the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association.
“When we find something that’s worth doing, we grab hold of it,” Kaitz explained, when asked about the keys to success. “We are very quick to understand that we have to differentiate ourselves. Everybody’s going to ultimately catch up, and then we have to jump further ahead, and further ahead, and further ahead.”
National Lumber provides sophisticated builders services and programs, such as a turn-key framing program that has expanded all the way to California. Also noteworthy is their Rapid Frame® engineered floor system that end cuts I-Joists with precision and delivers them to the job site with inkjet labels and pre-applied glue strips.
And according to executives interviewed for this article, equally important is the family-run business’s emphasis on treating customers and staff like family.
Culture of service
The Holland Companies has been a National Lumber customer for about 15 years, working in some of the most prestigious addresses in Boston’s Beacon Hill, and other historic areas. “Our customers are pretty discriminating,” Joe Holland told HBSDealer. “Working with National Lumber, we have found that they really partner with us. They understand that this is a high-touch business and they’re with us all the way.”
National Lumber has provided Holland more than $2 million worth of custom architectural millwork over the years. Its ability to serve the highest quality custom builders can be traced back to a 20,000 sq. ft. shop and staining area within their 100,000 sq. ft. millwork facility in Mansfield. That’s where old world craftsmanship meets state-of-the-art equipment and technology.
The slogan “Service Above All™” is brought into the field by a team of 80-plus outside sales reps, many of whom bring expertise in specialty areas — from gypsum board to kitchens.
“Steven and Margie promote family and workmanship and everyone working together,” said outside sales rep Jamey Creason. “And the customer feels that. It’s a feeling that everyone is behind them and working together. We are family-owned and treated that way. It shines outward.”
Customer relations are big deal, and so are the biennial (pre-Covid) customer-appreciation trips to Cancun, Mexico, along with Foxwoods Resort Weekends and excursions to sporting events (14 season tickets to New England Patriot football games are at the sales team’s disposal).
Innovation by the yard
Sales are based on relationships, but they begin with service.
The company’s turn-key program is one of the ways it differentiates itself while providing service to customers. In 2019, the turn-key program grew to about a third of National Lumber’s business. And through relationships with framers and other suppliers, it expanded all the way to California.
Numbers game: Five sons, one grandson
Through his expertise in engineered wood products, Manny Pina was recruited to National Lumber by John Kaitz, the father of current co CEO’s Margie and Steven Kaitz. A former U.S. Marine and Viet Nam War veteran, Pina began his National career as VP of engineering in 1987, and has since led the push to establish specialties in millwork and manufacturing and turn-key framing.
“National Lumber was my biggest customer, and John spent two years recruiting me,” Pina said. “When he finally hired me, he said ‘Manny, I’m only going to promise you an opportunity. What you do with it is up to you.’ I said, ‘Just give me that.’”
In addition to the company’s growth, another lasting contribution made by Pina was in the field of human resources: Five sons and one grandson are employed in various fields at National Lumber — Myron, Blaine, Lydell, Austin, Nolan and Blaine, Jr.
“It’s a blessing,” Pina said. “I really enjoy them. Sometimes it can be tough because of my makeup. I don’t believe in nepotism or playing favorites. I tell them that their supervisor is the person who they have to impress.”
“The builder turns over the project plans to us and says ‘give me a frame,’” explained Kevin Silveira, National Lumber director of business development, who heads up the program. “And when the concrete is ready, we show up. And we leave when the frame is finished.”
The concept applies to siding, trim, roofing and gypsum board, and appeals to the commercial builder customer for a number of reasons: First, there’s a labor shortage. And second, National Lumber takes on the staffing and the materials at a fixed cost, protecting the general contractor from risk.
How? “There are a lot of moving parts,” said Silveira. Those parts include expertise in reading the market, experience in framing, and relationships with crews and vendors. And there’s also software that has allowed the program to broaden.
“We are going to continue to grow our “turn-key” operation, because we believe that there’s going to be less and less people out in the world that understand how to build,” said Kaitz. “And a lot of the contractors and builders want to buy something where they can control their costs.”
In a long, garage-like building in the company’s main distribution center in Mansfield, one finds another example of National’s commitment to big ideas. A machine about 30 yards in length precision end-cuts (down to an 1/8 of an inch) giant I-Joists, labels the engineered wood, and pre applies a powerful Rapid Frame adhesive strip for ease of assembly at the job site. Contractors just rip off the film and connect the components.
Developed in concert with Boise, the saw apparatus system (similar machine operates at National’s Branford, Conn., location) is unique in the New England market and represents an investment of about two million dollars. The system is the foundation for the company’s value add Rapid Frame engineered floor systems program.
“It speeds up the process,” said Dave Pelletier, director of operations. “If somebody wants a floor system, we’ll design it for them, and they won’t have to make the cuts. The glue is pre applied, and the guys who have tried it, they love it.”
Pelletier manages all the National Lumber yard locations, and splits much of his time between Mansfield and the Reliable Truss manufacturing plant 40 minutes away in New Bedford. Reliable Truss supplies, among other things pre-cut rafter systems and roof trusses from simple to complex.
“We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to be different in the market and add value,” Pelletier said. “If all you do is sell sticks, and the project goes to the lowest bidder, then it becomes a very challenging business.”
Looking ahead, the company likes what it sees in the long-term for the housing market. Pointing to a nearly 15-year run of annual housing starts that have fallen far short of historical averages, Kaitz looks for a strong decade for housing to come.
The pandemic disrupted some of the building in New England, but not National Lumber’s momentum.
“In January and February, we thought it was going to be the best year ever,” said Creason, the outside sales rep. “We still think it’s going to be pretty darn good.”