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An Illinois dealer goes inside the beltway

Russ Kathrein of Alexander Lumber embraces the lobbying effort in D.C.

BY Ken Clark

When Russ Kathrein, president of Alexander Lumber, was asked to join the board of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, he jumped at the chance.

“I just think it’s something you need to do,” said Kathrein, who has more than three decades of experience in the LBM industry, the last six as president and CEO of Alexander Lumber, a 12-unit pro dealer based in Aurora, Ill. “At this point in my career, it’s a way to give back and be an advocate for our industry.”

In one sense, that means using whatever connections he can to increase the power and prestige of the national organization representing the interests of lumber dealers in Washington, D.C. And armed with the experience of growth-stifling and excessive regulations in his native Illinois, he hopes to make an impact at a national level.

Russ Kathrein of Alexander Lumber

Regulatory and legislative issues have a dollar-and-cents impact on pro dealers. One example of particular interest to Kathrein and his team at Alexander Lumber: the Canadian softwood lumber disagreement, which has inflamed a wildly fluctuating lumber market.

“It just adds so much uncertainty,” he said. “It almost put people out of business. It seems that we should be able to just come up with a deal — It’s really not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s been ongoing through different administrations.”

Another way to advocate for the industry is to knock on doors in the nation’s capital, lobbying for dealers’ interests. That’s an activity in which Kathrein participated for the first time back in March during the NLBMDA’s Legislative Conference.

“And it was awesome,” he told HBSDealer about his legislative visits. “Once you get through security, the access you have is impressive. You can go anywhere.”

One particular positive memory is of Illinois representative Lauren Underwood, who sought out Kathrein at an NLBMDA cocktail reception on Capitol Hill. The meeting left the Illinois dealer feeling encouraged by the process, and impressed by the legislator’s extra effort to meet her constituents.

Like some other attendees, Kathrein intends to inject his immediate family into the lobbying process. Kathrein’s daughter, a lawyer, enjoyed seeing his photos of famous sights in Washington, D.C. “So, I said to her, ‘Why don’t we make this our thing?’ And she’s going to come out this spring and lobby with me.”

Kathrein traces his connection to the NLBMDA through the association’s current chair Bob Sanford, of Connecticut-based Sanford & Hawley. The two colleagues formed a friendship during various industry roundtables, and Kathrein will follow Sanford into the role of NLBMDA chair in October, during the ProDealer Industry Summit, hosted jointly by the NLBMDA and HBSDealer.

Drawing more people under the tent to promote the industry at a national level is a goal for both men, and both men emphasize that anyone can participate in the upcoming NLBMDA Spring Meeting & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. March 23-25.

First-timers are particularly encouraged.

“It might seem a little intimidating at first, but you’re not doing it alone,” he said, pointing to other dealers, the state organizations and the NLBMDA staff who are there to offer guidance to those new to the lobbying experience. “It’s really fascinating. It’s a lot of fun. And you get to meet a lot of different people.”

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