The History of Lawson Lumber – by David Lawson
Lawson Lumber was founded in 1910 as Nicholson Lumber and later changed names to Alliance Lumber. In 1918, my grandfather, Charles Lawson, started working for Alliance Lumber in the office. He gradually worked his way up to be general manager while acquiring shares in the company from the estates of the original partners. By the early 1940s, the company changed its name to Lawson Lumber. Around 1947, Charles’ two sons Mel (my father) and Gordon began working with him, and around 1970 they took over the business when my grandfather retired.
My father, Mel Lawson, grew up in Hamilton. A well-known athlete, he studied Forestry at the University of Toronto and joined the family business when he graduated. When he took over, the business was probably fifty percent industrial clients and fifty percent new housing and commercial work. Housing is a cyclical business, so we certainly lived through some downturns in the industry. But ours was a good business and was well-managed.
At one point, Lawson used to make windows, cabinets, drywall and a few other things. There was a full-scale carpentry shop connected with the business. Eventually, they focused more on the lumber sales.
The business weathered some big storms in its time. In 1955, the whole place burned to the ground! It was arson, started by some kids. The fire destroyed most of the wood frame buildings and much of the inventory. To survive financially, they set up a carpenter shop down at National Steel Car and continued with the carpentry work. They had already acquired a storage yard on Beach Boulevard in east Hamilton, so they started shipping out of there. Eventually, they rebuilt new offices and had new buildings to work out of. I guess, on one hand, it was one of the best things to happen to the business because they could start from scratch.
I had always worked summers in the family business when I was growing up. It was physical work – piling lumber, running a saw and working outside in the yard. I really enjoyed it. There was certainly a cast of hardworking characters to work with. They came from all walks of life. There were a lot of workers from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and some European immigrants. Many were hard-working, hard-drinking types. But they were always good to me and taught me to develop an appreciation for others and take people as they are.
When I graduated from school, I started working in the finance department at Stelco. I worked there until 1986 when I returned to Lawson Lumber as vice president. My uncle retired in 1989 and my father and I continued as business partners for the next twenty-four years.
When I joined, business was strong. The housing market was strong and industrial business with steel companies and manufacturing plants was good. I knew the business from working summers in the yard, but I hadn’t been there in over a decade. My job was to replace my uncle in sales. That was a steep learning curve! Meeting new customers, learning products, learning how to read blueprints. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was all new
and exciting. As time went on and industrial jobs disappeared in Hamilton, we ended up with a very high class of employees. I’m quite proud of the work they all did.
Many workers came over with me to Turkstra. They worked hard, made their mark and helped contribute to the business. The recession of 1990 hit Lawson Lumber very hard. Stelco went on strike, which meant our industrial sales ground to a halt. We had to lay off some good workers and started work-sharing while keeping a keen eye on cash flow to try to weather the storm. Business eventually picked up again later in the 1990s. The next big hit came with the 2008 crash. Lawson Lumber didn’t develop a retail end like Turkstra Lumber, so we had no buffer against a downturn. Lawson Lumber was always in a friendly and respectful competition with Turkstra Lumber. We both had our loyal accounts and weren’t focused on trying to take business away from each other. There are certainly other yards that sell strictly on price and customers who buy strictly on price. It can get a little fierce in our industry! My approach was to know all the players but stick to my own customer base and take advantage of opportunities if they came my way. It never made sense to go around trying to steal business, because in this business it could always be stolen back.
The year 2009 was tough for Lawson Lumber. My father left the business for health reasons and my two sons weren’t coming into the business. Peter Turkstra approached me, wondering if I’d consider the possibility of selling Lawson Lumber. We started discussions and the deal closed a year later. It turned out to be a great idea. Lawson Lumber had no succession plan and Turkstra was very fair in their approach. The more I learned about the company, the more I liked what I saw and was even more impressed when I joined on as an employee. We kept all our customers during the transition from Lawson to Turkstra Lumber. Nobody left, which is amazing. Some of these customers had been dealing with us for almost sixty years and were into their second and third generations. It was great working in the family business with your name on the door. There’s no doubt about that. I am very proud of what we accomplished and certainly enjoyed my time leading the family business.
At Turkstra, I initially ran the industrial division with some housing and customer accounts as well, which was called Lawson Lumber Division of Turkstra Lumber. After that, I became a senior account manager to focus on looking after the larger builder and commercial accounts. Lumber has been a good industry in southern Ontario. People are still building houses. It has always been a cyclical business and there are different pressures, such as the Greenbelt Act that restricts home building in certain areas. One effect is that home building is pushed out to surrounding areas like Paris, Brantford, St. George, Stoney Creek, and so on. The industrial side of the lumber business changed. For example, International Harvester used to be a big account for Lawson Lumber, but that was long gone. Massey Ferguson, Westinghouse, Stanley Steel, even Stelco; these are all businesses that have either disappeared or been drastically cut back. But there has always been reasonable demand for new housing, which keeps the wheel turning.
Turkstra Lumber is a well-established company with strong management. One thing that always impressed me is the size of the company and its many high-quality employees. Lawson Lumber was very small compared to Turkstra; similar in size to the Stoney Creek operation. In some ways, Turkstra Lumber is the local lumber yard down the street, but it’s so much more than that. For me, the beauty of it is that we can match competition in different outlying communities. If we’ve got a customer building in Brantford, I can just ship the lumber out of the Brantford yard. If their next project is near Niagara Falls, I’ll ship it out of Ridgeway. Even with multiple branches, the size of the stores and yards means you still get the personal service and you’re dealing with knowledgeable people. You don’t have to park half a mile from the front door or walk around a giant warehouse for twenty minutes to find what you’re looking for.
Today, the Lawson Lumber name and brand still exists as a division of Turkstra Lumber. The only real change is the location (370 Green Road in Stoney Creek) and that the business focus is 100% on industrial customers. This includes many of the large Hamilton steel companies that have been loyal customers for decades.
Knowledgeable & Skilled
With age comes wisdom and experience and Lawson Lumber has been around since the early 1900s. You can be confident in your decision to do business with Lawson as we not only have the experience of 100+ years in the industry, but utilize cutting edge, modern day technology to ensure the best of both worlds. Our current employees have a combined experience of over 100 years as a team and have perfected their craft. As a subsidiary of Turkstra Lumber, Lawson prides itself on providing world-class customer service and efficiency to our customers, as well as, a focus on health and safety in the workplace.
Turkstra Lumber and Lawson Lumber are committed to a high level of service by providing accurate lead times, accurate information and on time deliveries.