In 1985 I got promoted to outside sales at my family’s lumber business in Indiana. I was only 18 years old. When you start in the lumber business as I did—beginning in the sixth grade—you accomplish many things at a very young age. In my case, the school bus actually dropped me off in front of our lumberyard every day and off to work I went.
I’m not complaining about it—the lumber industry has been very good to me. There’s not one position I haven’t had in a lumber/hardware store. I've even driven the lumber trucks, unloaded drywall by myself, and lifted shingles up onto roofs. Those were the days.
In 1985 we didn’t have digital scales to roll along the print to count lineal footage, and we didn’t have an estimating department. We performed our own window and door take-offs and figured stick-framed roofs with ridge beams, collar ties, and ceiling joists. There weren't as many truss roofs back then, but we did offer them.
When I went out on the road, no one had cell phones; we would stop and use a pay phone if we had to make a call. Eventually we did get pagers and, boy, were you a big shot if you had one of those. Lumber deliveries always got dumped—no fancy piggy back forklifts to put the lumber wherever the framer wanted it. The preferred flooring joist system was 2x10 and 2x12 Doug fir with 1x3 wood bridging, and TJI’s were just coming onto the market along with Microlam, which back then didn’t have any wax coating for weather protection meaning there was a lot of cupped material laying around.
In many of the areas we serviced, the home builder and his crew did most of the work, often including the electrical and plumbing, especially in the rural areas. As a supplier, we carried everything the builder needed, except kitchen appliances. When you’re in outside sales and you’re able to supply so much to one house, it makes for a pretty good sale for your company. That meant you had to be very knowledgeable in so many areas whereas today (in many cases) there are specialty companies that strictly focus on one or two products, and they’re very successful at it.
Inside the office it was normal to be walking around with a cigarette and even sitting with customers, smoking away was not uncommon. As far as human resources—what’s that? And yards with union drivers and yardmen were fairly common, although that had its own challenges.
We would go up against a few national lumberyards during the 1980s—Wickes from time to time and 84 Lumber—but those were the only two national suppliers that I recall competing against. We did have several very strong independent yards that were actually tougher to beat than the nationals at that time.
After the business day ended, many of us at the yard would start a new "shift" building storage barns and wood fence sections to sell. We could barely keep up with the local demand and for years we would build the barns, deliver, and even set them up at the job site. It was hard work, but I learned many carpenter skills building hundreds of these sheds.
So life in the '80s for me wasn’t so bad. We had plenty of work and much more one-on-one communication, no e-mail or texting, and no cell phones going off in the middle of a meeting or customer presentation. I had hair down to my neck and enjoyed smoking a Marlboro in my office while doing take-offs. I had a 1977 Monte Carlo with an awesome stereo, didn’t wear a seatbelt (wasn’t the law), and cruising on weekends was the main thing to do.
Thanks for taking a cruise down memory lane with me. I wonder how much differently we'll run our yards in another thirty years.