Weston Premium Woods Banks on People, Relationships
The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep at Weston Premium Woods, tracing all the way back to a determined immigrant sweeping the floors of a tiny, industrial shop almost 70 years ago. Fleeing to Canada from warn-torn Czechoslovakia, he worked diligently to take ownership in the company, ultimately buying out the original partners and eventually teaming with his 2 sons to build what has become a multimillion-dollar distribution business. Current Executive Vice President Michael Shapiro, in his proud re-telling of the company’s humble history, says the same level of dedication and perseverance guides Weston to this very day. That, along with the values it embraces as a family-owned and -operated firm, is what he believes makes the distributor somewhat unique among its peers.
“We approach our business very differently than our competitors do,” notes Shapiro, who is also general manager. Based on market dynamics alone, he supposes, Weston’s single-location format could potentially put it at a disadvantage—at least on the buy side—compared with rival distributors in Ontario, which typically are part of large chains. However, he asserts, having entrepreneurial-minded personnel actually makes Weston more competitive. “What really stands out about us are our people, the relationship side of things,” he speculates. “I really do believe, at the end of the day, it’s the people and the attitude that we have that makes us not necessarily better, but unique.”
For example, Shapiro offers, “the perspective that we have is more entrepreneurial than simply selling at the cheapest possible price.” He describes a trend whereby most distributors are angling to win business based on price, rather than on what they bring to the table; and their buyers are doing the same. It’s a reversal from years ago, Shapiro laments, when deals where based on relationships. “It used to be: I have a relationship with Company A—this is who I buy from, and this is why: the service, the quality, or another reason,” he explains. “Technology is changing the way customers interact with their suppliers, putting even more importance on building the relationship between the two parties.”
As the emphasis on relationships has been lost over the years, Shapiro believes the obsession over price—with no consideration of value or yield—is not doing the industry any favors. “People are focused on the input price, and that’s not everything,” he declares. “On the lumber side, you can pay $1 per foot for red oak and potentially throw 25% of it in the garbage as opposed to paying $1.10 and throwing 5% in the garbage—I don’t think people quite understand that. The same thing applies when you’re buying sheet goods: how will the sheet perform and what is the wear-and-tear on your equipment? More and more people are focused on the input price because they’re not being exposed to the other factors. They’re just worried about that cost of per unit; they’re not thinking about everything else that goes into it: the service, the labor, the finishing, the machinery, and so forth.”
Technology will only continue to make it easier to focus on price, warns Shapiro, who says the industry needs better sales people to cultivate those lost relationships. It also needs to tackle perceptions that it has become a “less sexy” profession, he says. To Toronto’s emerging workforce, anyway, he admits that walking into a sawdust-covered factory to check in with “Joe Woodworker” might not be as appealing as a suit-and-tie job. As a result, he suspects “we’re attracting a lower-caliber sales person, when our industry needs better because technology is forcing that.”
Without a doubt, Shapiro considers “the people”—populating the workforce with young, newcomers with the entrepreneurial skills to cut it in the woodworking industry—the top challenge facing the sector. “Whatever is second, third, fourth, or tenth,” he stresses, “it pales in comparison.” Even so, he suggests that people—recruiting, more specifically—could just as easily represent the biggest opportunity for the industry. “Many forest product distributors have an aging workforce, which means in the next few years there will be lots of accounts that need to be handed over to the next generation. Somewhere in the next 5 to 10 years, there’s going to be a lot of accounts that need to be serviced, and not a lot of young and qualified sales people ready to take them on,” he notes. “There are going to be a lot of opportunities for young, hungry, entrepreneurial sales people who are willing to put in the hard work now to learn the industry and build those relationships.”
The other big opportunity Shapiro sees ahead is textured board. Like other industry insiders, he’s convinced the trend is here to stay. With so many Italian woodworkers in the Toronto area, he says the European-driven product may have hit his region early—Weston noticed it about six years ago--but now, it has caught on throughout the rest of North America. Domestic manufacturers of melamine coast to coast are now producing it, and distributors everywhere are exploring their options and adding lines. “Registered embossed textured melamine is the product of the future especially as the technology to produce these boards gets cheaper and the technological improvements allow the manufacturers to produce designs that look and feel like real wood,” Shapiro declares.
Just like the trend toward textured board, Weston is here to stay, too, according to its executive VP, who says the search is always on for ways to build a competitive advantage. “We’re constantly traveling to different trade shows or looking at different organizations that we can potentially belong to,” he says. “The one that we kept hearing about that we weren’t a part of was the NBMDA, so we felt we had to see what it was all about.” The distributor joined the organization about a year ago and has enjoyed membership so far, from the speakers to the first taste of the big convention last fall. But Shapiro stresses that he’s not just there for talk.
“You can hear great economists speak anywhere, you can talk to lots of people about succession planning…and I understand why NBMDA does all those things,” he says. “But to me, it’s about learning best practices from the leaders in the industry—how they operate their firms and why they do what they do. Discovering what makes them successful and, hopefully, adopting some of those ideas to make us more successful. Because our relationship with the group is still in the infancy stages, I can’t sit here and say our business is better today as a result of being part of the NBMDA … but I strongly believe that at some point I will be able to say that.”