An Industry 'Wurth' Its Weight in Wood

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Tom Mauss comments that while people inside building materials distribution surely appreciate what a great industry it is, they perhaps are not vocal enough in acknowledging it. As President and CEO of Wurth Louis and Company in Brea, Calif., he, for one, is not shy about conveying his love of the channel. With 31 years invested, Mauss says “it's just a pleasure being in this industry. It's just a good place. We've just got some great people as suppliers and as manufacturers in the chain; and we've got really great customers.” 

One of the aspects he enjoys most is the pervasive spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that bucks the dog-eat-dog attitude defining much of corporate America. “I know there are some industries that are more cutthroat, but that doesn't fit well in our industry,” Mauss explains. “I think everyone is more interested in the long term and in long-term relationships and providing services to our customers in a positive way.” As a case in point, he notes that most of the manufacturer relationships at Wurth Louis and Company have been maintained for 30 or more years of the distributor's 40-year history. Some even date back to its very first year in business. These are long-term relationships, Mauss says, and deeply valued ones. “We work closely with the manufacturers to build a substantial amount of business together, and that's done through open communication, working together on opportunities, and collaboration,” he declares. “We need each other.”

That kind of symbiotic mindset is also what Mauss loves about the NBMDA and its events – including the recent convention in Orlando. To Mauss, the event represents another vehicle through which it can enhance relationships between distributors and manufacturers and help distributors provide better service to their customers. “It's a way of gaining more insight into what manufacturers are experiencing in terms of growth in business or, if there are constraints in growth in business, to have discussions around that,” he notes. “It's an opportunity to sit and to talk and to lock in on strategies, specific strategies for each of the various lines that we represent. And many of those are a continuation of a previous conversation, and sometimes it's the beginning of a new conversation. I believe there's a lot of power in conversation, and that's really what the event provides: a great opportunity to do that, and to do a lot of that in a short period of time.”

One issue likely to pop up more in discussions between distributors and manufacturers is the hurdle presented by federal regulations governing such areas as wood-dust collection, coating applications, adhesive applications, and machinery safety. It's not easy for distributor customers to keep abreast of the flurry of rules constantly coming from all directions, according to Mauss, who believes that as distributors of solutions to those regulations, Wurth Louis and Company and its peers have an obligation to keep customers informed on the regulatory front. Doing so is in the best interest of both sides, he insists, since failure to do so can trigger penalties. “If we are distributing products that are not compliant, we also could be fined for that,” Mauss acknowledges. “The threat is even more severe, though, for our customers,” many of whom are small businesspeople who cannot financially bear a fine or a temporary shutdown as a result of, say, an air quality management issue.

Mauss points out that the onus is not on government agencies to ensure that the industry has the latest updates. Everything is on the public record, he says, and distributors employ a variety of sources to navigate the regulatory minefield. At Wurth Louis and Company, manufacturers themselves are key in providing that kind of information. Additionally, there is an emphasis on communicating through the firm's sales organization to customers about ongoing changes. “We also have an obligation to make sure that we have internal systems so that we're not shipping noncompliant products to our customers,” Mauss adds, “and we have those in place.”

While ever-changing government regulation may be one of the biggest challenges facing distributors and end-users, Mauss sees technology as perhaps one of the greatest opportunities. “There are new technologies being developed by our suppliers to help our customers to be more efficient in the manufacturing of their end products,” he says. In particular, this trend is increasingly apparent in the cabinet segment of the market. Cabinets represent an area of growth, according to Mauss, because of the growing range of products available. “We see those products used through a couple of different avenues,” he reveals. “One is the manufacturing process that enables the cabinet maker to really become more productive in producing their end product; the second is enhancements for the end users in terms of accessories that go in the product.” This is a trend that Mauss has noticed not only in the southern and western markets of the country that Wurth Louis and Company services, but nationwide. Cabinet lighting, especially, is benefiting from the innovation and will continue to do so going forward as manufacturers come up with unique applications and more simplistic systems that make it easier for cabinet shops to install lighting.

Additional opportunity for Wurth Louis and Company, Mauss reports, stems from its status as a distributor of woodworking machinery. As he describes it, the firm provides solutions that can range from a complex engineered machinery solution down to a simple screw whose unique design gives it stronger holding power and requires less time to drive the screw. “So you've got on one end a very expensive, complicated solution and on the other a solution that is a little faster and costs less than a penny,” Mauss says. “I think that's an example of some of the opportunities that we also provide our customers with – these types of solutions that help them be more competitive in the marketplace.”

Something that perhaps makes Wurth Louis and Company itself more competitive is its “greenfielding” approach to expansion. Rather than acquire existing businesses, it prefers to open a new location on its own. Expansion is in the works for the next three to six months at the company, which started with a single location in 1975 and is now approaching two dozen. As it looks to grow organically, it is targeting markets where there is a need for a stronger Wurth Louis and Company presence. “For a lot of customers, it's about having the right products available for them, in most cases, within 24 hours; but sometimes they need to finish up a job and if they can swing by and pick up a couple of items to finish up that job and get it installed, they like that. So that's what we like to provide.”

The strategy fits nicely with the company's mission statement: people dedicated to providing excellent service and fine-quality products to the woodworking industry. The people part of that oath is crucial, by Mauss' judgment, and comes back to his belief that the building materials channel is populated with “great” people. “It all really starts with having the right people who care about meeting our customers' needs and making it simple for our customers to do business,” he concludes.

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