STRATEGY Z: Overcoming the Tyranny of Price Competition


The Yard
It was a Tuesday morning and except for one thing it was just like any other in the large Midwest commercial lumberyard where I worked during during college breaks. The job came as a perk from my relationship with the owner’s daughter and although the work could be hot, sweaty and even backbreaking, it paid well and most days it was fun. The 25-odd workers were mostly refugees from Appalachia and not a day went by without multiple hijinks involving equipment, lunches, drinks, personalities or anything else that could be messed with to get a laugh.

Mel was the yard manager, about the only no-nonsense guy in the whole place, and he had apprenticed me to Doc, the oldest, most experienced, and easily the best loader. Doc’s years were showing and I provided the muscle he no longer commanded. Doc knew the size and length of every stick of lumber, nail and joist hanger from a distance, their exact location in the yard and quizzed me mercilessly. To this day I can pick out a 2×10 vs. a 2×12 at 30 feet and pretty much name any species of lumber on sight. I have never included in my bio skills such as my encyclopedic knowledge of nail types and sizes and an uncanny ability to back a two axle farm wagon down an alley with precision, but I’ll admit those are things I take pride in.

On this morning Doc was sick, something that never happened before or after. Mel looked me in the eye and said, “Herder, this is your big chance!” I had been nicknamed “the sheepherder” on my first day three years prior, when another loader known as “Shanghai” claimed my Southern Indiana roots established a special fondness for sheep. Whatever… soon I became just “Herder.” They changed my badge and the nameplate on my helmet and no one ever called me anything else.

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Even the office joined in by making my paycheck out to Scott “Herder” Sedam. As I said, anything for a laugh. Mel handed me the order sheets and I studied them. “That’s Green Brothers, Herder. You know what that means. Just load it exactly like Doc would…and don’t screw up! I’ll have BB drive the wagon for you.”

Green Brothers
Lord help me…BB was Mel’s brother and a severely shell-shocked Korean War vet. What he mostly did was push a broom, spit tobacco juice and make cryptic comments about police, politicians, company management and anyone else who worked the yard. Not yet 21, I wasn’t insured to drive the tractors and wagons we used to assemble loads, but of course I did anyway. Officially we had one-way alleys through the huge yard, but unless you wanted to take a long journey around and risk waiting for someone else to clear out of a narrow run, each day presented numerous opportunities to back the wagon. With dual axles, backing them up was truly an art form that some never figured out. Doc was an ace though, and he taught me well.

Smart kid that I was, I suggested BB sweep aisle five while I picked up nails, construction adhesive and such, and I’d be back later for him. Of course, I conveniently forgot about BB and spent the rest of the morning getting two entire wagons loaded for Green Brothers, mostly by myself because it was easier and faster than dealing with BB. Mel looked the other way, as he always did if you got your work done.

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