Think of Ori Sivan, Sarah Beatty, and John Meggs as the Toyota Prius of the LBM fleet. All three run relatively new building material dealerships that fuse the traits of traditional lumberyards with those of thrift shops, old-line distributorships, and health-food stores–the kind of store that plays reggae while you're on hold.
If Greenmaker and GreenDepot do the same, it may be because their leadership teams also are hybrids, pairing generations-old LBM savvy with an outsider's perspective. Sivan started his working life as an environmental engineer, while Greenmaker co-founder Joe Silver is a third-generation LBM guy whose family owns Remodelers Supply Center and several ancillary businesses in Chicago.
Beatty worked in the communications business, including a stint at Viacom, but was able to plunge into LBM in large part because her husband, Mark Buller, is the "Mar" in Marjam Supply Co.
Meggs, schooled as a mechanical engineer, doesn't have an LBM connection, but he at least knew a bit about building materials from having run a design firm.
Their partners' backgrounds make Sivan and Beatty well aware that their companies occupy a precarious business niche with limited product lines that usually exclude price-driven commodities, such as framing lumber. "You tell me: who's going to pay a 20% premium on a 2x4?" Sivan asks.
Beatty says green product sales "are driven by people, not just by price. That isn't the way the building supply business, which is highly specialized, is conducted."
One way these three survive is to do things traditional dealers don't. Reclaimed lumber is one example: Greenmaker and Nature Neutral both sell it next to the new stuff. Distributing products is another. Nature Neutral is the source for Bonded Logic natural fiber insulation sold by the Washington, D.C., area's Community Forklift store.
"People ask me: 'Are you a retail or a wholesale organization?' " Meggs says. "I say, 'Yes.' ? We're succeeding because we've reached beyond the local 30 to 50 miles."
Adds Beatty: "It would be difficult for me to rationalize that GreenDepot would be successful if we weren't also a distributor."
Those two plus Sivan also spend their time differently than do regular LBM people. Beatty estimates that learning about products and sourcing them easily takes up half her day. Meggs says he becomes a researcher every night, from 8 p.m. to midnight, after he puts his kids to bed.
It's a workload like this that leads Sivan to warn traditional dealers against getting involved in green products unless they are willing to invest the effort to learn about them and understand the market. "It takes time to get price points, quality, and availability," Sivan says. "It's treacherous in a new market." Some big West Coast dealers, most notably Hayward Lumber of Monterey, Calif., and Parr Lumber of Portland, Ore., have made such a commitment. For those that aren't willing to do so yet, Sivan suggests they "have someone else take the bite,'' such as the distributor who's willing to carry green products.
In the end, they all suggest it's about passion. "This is something we had to do," says Beatty, who thought for four years about GreenDepot–the result of concerns over air quality issues affecting her first-born child–before launching the business in January 2006. "These kinds of alternatives [to building construction] should not be for the very rich or for those in subsidized housing. Businesses have a responsibility to tell consumers there are alternatives."