Walk a green mile
FAIRFAX, CALIF. —Every three months or so, Nick Kennedy of Fairfax Lumber & Hardware spends an entire day on the phone calling western red cedar mills, looking for FSC-certified products. “I start in California and work my way north into Canada,” Kennedy said. So far, the lumber buyer has met with little success, although some mills have agreed to put him on a waiting list.
“I’m going to keep trying,” Kennedy said. “It’s what my customers want.”
Located in one of the wealthiest areas of Northern California, the Marin County lumberyard caters to a clientele that can afford to pay more for reclaimed timbers or urea-free particleboard. But that’s not the only reason why the Ace dealer has been so successful at selling green building materials. By going the extra mile to source its products, Fairfax has shown how it’s possible to help the planet and increase revenues at the same time.
Last year marked the introduction of Fairfax Green, a store-wide effort to offer “green” merchandise in as many categories and items as possible. Sales rose in several departments, especially building materials. Fairfax Lumber president Augie Venezia credits the green program for increasing overall sales by more than 20 percent.
Revenues in 2007 are running ahead of 2006 at Fairfax Lumber despite California’s downturn in building activity.
“We’re in the midst of some nice-sized jobs in Santa Cruz, Gilroy and Napa,” Venezia said. “And we’re bidding a lot of new [residential] frame jobs. It’s all with certified wood.”
Originally opened in 1912, Fairfax Lumber offers a conventional assortment of dimensional lumber and sheet goods, but many of its custom builders and remodeling contractors come in search of something greener. Given its location, the three-acre lumberyard has always catered to an educated, eco-aware crowd. Ten years ago, when few people had even heard of certified wood, Kennedy started getting requests. He checked with his wholesalers, but they didn’t carry it. The market was too limited, they said.
But the demand kept growing. “We had enough orders coming in. that we had to get it,” recalled Kennedy. His customers were very particular—they wanted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood—which meant jumping through hoops to get the lumberyard FSC certified. Then Fairfax had to start buying directly from FSC-certified mills, by the carload, because nobody wanted to sell small quantities.
Sometimes he had to plead. On several occasions, orders never arrived.
“Sometimes, [suppliers] beat the bushes before they’re ready to ship,” he explained. But Kennedy kept at it, and during its first year, Fairfax sold 10 truckloads of FSC-certified lumber. He convinced Roseburg Forest Products to start supplying him with FSC-certified plywood and expanded Fairfax’s repertoire to include FSC-certified moldings and engineered wood products.
Now Kennedy is searching for a reputable source for getting FSC-certified ipê, purple heart and cumaru tropical hardwoods used in decking.
Kennedy has been in the lumber business for 35 years, having worked for Lumber-Jack, Diamond Lumber and Homeowners Lumber before he came to Fairfax in 1995. He has, by his own admission, “sold a lot of old growth redwood.” Yet Kennedy can now relate how indigenous children are being forced to harvest teak in Burmese work camps. “It’s been quite an awakening,” he explained.
Neither Kennedy nor Venezia, who serves as a board member of the Lumber Association of California and Nevada, are New Age types. But Venezia speaks passionately on the subject of sustainable energy, and other employee-owners—Fairfax is a 100 percent ESOP corporation—are green converts. Catherine Windberg oversees an extensive lawn and garden section with mint oil hornet killer, biodegradable lawn and leaf bags and soils made without biosolids (sludge), which can contain viruses and heavy metals. She ferrets out alternatives to plastics, such as pots made from recycled newspapers that can be planted directly in the ground.
In the paint department, which carries the Devoe line of zero- to low-VOC paint, Hillsman Heath has affixed “greener choice” stickers to every tube of DAP Alex Plus low-VOC caulk. In plumbing, a dual flush toilet occupies a prominent endcap, promoting a $250 rebate from the local water district. Shelf talkers and aisle signage indicate green choices in almost every department.
Out in the yard, which employs 8 to 12 workers depending on the season, certified lumber is kept separately in accordance with FSC requirements. Kennedy still has to buy in large quantities to keep sufficient inventory on hand, so much of the lumber is stored in sheds. Some green items, however, are much easier to get, such as formaldehyde-free insulation from Johns Manville, or siding and trim made of plantation-grown pine.
In addition to its branding effort, Fairfax launched a Web site last October that has brought in business and built its name recognition.
“A lot of the stuff [in the Fairfax Green program] has been around for a long time,” said Kennedy, pointing to a bottle of vinegar-based glass cleaner. But marketing the availability of green building materials has brought Fairfax more business than it can handle, in terms of geography. Kennedy has fielded inquires from Philadelphia, New York, Florida and Texas, where homeowners and architects wanted quotes regardless of the freight. Although Fairfax won’t ship that far, the company has pushed out its delivery boundaries to building sites in Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, and Venice, Calif.
The Internet can spread Fairfax Green’s mission much further, however. In July 2007, the lumberyard’s Web site registered 31,996 hits. “The response has just blown me away,” said Kennedy.
Although he’s enjoying the spike in business, Venezia sounds ready—and eager—for more competition in the selling of green building materials. “Market forces are causing changes,” he said. “As market forces cause changes and more people ask for these materials, the mills will act accordingly, and they’ll be easier to get.”