Five Questions With: Tom Rider
THE REINVENTION OF HUMAN CAPITAL in the LUMBER & BUILDING MATERIALS INDUSTRY
A Q & A Series Conceived and Hosted by Matt Meyers of Yesler
Featuring Tom Rider, President of Carl’s Building Supply
Tell me about your business, why you’re in it, and why it’s still fun?
My career began, like a lot of others in the industry, by sweeping at a lumberyard when I was 16 years old. Plywood Supply came to my school and said, “Hey, we are looking to hire someone after school a couple hours a day.” Sweeping the lumber yard segued to working on a forklift, to sales, as well as roles in operations. Amidst going to college, taking time to work contractor sales, and then law school, I came back to work for Plywood Supply. I also did some consulting in the industry for a few years, advising start ups that had great ideas for the industry, but not knowing where to start.
I came to Carl’s Building Supply about four and a half years ago on a part time consulting basis and now am in the role of president of our operations. I really enjoy the people part of it. That is what keeps me excited and engaged. I like to say that I found a happy medium professionally…because my dad was a contractor, and my mom is a management consultant. So, I’m right smack dab in the middle of it.
Because of your background, experience and understanding of the startup culture, how do you view the LBM industry as it relates to technological innovation disruption and that demographic equation?
Startups can be exciting when you throw out an idea and they say, “Okay, give it a try.” However, in traditional LBM, it might be “Well, that’s a great idea, but let’s talk about it for 10 years and then table it and talk about it for another 10 years.”
I started working for Carl’s who had an owner that allowed me to act in the same capacity as startups do. The industry as a whole is just trying to get people to give up a fax machine. We still may need a fax for some situations, but for someone who is in their twenties, in the industry, you have to make it exciting and continuously forward moving. I want to explore ideas, and I want my colleagues to think of things where we say: “Oh gosh, that’s not going to work, but let’s take a look at an alternative and try to push forward.”
We are attempting to do building materials e-commerce with a same-day delivery van in order to keep construction projects going. The younger generation needs to see us push forward with some of these ideas rather than giving up on them because of stumbling blocks out of the gate. Other lumberyards that have tried to do e-commerce are often held back by a mentality of “we’ve always done it this way, or we tried that once and it didn’t work”.
What stage would you say technological disruption is at in the LBM industry? Are we early? Are we mid-life? Is there a huge air place to grow how technology can be used?
The industry, as a whole, is a late adopter. The bar is not high to look technological. We are late adopters because when times are good, we all take credit for it. When times are bad, we blame the economy, I know we are not the only industry to do that but we are among the best because of how cyclical business can be. And so, you’ll see a whole lot of lumberyards that have a Facebook page that was set up in 2014, and they haven’t posted anything in six years. I remember when I started working at this yard, I was fairly well-skilled at using Excel. People thought I was the new IT guy, just because I could do it with ease and familiarity.
What are the areas where you think technology can make an impact in the LBM industry?
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, but the most obvious are the efficiencies, on the front end or the back end. It is certainly no secret that supply chain issues are a major focus.
There should also be more integration between our sales platform and communications. The simple use of Slack as a tool for us has revolutionized the way we communicate when deliveries are full or when updates happen and we have integrated it with the apps. But the process is clunky. That is probably the best word to describe it.
Is there an opportunity for the industry to get younger and therefore have faster implementation of new technologies? Does this go hand in hand?
Intentionality is key. It is about how you recruit and hire people.
If you hire young people and they are met with the old “This is the way we have always done it,” they will just leave. We absolutely have an opportunity to attract younger people now, but we need to be focused to be successful. You have to keep their interest. And I can’t highlight and emphasize enough the word ‘intentional.’ Intentional hiring, intentional recruiting, and intentional retention of employees.
Are there things that need to be done to make the industry more attractive to young people?
We have tried to show and to make people believe that any position here can be a career. And that starts with how you talk to people. If they believe it’s just a job, and at least it pays a little bit more than McDonald’s down the road, then you don’t retain people. You just keep them fora little while. So, we make intentional efforts to communicate that it’s a career and show them examples of how to achieve this.
How does diversity, equity, inclusion issues play into the industry and its future?
It’s crucial to make this an important factor otherwise our talent pool will dry up. We have actually created, not a hiring bonus, but a referral bonus. If you send someone in that we like, then you’ll get $500 and that person will get $500. And amazingly, all of a sudden people are thinking of all the friends and family that they thought were good candidates. It is a combination of social responsibility and caring about job performance and performers.
How does organizational change happen in the LBM industry?
Change depends on the evolution of growth and innovation. I think micromanagement is an unpleasant concept, but it is necessary if an enterprise is truly at the foundation, and from there you have to build upon it. I believe in selling the ‘why’, that you have focus on the details and good processes when you’re building the foundation. Then, once you get to a certain point, you realize it’s time to delegate. And just as hard as it is, trust those people and have them buy in by being part of the build.
Is the innovation opportunity in the industry focused on an increase of technology / efficiency, or is it also inclusive of increasing the kinds of employees and over all diversity?
Employees need to believe that there’s going to be something bigger. And with each subsequent step, you need to show that you are growing as a company. You need to show a more grownup accounting department, a more developed sales department that handles their respective area of expertise, instead of everybody wearing every hat. There are positions not yet created. And so, it is exciting to think about the future because as we get bigger and become this more evolved company, there are new opportunities. It isn’t about waiting for someone to retire. It’s about building a bigger future. Just being bigger doesn’t make you better, being better is better.