The Urban Lumber Company

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An interview with Tim O’Neill

THE URBAN LUMBER COMPANY KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

How did your business get started?

I started The Urban Lumber Company in 2005 with 150 trees that I sold to buddies — I know a lot of woodworkers. It was mainly run out of my garage until 2012 when Missouri Organic Recycling reached out to me. The Anderson family was looking to start selling urban wood as a natural extension to their Food Residuals Environmental Diversion (FRED) program. They didn’t have a background in woodworking or lumber, they were literally financiers who entrusted me to build the operation up because of my passion for the topic.

What is your urban wood business model?

The Urban Lumber Company operates as an independent LLC from Missouri Organic Recycling. We source logs from parks/recreation departments and municipalities around Kansas City, as well as individuals, but our biggest and best source for logs are developers and architects for larger construction projects. When construction companies have to do a major demo, they bring us in to grab logs off of the site. This helps them, and it softens the impact of new construction, both environmentally and socially.

For instance, we recently received 130 logs from a huge remodel at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Once the logs are milled and kiln-dried, we put the location of harvest on each board and add them to our database. Since our opening in May of 2014, we have recycled more than 838,000 pounds of wood and processed more than 90,800 board feet. Check our tracker for updated numbers at www.urbanlumberco.com.

Who are your customers?

We thought if we sold lumber at the base level that the market would be made up of woodworkers, but we have found a number of loyal customers in people who respond to the wood grain, want an organic element in their personal space and in life. They arrive in our showroom to select slabs for table tops, shelves, coffee tables, and we do the finish work and the delivery. Some people want to take the rough lumber, others want us to sand finish it, and others we work with all the way through installation.

Who aren’t your customers?

We are not yet selling larger projects to contractors and architects. In fact, we have had to turn projects down because we currently cannot work in large quantities. We are working on a grant to get a new kiln, which will increase our capacity and rack space. Offering larger quantities will better help us engage with the design community, including flooring, paneling, and larger residential projects.

Name the best resources you encountered that you’d like to share with others.

We received a solid waste management grant in 2013 from the Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority (EIERA) and are now applying for a second grant through the same organization.

Missouri Organic Recycling has provided the most support and resources but they also helped us with our showroom. We went out of our way to make our showroom have a nice, comfortable feel that reflects our personalities, and it has been a big source of our success and growth. We are not located in the best neighborhood, and people have to dog through our inventory to find the piece they are looking for. So it is always a big confidence boost every time new customers come in and their jaws kind of drop, then they say, “This is awesome!”

How do you promote your business?

I’d say about 95 percent of our first-time customers find us through a Google search. We tried a direct mail piece, but my impression was that it was not the best use of money compared to Facebook and Instagram. We also get a good amount of business from word-of-mouth.

Once we have customers, we regularly email them through Mail Chimp. We have a mailing list of about 1,250 people who we reach out to with new inventory. It is remarkable how many people come in after reading the emails, sometimes within the next day. We recently brought in a terrific load of lumber — 15 slabs — we emailed images and information to our mailing list, and within two weeks it was almost picked clean.

What is the best lesson you have learned about your customers?

People want to know about their woodgrain, where it came from, and when they find a cool piece of lumber, they love it. They don’t want us to waste trees and they like the fact that we do something out of the ordinary with what would normally go to waste. They are willing to invest in us because they know our hearts are in it and that we are striving to do our best work for them.

Name your top three challenges working with urban wood.

  1. Every time our profit increases our expense increase directly — we are always learning how to become more cost effective between employment, insurance, workman’s comp and general operating costs.
  2. We can’t be everything to everyone. Some examples of answers we give often:
    • We are only open Thursday afternoon, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning because we are making lumber the rest of the time.
    • No matter how much people ask, it is very difficult to keep walnut in stock.
    • We don’t buy trees from residences unless it is walnut.
    • We don’t have a grapple truck, so we need to rely on tree services to pick up logs for us.
    • We don’t dry wood for people because we have limited kiln space, but, we are happy to offer advice and instruction on air drying wood.
  3. Managing priorities — We have no roadmap because mainly, we are responding to a market that is still taking shape. Sometimes we invest in directions that don’t pan out.

What do you love most about working with urban wood?

I like to say we are enabling creativity in Kansas City, and of all the different aspects of the business, I feel most passionate about that. I got into the business because I saw urban wood as a resource that was being wasted when I myself was buying wood. Urban wood is more beautiful because it was not a commercially planted tree. I enjoy seeing the weird, different, fun, and funky stuff people respond to. To witness people’s wheels start spinning is a great and rewarding experience. And now I feel I can do that for a whole city. That is a rush. I love it. 

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The Urban Wood Network is made up of individual and organizational efforts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin, working in cooperation to connect and enhance the full circle of sustainable urban forestry. This website was created as part of the grant project, Bringing Urban Forestry Full Circle: Localized Approaches for Capturing Value and Enhancing Public Benefits from Urban Forests, funded by the U.S. Forest Service. The Urban Wood Network provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetics.