Case Studies

The North American Wholesale Lumber Association: A Cut Above

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The North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) is a trade association that can see the forest for the trees. Representing over 475 leading forest products and building material industry wholesalers, manufacturers and industry-affiliated companies throughout the United States and Canada, NAWLA concentrates on the bigger picture, recognizing that the key to success is not standing still. Celebrating its 120-year anniversary in 2013, the Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based association has evolved over the past century to remain the unifying force for efficient forest products and building materials distribution.

NAWLA was founded in the late 19th century by John Clark of J.S.H. Clark & Co., a Newark, N.J.-based lumber wholesaler. His initial goal was to facilitate information sharing among wholesalers in the New York and New Jersey area in order to increase the efficiency of collecting past due invoices. Quickly, however, he recognized that a confederation of wholesalers could allow for the exchange of ideas covering all aspects of the wholesale function. In April 1893 Clark set about holding preliminary planning sessions that included 15 initial wholesalers.

Concept solidified, the National Wholesaler Lumber Dealers Association sent out its first round of invitations to “legitimate lumber wholesalers” in not only New York and New Jersey, but also from Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. By May the group held its first official meeting with 50 members in attendance to draft and adopt the association’s constitution. Now, 12 decades later, the association has grown to include members across the continent, representing a global network of channel partners and serving as an educator and counselor on issues within the industry. What has not changed, however, is that all operations are conducted on a foundation of professionalism, integrity, honesty, innovation and efficiency.

“The key to NAWLA is really the fact that we represent the entire supply chain,” says Gary F. Vitale, president of NAWLA. “We represent wholesalers, mills, timberland owners – we really look to assist companies throughout the chain, from getting the lumber from the forest to putting it in the hands of the end user. We are not a lobby group; our sole purpose is to educate and help with the movement of lumber efficiently.”

Vitale assumed the position of NAWLA president in October 2009, bringing with him over a quarter-century of significant industry experience. While president/CEO of TW Hager Lumber Company (TW Hager), Vitale was very involved in NAWLA, holding positions on the Board of Directors and its Executive Committee. When the opportunity to lead the association came up, Vitale threw his hat in the ring and he considers himself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to help reinforce and refocus NAWLA through the economic challenges that affected the entire country starting in 2008.

Vitale’s position at TW Hager gave him firsthand experience of the extent to which the recession hit the industry. Based in Grand Rapids, Mich., TW Hager was an 84-year-old family business that liquidated, one of more than a few impacted greatly by the downturn in construction that accompanied the 2009 recession. Even with the insight gained from Vitale’s experience at TW Hager, and from many other similar stories, NAWLA didn’t head to Capitol Hill looking for funds and legislation, however. Instead, the organization did what it does best: helping members find solutions.

“We respond to needs, and over the last several years we felt it was a situation where we needed to step up rather than fall back, even though financially times are difficult and membership dues are something companies take a very close look at during difficult times,” says Vitale. “Our philosophy, however, was that we are a financially strong association and our industry needs us, so rather than stepping back and getting through we will step forward and introduce new programs to help members and new people coming into this industry.”

Representing close to $20 billion in commerce in the lumber industry, NAWLA maintains a roster of affiliate members and service providers that can provide assistance with anything from merger and accusation advice to private investing advice to collections to succession planning to rebranding. Membership in NAWLA opens up a wealth of second-to-none resources for those looking to strengthen the business end of their operations. Whether it’s help with computers, software, hardware, legal, trucking, railroad logistics, import or export, NAWLA maintains relationships with those who hold expertise in all facets of the lumber industry.

“When you join NAWLA, if you have any issue you just need to make one phone call to us and we can help you or put you in touch with someone who can help you,” reinforces Vitale. “One of the overlooked resources that many associations don’t take advantage of is that of past members, past chairmen. We recognize their strengths, however, and we have a tremendous group of past presidents and chairmen still active that I talk to on a regular basis and don’t hesitate to put members in touch with if they can help. In many instances these folks have experienced the same issues in the past and are very willing to help people in a similar situation. We are an industry with many family-owned companies, and we want to make sure we preserve the assets for the next generation.”

Beyond establishing connections within its community of industry experts, NAWLA distributes information through a series of annual webinars. In addition to bringing people together remotely, NAWLA hosts several yearly events that allow lumber industry executives some face time. For example, NAWLA’s “Wood Basics Course” is an intensive, four-day training experience custom-tailored to inform individuals about forest ecology, engineered products, transportation, grading, structural panels, lumber manufacturing, dimension lumber, ecology and silviculture.
In addition, NAWLA hosts its Traders Market, now entering its 17th year. This trade show features hundreds of exhibiting companies, as well as hundreds more buyers and company representatives looking to network and expand their client base. And, for the fourth year in a row, the Traders Market has shown growth even in a down economy.

While it remains its members’ foremost advocate for the exchange of problem-solving ideas, NAWLA isn’t just an association concerned about what’s happening now. The future of the lumber industry is just as much a focus at NAWLA, which addresses a need to attract and educate the future executives of wholesale lumber through a variety of programs. In 2012 NAWLA launched its first Leadership Conference, an event dedicated to connecting industry generations to meet industry challenges through a forum dedicated to progressive agendas and timely topics. “We have several successful events each year, and while there are charges for certain webinars, we also give four free webinars a year,” says Vitale. “Certainly the Leadership Conference we subsidize. The bottom line is, we do what we need to do to keep our members in a position where they can take advantage of the services.”

Along with the recent transformative recession, the transition of the industry’s workforce from the current retiring generation to a new wave of leadership is at the forefront of NAWLA activities. With this in mind, NAWLA has been dedicating efforts to its education foundation, which works with select universities and colleges to educate students on the industry and inform them as to the benefits of considering lumber as a career choice.

“And we’re not just going after forestry students,” says Vitale. “We have business majors, marketing majors, biology majors – we really want to get them to understand that there are careers for everyone within this industry.” In addition to seminars and workshops on campuses, up to 20 students from each university are accepted into a weeklong program that transports them to an immersive experience involving lectures, classroom activities and field trips in the industry, opening a path for internships.

Owner of the domain, which represents how comprehensive its knowledge is, NAWLA already offers a virtual portal into its many resources. But the association has taken another step to benefit members in 2012 by launching a new publication, Crosscut, which helps get the association’s information into the market.

“The main focus of this publication will be to bring pioneering ideas into the industry, so what we’re actually doing is working with a number of people to write articles and look at innovative practices in other industries, as well as in our industry to make it a cutting-edge chronicle,” says Vitale. “It’s not going to be the typical here’s what’s we’re doing, here’s where we were; it’s going to be a business-focused magazine that should appeal to all the generations in the industry. It will come out in print and it will also be available on digital format.

“From our standpoint, because we wanted it to be a publication that would appeal across the entire industry, not just our membership, we felt [Crosscut] would be an appropriate name,” continues Vitale. “Also, because we’re positioning this as a business publication and soliciting submissions from outside the industry, we felt the name would be very appropriate for the mission we have for this publication. The younger individuals coming into the industry have very different needs than those in the industry for a very long time. We can’t keep doing the same things the same ways; it’s our responsibility to really energize the next generation.”

If the quickening pace of booth sales at NAWLA’s Traders Market is any indication, the energy is building. “I think there’s optimism out there,” says Vitale. ” Lumber prices are up, housing numbers have improved, and everyone realizes it’s a long climb, but the indicators point in the right direction and we will continue to offer a place to turn for companies pushing forward.” Always taking into account the issues of today and tomorrow, the North American Wholesale Lumber Association will remain on the cutting edge of the lumber industry.

Published on: April 2, 2013

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