Strong, Resilient and Growing

Leesville Lumber Company

Leesville Lumber Company manufactures high quality southern yellow pine lumber to meet the needs of the residential construction industry. Defined by its strength, resilience and commitment to quality, Leesville Lumber is growing and adapting to changes in the industry.
~
Located in Leesville, Louisiana, Leesville Lumber produces southern yellow pine lumber and byproducts that are distributed across the United States. The company employs 80 people, making it one of the largest employers in the small town of Leesville.

Leesville Lumber has been a family company for three generations. It was founded in 1964 by Bill Williams, along with his brothers and brother-in-law, when they purchased a lumber mill in Leesville. The company has now been led by the Williams family for more than 50 years.

In 1984 Glenn Williams, the eldest son of founder Bill Williams, bought out the company from his family members. That same year, Williams reorganized and reincorporated the company. As President of Leesville Lumber, Williams continues to lead the company.

“When I started working here in 1989, it was all done manually,” explains says Teresa Thompson, General Manager. “We produced manual invoices, but then we made all of the accounting computerized, so that we could manage everything better.” The company also invested heavily in automating its operations.

Southern yellow pine is highly sought after for its strength and versatility. The wood is lightweight, yet its unique cell structure is dense, giving it a high load-bearing capacity. It can be pressure treated to resist decay due to environmental factors and damage caused by termites. Southern yellow pine lumber is ideal for structural uses in residential construction, including framing, trusses, floor joists, and more. With a rich, warm color and attractive grain pattern, southern yellow pine is a popular choice for decking and other outdoor construction, as well as furniture and cabinetry. Grown throughout the southeastern United States, southern yellow pine thrives in the region’s acidic clay soil. The wood is abundant, and therefore competitively priced.

Leesville Lumber specializes in manufacturing dimensional lumber for the housing industry. The company produces lumber in sizes 2×4” through 2×12”, as well as 22-foot and 24-foot long lumber. “We’ve always concentrated on 22-foot and 24-foot long lumber, because it requires less handling of the product through our mill process. There are not many mills that make southern yellow pine [lumber] that long, so that sets us apart, and it’s what kept us in business through the recession,” Thompson says.

The company also packages and sells a number of the mill’s byproducts, including sawdust, bark, and wood chips, as well as wood shavings produced in the planing process, which are used to produce laminated wood, doors, and other products.

Leesville Lumber’s products stand out due to their excellent quality. The company strives to produce the best southern yellow pine lumber on the market. “What sets us apart is the quality of our lumber. We are not entirely automated, so we still do the grading manually. We make a very good product, and you can spot our products on any truck or in any lumber shed that you go to,” Thompson says. The company’s products are graded according to the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau’s standards.

“Some companies will only buy from us. If a customer wants a great product, ours is one of the best on the market,” says Thompson. Leesville Lumber’s customers recognize the outstanding quality of its products, and 99 percent of the company’s business comes from repeat customers. As a member of the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau, the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association, and the Softwood Lumber Board, Leesville Lumber is an industry leader. Its quality products are matched by the company’s excellent customer service. “We still answer the phone,” Thompson notes. Even as the company automates its lumber operations, it remains committed to providing personal service.

Leesville Lumber’s employees are united by their commitment to quality. The company’s workforce has grown since it was founded by the Williams family 54 years ago, but it remains a close-knit community. “The lumber business is a labor-intensive business, so we work hard together and we become a work family,” says Thompson.

The company has many loyal employees, including Thompson herself. She has worked at the company for nearly 30 years, rising through the ranks to become General Manager. “I started out working in the office and moved up, and now I’m the General Manager. I’m also the Secretary, Treasurer and I actually own part of the company myself,” Thompson says. Her position in the lumber industry is unique: “I don’t know of any other women running a sawmill, but there may be one more out there. For a long time, it was unheard of. It’s a man’s world, but I think that things are changing, as times change and people look at those roles differently.”

Thompson estimates that 15 percent of Leesville Lumber’s workforce has been employed there for 20 to 30 years. “Two of our foremen have been here longer than I have. We grew up working together,” she says.

Throughout its 54-year history, Leesville Lumber has been successful by adapting to ever-changing market conditions. Over the years the company has weathered multiple economic downturns, including the Great Recession, by remaining committed to quality and customer service while investing in new ways of doing business.

During the Great Recession, the company shifted away from tree farming and logging, forming partnerships with larger logging companies to purchase timber. “It was hard to go to the bid table with all of the bigger companies out there. We come out better when we know what our cost for logs is as they go into the mill. This was one of the things we changed that helped us stay in business when the economy got bad,” Thompson says. Thompson still maintains a logging certificate, and the company provides best practice management for vendors, ensuring that they comply with all environmental regulations. “We make sure that the people who we’re buying from do the right thing to the woods. When reforested the right way, trees grow really fast in our area.”

Changes to trucking industry regulations pose a significant challenge that the company is working to address. “The laws have changed regarding truckers’ time on the road. It’s affecting our productivity because we depend on the trucks to haul our product, and we could ship more if we didn’t have that issue.”

Currently, Leesville Lumber is in the process of adapting to changes related to its aging workforce. As longtime employees retire and must be replaced, generational differences present a new challenge. “Our workforce turnover is more than what it used to be, and we’re dealing with several different generations. We still have a few of the Baby Boomers, and now we’re working with the next two generations as well. Often [workers from] those younger generations come in not having worked in manual labor before, and there is still a lot of manual labor involved in a sawmill. There is significant turnover in our labor force, but that’s true for every type of business, not just in the lumber industry,” Thompson says.

At present, the company is investing millions of dollars in automation that will reduce its reliance on manual labor. The company recently installed a lumber stacker, which increased the efficiency of its drying process, and this year it will spend $3.2 million on automation for its planing operations. “In September, we’re putting in a new automated system in our planing mill, which will help tremendously to lower the labor content,” says Thompson. Workers who currently work on the planing mill will be assigned to other positions.

With these investments in technology and a favorable market outlook, Leesville Lumber hopes to grow in the coming years. “Right now, with the way the economy is going, lumber prices are at an all-time high. The demand for lumber is there, because the economy is growing right now,” says Thompson. The company also anticipates benefits from new tariffs on imported lumber.

Looking to the future, Thompson hopes that the company’s production will grow five percent in the coming year. “We would like to be able to produce a lot more lumber than we do, and to continue to grow on our own and improve the products that we have. We want the company to become more automated and keep up with the times,” Thompson says.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 17, 2019, 11:51 PM EDT