Customers drive lumber company’s success
November 29, 2010 | 6:00 pm CST

Huge numbers of companies have responded to the economic meltdown in the woodworking industry by cutting back in quality, service, personnel, and other areas. But MacDonald & Owen Lumber Co. has bucked that trend, moving ahead with a customer-centric business plan, including an award-winning marketing video emphasizing customer testimonials.

“Nobody can tell our story better than our customers,” says David Twite, president of the company, which is headquartered in Sparta, Wisc., but also last June bought a big facility in Brookville, Pa. A marketing video from the company recently was honored as the best marketing video and grand prize winner in CabinetMakerFDM’s first video contest for the woodworking industry.

Letting customers talk 

“If companies talk about themselves, it seems self-serving and suspect,” says Twite. “If customers talk, it is extremely compelling.”

That’s why the company’s video is dominated by customers talking about the service and quality they experience from doing business with MacDonald & Owen. And Twite says it wasn’t hard to find customers with positive things to say. “Our strategy is to build into customers (so much service) that they get so dazzled they have to talk about it,” he says.

Although the video opens with Twite talking, it quickly moves to enthusiastic customer comments interspersed with related vignettes of MacDonald & Owen employees at work, sorting, processing, and shipping lumber. The video was produced by Justin McGrath, Higher Concept Media, La Crescent, Minn.

Why video? 

While video might not seem the obvious marketing tool for a lumber company, Twite says it is perfect for the times. “The new generation is moved and motivated by sight and sound,” says Twite. “In this particular economy, it’s a huge miss if you miss video.”

His marketing strategy also includes e-mail and the Internet, but he sees real power in the video image. He notes how typical junk mail is so readily tossed and never actually seen by the target audience. “The right type of video has a higher propensity of being seen,” he says. “People do really truly view it.”

But he emphasizes, that a video has to be authentic to have real marketing power. “We’re letting people tell their story in real time,” he says. “We live in a world that’s very skeptical of advertising. We have to have somebody else say things in a believable way.”

More than marketing 

What Twite’s customers say isn’t just talk. It reflects a business philosophy that runs throughout company. He talks about bringing people in over a weekend to make sure a late Friday order gets processed and goes out first thing Monday morning. He adds that it is crucial to have the right employees to be able to regularly offer that kind of service. He says it has to come from a team approach and can’t be based on threats from management.

“In this economy, if your people don’t feel confident, it won’t work,” he says. Referring to the Jim Collins book “Good to Great,” Twite says, “We get the right people on the bus and put the right people in the right seats.”

Describing his company as “faith based,” Twite says it is important to treat everyone, including employees and customers, as individuals. “Everybody is a human being with soul and a goal and a purpose,” he says. “That’s what made our lives really simple is the right people.”

Not selling on price 

Twite has worked in the lumber business since high school. He started at MacDonald & Owen as an employee and helped build the business, eventually buying out the owner. He says his secret to success is straightforward: “Give people something good or better than expected, ship on time, and make sure they can get somebody on phone.”

Of course, it takes some doing to continue to exceed customer expectations and still be profitable. Twite says he set up his facility more like a FedEx hub than a typical lumber yard. At the center is a 100,000-square-foot heated warehouse, not sheds all over the place like some lumber yards.

All the lumber is sorted for color and special needs. That helps the company sell customers more what the customers need rather than just what the company stocks. Twite describes a visit he made to a South Dakota woodworking business. Walking through the shop, he talked with the owner about all the lumber he had on hand that wasn’t up to the shop’s color and quality standards and therefore amounted to waste. “The shop owner said, well, you have to expect some of that,” Twite recalls. “I said, not from us.”

That made it easy to make the case that the higher price of the MacDonald & Owen product was actually cost effective in the long run.

“I want people to buy from me because I’m good, not because of price,” Twite says, but then he quickly adds. “You can never rest on your laurels.”

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.