Making Change: Ryan Temple on good woods

Posted by Renee Magyar on January 10, 2014

Ryan Temple, President of Sustainable Northwest Wood was featured in the media this week.


This interview was conducted by Mark Feldman, and was published in Sustainable Business Oregon.

Ryan Temple is the president of Sustainable Northwest Wood, a for profit lumberyard that carries only wood from sustainably managed forests in the Pacific Northwest, the vast majority of which is certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard. Sustainable Northwest Wood was founded in 2008 as a subsidiary of the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest and works with small mills in rural communities.

Mark Feldman: How do you explain your success?

Ryan Temple: A big reason that we've managed to be successful and grow quite rapidly in what's been a pretty terrible economy for the building industry is that, for us, sustainability is not a component of our business; it is our business. This has allowed us to position ourselves very clearly and has helped us establish a high level of integrity. When a local contractor, a craftsman another retail yard, or a homeowner comes in and talks to us, they recognize that sustainability is embedded in all that we do. All our woods come from FSC-certified forests and it's all from the Pacific Northwest.

That's really differentiated us. Imagine if you're a distribution yard and you had the good, sustainable wood, and then other wood. It can create an awkward situation. If this is the good wood, then what do you say about that one? We don't have to do that kind of dance. We don't have two versions of every product in our inventory. This keeps inventory costs down and makes it simpler for us to talk about our wood.

Since Sustainable Northwest Wood started in 2008 a lot of mainstream lumberyards have begun selling similar products, which is very positive. We need to stay ahead of the curve and make our product different, better, and more appealing. One way we do this is by offering an unparalleled depth of story. Rather than just saying, "Stamp. This is FSC-certified," we can talk in detail about where it actually comes from. Maybe it's from the Homestead Girl Scout Camp by Zigzag or from Nature Conservancy Land on Willapa Bay or from Warm Springs Reservation.

That depth of story will always be a point of differentiation. We're also different because in addition to offering typical dimensional lumber and plywood, we also offer more specialty items - blue-stained pine, orchard walnut, big leaf maple, and Western Juniper - products that just aren't in the mainstream lumberyards in any form, sustainably harvested or not.

Feldman: What's the single most important lesson you've learned about how to change people's behaviors and attitudes?

Temple: There's no shortage of will to purchase sustainable wood products. But there's long been a perception that they're just too expensive, too difficult to get, too time consuming, or that it's going to be inferior quality. These are some of the same challenges that organic produce faced at one time and managed to overcome.

We've seen a shift as people have realized that it really doesn't cost much if anything more. And they've realized that the service in this lumberyard is better. It's actually an easier place to go and get the wood you need, whether it's specialized or standard wood.

Feldman: What's the biggest mistake you've made along the way?

Temple: One mistake we've made is trying to do everything. I don't think we were very good initially and are still probably not as good as we ought to be at saying "No, we're really not the best business to do that for you. We don't have ready access to that material or that's outside our area of expertise." We were so eager to prove ourselves that we took on some orders that were very challenging for us. At the end of the day, the product got to the customer but these were projects where we definitely lost money.

We've found that we need to adjust people's thinking in terms of aesthetics. For example only about 10% of a tree becomes clear or vertical lumber, while the rest produces mixed grain products. We need to think about the future of our forests and how we can educate people to make more sustainable purchasing choices. One way we do this is through the image galleries on our website. These show people alternatives and give them new ideas. Sometimes somebody comes in and says, "I don't want maple that has a lot of character in it. Just give me a clean, pure white piece." But once they see something like Big Leaf Maple, they might say, "Wow. Actually, this is much more beautiful." I also I go around to architecture firms with samples. I do presentations at trade shows and talk about these issues.

I encourage architects and builders to think of themselves as forest managers. Their choices drive the market and the industry. If people start asking for sustainable and abundantly available products, that's a real victory for forest management. One example of this would be to shift away from redwood, which is scarce, towards Juniper, which is much more abundant.

Feldman: What obstacles do you see standing in the way of more change in your field?

Temple: The forest industry in Oregon has very deep roots. With an industry that's been doing something a certain way for a very long time, change comes slowly. All too often, green markets are perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity.

I think that change will be slow and incremental, which I don't think is necessarily bad. A lot of times, for better or worse, change is a response to crisis. Over the last four years I think, there were a lot of folks who moved into green building products because they were in a crisis, with their sales really dropping off. Often FSC certified wood was a stable or growing component of their business, during a difficult time. As the economy recovers it will be interesting to see whether the commitment from some of those players remains or whether they'll return to previous business practices.

Feldman: How do you deal with discouragement?

Temple: I tend to just take a little bit of time to reflect on the bigger picture. For us the bigger picture is the transformational shift in the timber industry. If we're having a bad month, we look at the past year. The bigger picture for us is always brighter. That's true not just in this business, but in the broader evolution of the sustainable building industry.

Feldman: What are some of your sources of inspiration and creativity?

Temple: I'm inspired whenever I have the opportunity to go out and walk through forest landscapes and meet with the land managers and the mills who buy their products. I love learning how people are working to restore and care for their lands. We try to tell those stories on our website. But the most compelling way we can do this is to get people out into the woods. We're deeply involved with the Build Local Alliance, which connects people and companies along vertical supply chains. It has the contractors, the land owners, the mills, the distribution yards, all collectively working together and getting to know each other and taking trips out into the woods.

Recently I had the opportunity to take a group of architects to Fossil, Oregon to learn about Juniper restoration and the unique attributes of that wood. That was very rewarding for me and eye-opening for everyone in ways that a presentation at an architecture firm or a slide show or something on a website, just never will be.

Forestry used to be like a sausage factory: You really didn't want to see its inner workings. For us it's the opposite. We really want to take you into the forest. We want you to see what a forest looks like after its been harvested according to our standards. We want you to see that we're measuring success not by what's taken out of the forest, but by what's left behind. If you walk through that forest a year later, you'll barely notice that anything had been removed. I wish I could get everybody out into the woods. I have all of my employees go out. Most people who see are pretty easily converted.

About the interviewer: Mark Feldman is a communications and writing consultant (Writing Works) who helps organizations tell their stories, engage their audiences and meet their goals.

Read the original article here