Scott Norrie no longer feels he needs to choose between making a decision that is either good for his business or that is good for the environment. Thanks to a consolidation of his business and a redesign of his facility that now is 100% powered by solar, the president of Howe Lumber Co. in East Brookfield, Mass., can do both.
“The cost [of solar] has come down quite a bit and as a result the payback period has also dropped,” Norrie explains about his strategic business move. “So, as a business owner, you can choose to contribute to the sustainability of your business and environment and also make a solid business case for doing so. It’s no longer either/or.”
Founded by his wife’s grandfather in 1965, Howe Lumber recently combined its two locations once separated by 1.6 miles—a retail store/customer pickup yard and a showroom/distribution center—into one five-building facility that sits on a 13-acre parcel in central Massachusetts. The 12,000-square-foot main building houses both the retail store and showroom, along with offices. There’s also a 12,000 sf drive-through warehouse, a 5,500 sf millwork storage building, a 2,400 sf three-sided shed, and a 12,000 sf open-sided cantilever rack building.
All of the electricity used on site is generated by a 300 panel, 89 kWh, solar array located on the south-facing roof of the cantilever rack building. To build the system, Howe Lumber qualified for a USDA small business grant, which covered 25% of the cost. Norrie estimates the company will pay for the system and be in the black in three to four years. The solar system is expected to be productive for approximately 25 years or more.
“It allows us the opportunity to show leadership in green energy technologies, which we hope will generate some marketing benefits down the road,” he adds.
The solar power is not the only sustainable aspect of the facility redesign. Howe celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, and the family business places great emphasis on its history. To honor its past, Norrie incorporated elements of the former buildings into the new ones. The sign from the original location in North Brookfield hangs in the store to remind customers and the team of the business’s past. The lumber shed from the original location was salvaged and was sawn into boards that were used for trim inside the new store. Additionally, some of the metal tin roofing from the same lumber building was used to cover a roof inside the store.
“We wanted to build a facility that would last another 50 years,” Norrie says. “It’s designed to be sustainable and lead us into the future.”
Three guiding principles were incorporated into the design to improve efficiency. Proximity was an important factor for Norrie. After an 11-year separation between the two locations, the team wanted to have a physical setup that would maximize the connection the employees have with each other and also with customers.
To do so, they created well-defined workspaces. For example, an area inside the store, separated from the store by a rack, houses outside sales, outside sales support, and the back office functional areas as well such as A/P and A/R. Employees also have their own workspace so that they have some privacy while still maintaining the connection with other employees. And instead of using cubicles, which Norrie describes as the “minivans of the modern office,” they installed workstations with low partitions and glass.
Second, Norrie implemented what he calls the “Backpack Theory,” drawing a comparison between a bag used for hiking and back stock at a lumberyard. Here, he explains:
“I've done a fair bit of hiking in my life, and one thing remains constant--no matter what size backpack I choose to bring that day, I fill it. Big or small, always full. The same theory applies to a lumberyard. No matter what size you make the backroom or overstock shed, it always ends up full. So, we designed very little area for back stock storage. Instead, we want items in the yard to be on the shelf or in the rack for sale. Our facility is designed to accommodate this desire. If it's here, it is out for sale for the most part.”
The third principle Norrie employed involved damaged and obsolete goods (DOGs). In the past, Howe Lumber would accumulate a fair amount of DOGs that ultimately took up space that could have been devoted to new, salable stock. To combat this problem, Norrie took a new approach with the company’s consolidation project. The firm purchased a 40-foot shipping container and placed it in the yard. Today, all DOGs are kept inside the storage container and when it is full they are either donated or disposed of, he explains.
All of these moves have helped to elevate the company, Norrie concludes.
“This has given us a chance to illustrate that independent, one-location lumberyards can not only survive but thrive in the market,” he says.