Spotlight: WCMA’s Steve Lawser Retires After 30 Years
By Michelle Keller
Marietta, Ga.—The Wood Component Manufacturers Association’s (WCMA) Executive Director Steve Lawser recently retired. Lawser said his career within the wood products industry began in 1982.
“My first contact with the Hardwood industry was during the 1982 International Woodworking Fair (IWF), where I introduced the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program that was designed to assist companies and industries which were being harmed by import competition,” he explained. “We could see imports of wood components and furniture making their way into U.S. markets in the early 1980’s and it was a growing trend. We received a sizeable grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1983 to conduct a series of projects designed to revitalize the Hardwood dimension business. These included various production, financial, labor productivity and marketing related programs, which led to the creation of our annual market study and cost-of-doing-business and wage and benefit surveys that continue to serve as useful benchmarks for WCMA members to compare their businesses with others in the industry.”
When asked about some of the highlights of his career, Lawser said, “In 2006 my son Erik expressed an interest in joining our staff. We needed help in membership marketing and exhibiting at trade shows and it was a great working relationship.He was with us from 2006 to 2010. He became a certified association executive, increased membership levels to a record high and implemented marketing and promotion programs while he was with the WCMA. Erik went on to become Executive Director of Refrigerated Foods Association.”
The WCMA was founded in 1930 as the Hardwood Dimension Manufacturer’s Association (HDMA). Lawser said, “Back then, customers wanted us to do more to the lumber as far as cutting it to lengths, widths, and thicknesses, which is where the term “dimension” came from.
“As products requiring more machining were requested, we began making semi and fully machined components such as furniture parts, cabinet doors and parts, and mouldings and millwork.As a result, the association name was eventually changed to the Wood Component Manufacturers Association in 1996.
“The majority of our wood components are still produced with various Hardwoods, but some of our people have expanded into engineered wood products. So we represent any manufacturer who produces a wood component product for sale to multiple end users.”
Lawser commented on how the Hardwood industry and demand had changed for his organization over the years. “In 1982 furniture was 75 percent of our business. It went down to less than 50 percent of our business in the mid-1990s when imports from China and other low cost countries started to surge.The latest WCMA market study indicates the furniture industry now represents only 16 percent of our members’ business.Cabinetry, mouldings and millwork, and related building products have taken the place of furniture. In the early 2000’s 60 percent of the production was grade lumber for traditional markets like furniture, cabinetry, mouldings and millwork, flooring, etc. Now that has reversed to where it's 40 percent grade lumber and 60 percent is industrial lumber for railroad ties, mats and pallets. That has significantly changed our industry. Some of our members started out as sawmills and later expanded into the value-added concept that we promoted.”That strategy continued to work until imports began to take over Hardwood-using industries and overall demand crashed with the housing bubble,” he added
Having been through recessions earlier in his career, National Hardwood Magazine asked Lawser for his input on the differences involved in the recessions years ago and of today. “Back then we knew things were going to get better because the ‘Baby Boomers’ were getting into their peak spending years and people were more optimistic in those days. Today there are a lot of variables and uncertainties that we didn’t have back then. We have a housing and credit crisis now, which we didn’t have then. What can we learn from our past and bring into the present? Things have become too political, it’s tax increases versus spending cuts but the bottom line is you need both.America has become a more expensive place to manufacture due to excessive regulations, rising healthcare costs, tort litigation costs, and higher tax rates compared to our international trading partners.”
While Lawser mentioned membership is down for WCMA along with other associations in the industry, he indicated a positive outlook for the surviving companies. “Because we’ve lost so much capacity—any increase in demand is going to benefit those who are still in business.There are simply fewer competitors now.We’re going to move past these issues but it’s going to take awhile. Our problems are more structural in nature and can’t be fixed easily. You can’t force banks to lend and many of our member companies are still primarily small to medium-sized family-owned businesses that have to borrow the old-fashioned way—through their local banks. They can’t issue stock like the corporations can. Because of that limitation, how do we generate cash is the question. It has to be done internally through retained earnings and sales or borrowing from the local bank. Because we’re tied to housing and the banks are aware of this, they are hesitant to lend. When we do get back to a point where we have fixed the debt and credit problems, those survivors will do a lot better.”
When asked what advice he would pass on to the upcoming lumbermen of today he said, “One of our original members used to run a full page ad that said: ‘We deliver on quality, on quantity and on time.’ To the lumberman, on quality means you deliver what you say you will as it pertains to grade, color, size, etc. On quantity means if you say you’re going to deliver the full tally, you do it.On time speaks for itself and is more critical today than ever.So on quality, on quantity and on time should apply to anything that you’re doing.”
In closing, Lawser said, “I am proud of increasing the association’s membership and developing our technology partner program.We have worked hard to maintain the quality of our plant tour program over the years, making it our most popular event.”Although looking forward to retiring from day to day activities, Lawser said he plans to stay active and keep in touch with the woodworking industry.
The WCMA represents manufacturers of dimension and wood component products who can supply any component for cabinetry, furniture, millwork, flooring, staircases, building materials, and decorative/specialty wood products made from Hardwoods, softwoods, and a variety of engineered wood materials. WCMA member companies are located throughout the United States and Canada.