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Where Is LBM Heading This Holiday Season? Hopefully, to a Brighter Business Model

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

Robert F. Kennedy once said the gross national product "measures everything ... except that which makes life worthwhile." I'm seeing a parallel in LBM today. Most dealers' financial/operational dashboards show higher sales and faster deliveries, and yet the happiest emotion I can tease out of a CEO is fatigued relief. Why?

I suspect it's because we have focused too much on margin and too little on any mission beyond paying the bills. Staying in business while others are collapsing definitely is an achievement, but companies need to have a soul, too. That begins with having a sense of how your business figures into your life, your employees' lives, and your community.

Let's start with a devilishly simple question: What is it that you do for a living? The most obvious answer is that you sell building materials. But I believe you provide something much more fundamental: You are your community's best resource to help people live in the best homes possible. Unfortunately, we know that's not the case.

Start with sick building syndrome. Bill Hayward of California's Hayward Lumber has collected roughly 66,000 survey results that found a hefty percentage of Americans believe their homes are making them sick. Roughly 1 in 12 children nationwide have asthma. Studies from as far away as New Zealand have found that the number of hospital emergencies among poor people plummet when they are moved to homes with less mold and better systems.

Add to this problem our growing need to help the elderly. Federal statistics show that every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. Our aging population needs to live in homes adapted to their needs, both to maintain their well-being and to reduce the crippling health-care costs of institutionalization. But most elderly and precious few remodelers know much about aging in place besides the fact that walk-in showers are getting more popular. You can help them learn there's much more that can be done.

Hayward cares so much about the home health issue that he launched the Hayward Score, a combination questionnaire and guide to healthier homes. You might not go that far, but you can find ways to promote practices in your community that will help keep people out of hospitals because something nasty is in their homes or because they have nothing solid to grab onto in the bathroom when they start getting dizzy.

After all, you know more about building science than most builders. You know which products work best in your climate. You know the building codes. And when the federal government came out with new rules regarding lead paint, surveys showed that remodelers didn't go to the big-box stores for answers. They came to you.

Above all, you are neighbors to--and thus have good reason to care about--the people who will live in your area's homes. Next time you're asked about what's on your company's dashboard, I hope you'll include metrics on how safely, how healthily and how affordably people live in your area.

Narrowing your focus, think as well about how you measure your company. Scotland, New Zealand, and Iceland have become the first places to embrace what's known as the Wellbeing Economy Government. WEGo, as it's known, argues that a nation should be judged based on its citizens' quality of life rather than on economic growth. Scotland, for instance, takes account of children's happiness, people's access to green spaces, and their satisfaction with housing.

Lots of studies indicate that millennials want to be more than just wage slaves--they want work they can believe in. With their lives spent connecting via social media to people far away, they see things with a wider lens than previous generations. It's a great attitudinal base on which to build your company's future.

The church also can help inspire your thinking, and not just by remembering the Bible verse about the false profit you reap by owning the world but selling your soul. Consultant Ruth Kellick-Grubbs and I both have been inspired by an encounter with a nun. For Kellick-Grubbs, it was literal: A chance meeting with a missionary. For me, it came when I worked for the American Hospital Association and learned about Sister Irene Kraus, the founding president and CEO of the Daughters of Charity National Health System, at one time among the nation's biggest hospital chains.

Sister Irene had taken a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but when she spoke to her employees she typically stressed one thing: "No margin, no mission." The missionary gave Kellick-Grubbs the same advice.

I get the impression most of my listeners remember her words as a reminder that you need to make money, but I believe the latter part of the reminder was perhaps more important: You need to make money in order to achieve whatever it is your company has set as its mission.

That, in turn, requires that you have a mission. I hope that as you finish this year and march into the next decade, the mission you pick goes beyond just making money.

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