Running east-to-west for approximately 16 miles at the northern end of the Las Vegas metro area, Craig Road caps off the development that begins with the famed Strip downtown and sprawls outward to where the subdivisions meet the sand. Driving up to Craig along Highway 95, you pass hundreds of projects in various stages of completion from virtually all of residential construction's big-name companies, including Lennar, Richmond American, Beazer, KB Home, D.R. Horton, Centex, and Pardee, among others. It's just the place Payless Cashways wanted to be when it built a yard here in the early-'80s.
But Payless, like virtually every other company that has tried to enter the Las Vegas market over the past two decades, eventually closed up shop and pulled out. Vegas industry veterans say that the market—almost more so than anywhere else in the country—is driven and dictated by business relationships hammered out over the years between construction subcontractors and local independents A.C. Houston Lumber Co., Desert Lumber, and Sandlin Lumber. “The available lumber market in Las Vegas has been held by those three lumber companies for years,” explains John Davis, who has worked for both A.C. Houston and Desert Lumber and is now heading up Houston-based Bison Building Materials' entry into Las Vegas, which began last year with a complete remodel of the old Payless Cashways location on Craig Road.
Fifteen lumber companies have started up and folded in Las Vegas within the last 15 years, says Davis, adding that there are some outlying operations by 84 Lumber and Stock Building Supply that have thus far flown under the radar. “Everyone that has tried has come in here with a lot of hoopla, but I think the longest stint was a year.” According to Davis, the track record of outsider failure in Las Vegas perpetuates an already strong bias toward the three established lumber companies among pro contractors, who are wary of risking their historical supply relationships for a here-today, gone-tomorrow deal. “Dealers come into Vegas thinking they are going to make a fortune,” he says. “But after a very short period of time, they discover that at times they cannot even bid on anything. They can't even give lumber away, because for all intents and purposes, the market expectation is that their doors won't be open after six months.”
With Bison, though, Davis is willing to bet that the chips are finally stacked in favor of the new kid on the block, particularly due to a growing acceptance of engineered wood floor systems among subcontractors and big builder purchasing agents. “This has always been a huge floor truss town, but we've been making some rapid inroads with EWP,” agrees Bison commodities buyer Todd Bybee, who joined Bison after a 12-year run at A.C. Houston. In particular, Bybee credits Bison's Boise Engineered Wood Products' SawTek system that enables the dealer to make mechanical cuts in I-joists for running plumbing, electrical, and HVAC lines, allowing trades to complete work without additional labor and cutting to installed floor systems.
Boise's SawTek system, in fact, is what first put Davis in touch with Bison. Davis says he went solo with his own EWP company in 2003 when Crown Pacific divested its interest in Desert Lumber back to previous owner Terry Ono and Ono decided to discontinue EWP. Sourcing product wherever he could, Davis developed a relationship with Boise and accepted an invitation to visit Bison to see the SawTek system at work, a technology that he hoped would make EWP more of a value-added product sell to Las Vegas builders. During that visit, Bison president Pat Bierschwale asked if Davis would head up an operation that the pro dealer was considering launching in Sin City, a proposition that Davis ultimately accepted last year.
“We teamed up in March of 2005 and began to develop where we are today,” Davis says. “We have a T5 especially made by Boise for Bison that runs triple the speed of any other saw in the country. It runs 1,000 feet of I-joist per minute and is the only saw in the world that will cut I-joists from 9½ to 20 inches deep, and will cut a 7-by-17 Parallam or LVL beam.”