A Wholesaler’s Perspective – John Branstetter Part 2
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In part one, Wildwood Trading Group’s John Branstetter spoke with me about the forces he thinks are impacting the lumber market, and how he differentiates himself and his team from competitors. Here’s part two of John’s interview in our new series: A Wholesaler’s Perspective. To read part one, click here.
Matt: Talk to me a little bit about technology and how it’s changed how you do business.
John: When I started in the lumber business up in Republic, Washington in 1975 and actually got in sales about ’77, thereabouts, everything was done by the phone. If you wanted to sell something, you had to call somebody and talk to them or they had to call you. There was no Internet, there was no fax machine, there was none of that stuff. Everything was done with a verbal contract. That’s how I’ve perceived the business: You’re as good as your word.
If you sell somebody a $10,000 carload of lumber or $20,000, whatever it may have been in those days, you sell the car, you ship the car, and you invoice the car before you ever get any purchase orders or confirmation.
Then, I saw the first fax machine, and again that would’ve been in the late seventies. And I thought that was pure magic, and that made communication a little bit easier and more accurate. And we evolved into the Internet and emails and texts. The technology has made communication a lot better. You can send more information in a click of a button. You don’t have to retype everything or rewrite everything. You can copy stuff. You get information out there very quickly, very accurately. That’s advantageous.
Hopefully we don’t get away from the personal touch. If we do that, then the lumber business becomes like another Amazon. You just look at their catalog and buy what you want and move on. And that’s not the way we’ve done business in the past.
Matt: Tell me more about that line between adopting technology, maintaining the personal interaction, and avoiding becoming an Amazon catalog.
John: You negotiate pretty much every deal, and you can do that electronically. But when you’re selling a customer, if you can talk to them, if you can get them on the phone, you can pretty much tell what they’re thinking by the tone of their voice and the questions they ask and that kind of thing.
You don’t become a psychologist, but you learn to pick up on verbal intonations. And that’s different than most things. Also in lumber, which is different than say Amazon or selling cars or real estate or anything else, is we want to sell these folks day after day after day. You want to build that relationship, and pretty much all of the lumber market is moved by emotion. That’s where the personal communication is so important; you can feel that, and you can adjust things a little bit, too. And you can warn your good customers, “Hey, this thing’s feeling pretty strong. Maybe you better get in here, get this while the getting’s good, because it’s going to be gone if you wait any longer.”
Matt: It makes total sense. So, reading the room or reading the person you’re doing business with is a human experience that’s necessary and central to deal making that technology can’t solve for.
John: Correct. Correct.
Matt: Then with this last question, how do you adopt and innovate using technology in a way that does not encroach upon that precious personal relationship legacy part of doing business?
John: Companies like Yesler are quite additive. I think that, again, it’s about getting information out there.
Matt: Are you bullish on the industry’s future adoption of technology and maintaining the unique personal touch that’s a mainstay of how to do business? Or do you think that another industry’s technology is going to occupy and dominate and create some negative returns?
John: That’s a good question. Again, I think the lumber business is repeat business. We want to keep selling to you day after day after day, and not many industries are like that. Another part of that is we’ve got millennials coming along, and millennials don’t talk. They want to text or email. But again, the ones that are going to be the most successful are the ones that can talk and can visit with you a little bit, have some vital chit chat. And they’re out there, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the millennials that want to be digital first.
So, am I bullish? I think so. I don’t think we can get away from the way we pretty much do it now with the personal touch, whether it’s Yesler or Zoom calls or Teams calls or anything like that. I think that at some point, there has to be personality in there and some kind of an emotional connection, because like I said, this is an emotional business as much as anything.