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Shop Talk

June 12, 2010

Shop Talk: Wightman Specialty Woods

Shop Talk is a weekly column featuring locally owned and operated businesses. This week, we talk to Dan Wightman of Wightman Specialty Woods in Portlandville.

How long have you lived in the area?

I don't want to date myself too much, but let's say I've been here for more than half a century.

Tell me about your business:

It's a lumber business. We do everything from the beginning to the end. We either buy the logs in, or cut them with contract loggers. We bring the logs in the mill, saw them up and kiln dry them. We have about 240,000 board feet of kiln capacity. In industry standards, it's small to medium. We do wholesale work, which is selling through brokers to furniture factories, cabinet factories and other secondary processing companies, as well as the local retail trade. We've been here for 65 years, and hopefully we'll be here for another 65.

Describe a typical day in your business:

My brother and I each have our own areas of responsibilities. My brother takes care of sales and scheduling. I basically take care of logs and keeping things running.

How did you get started in this line of work?

Well, it's been a family business. Both my brother and I started out in high school doing summer jobs in the lumber business. We each did other things after college. I worked for a process control company and did some military stuff for a couple years, and he did some house building and carpentry work for a couple of years. And we both gravitated back to the lumber business.

Where do you see this business in five years?

If I go back five years from today, I see the number of changes that have come about. They're significant. To be able to predict what's going to happen in five years is an exercise in fantasy land. From the hardware standpoint, the technology gets more sophisticated with each passing year.

What have you learned from your work?

Tenacity. I've learned that you can never stand still. You have to constantly reinvent yourself. There is no such thing as the status quo. If you think you're standing still, you're going backwards. You have to be forward thinking. The pace of change accelerates each year.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

Keeping up with the changes that are both internal and external. Keeping up with the technology and regulations and economic changes. I think those are the biggest challenges. Regulations change the entire environment of the workplace all the time, and usually not for the better.

The most enjoyable?

Staying in business and making contributions to the surrounding communities, and providing work for the workforce that we have. Obviously, trying to make some money is satisfying, and putting in the efforts to try to succeed. It's what makes you do what you do — the desire to succeed.

How do you define success for your business?

In the business world, success is usually measured in dollars and cents — that's one part of the equation. But the other is being a survivor against the competitors out there. They're not complacent, they're aggressive just like we are. The profit motive is there and the survival motive is there, as well. How do you define success? I don't know. There's a lot of different parts to that word. The changing of the economic model that we're working with makes success difficult. In the past, the cabinet factories were here. The furniture factories were here. But that's changed so much. Now we're working on a national and international level. The brokers we work with ship our products all over the world.

What are some advantages as well as drawbacks of doing business in this area?

The advantages: We have natural resources. The forests around here are highly productive, and the lumber that comes from them are highly sought after. Oak, cherry, maple are high-quality hardwoods. The disadvantage is that, in this area, there's not much industry, and of course there are regulations, both state and local, that are constantly changing and more rigorous all the time. Doing business in New York state is not easy.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

I would say our retail trade. Most sawmill dry kiln operations just provide a product for secondary outlets. There are few businesses that are as diversified as we are. We do retail, flooring, siding. We do a lot that the public can use in their homes. That's not normal for most sawmills. They (founders of Wightman Specialty Woods) did that from the get-go, from 1945 on. They started off small, and we have maintained that philosophy. Wholesale will be up and retail will be down, and vice versa.

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