Feature, V1I3

Calculated Risk and Hard Work

They may not have realized it at the time, but in 1983 when Sanford and Barb Lapp moved from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to Himrod, New York, to found a shed building business, they were setting a vision for the company that would last more than 30 years.

Son Kent Lapp, who today serves as CEO and, along with his brother Ben, co-owner of Wood-Tex Products, cites his father as one of his business inspirations.

“Two very valuable business lessons I learned from my father were how to take calculated risks and the value of hard work,” Lapp says. Those remain common themes used by the company’s leadership team today. “For example, when we start up a new branch, that takes hard work and calculated risk.”

Sanford Lapp worked hard despite the challenges thrown at him, including a cancer diagnosis to which he succumbed nearly a decade after founding the company. In the following years, mother Barb became another inspiration to her sons as she learned the business by taking over the work full-time.

“My mother really kept the company going — we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today without her,” Lapp says.

For boys who grew up crawling around in lumber stacks during summer vacations, and who itched for their first chance to wield a pneumatic nail gun, running the family business had been the goal since day one.

Getting Involved

Lapp recalls his transition to general manager in 2005 and CEO in 2010 as a natural, but gradual, change.

“It is a challenge to go from generation one to generation two,” Lapp admits. “Looking back on it now, I feel like Mom knew what she was doing a lot more than I realized at the time.”

In 2004, Lapp began gradually taking on more managerial tasks. “It worked well for our personalities — she didn’t micromanage me, she let me make some mistakes, and she gave me input and advice when I asked for it, but it was a very gradual transition for us.”

Between the advice offered by his mother, his on-the-go learning and scouring the works of business leaders such as Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, and business consultant Jim Collins, Lapp grew into his leadership role.

“There were some changes, although not drastic changes, that I made when [Mom] left,” Lapp says.

But many of the changes are simply an evolution of the way that business is done today, and those are formulas that the executives with Wood-Tex, as with many business, are still figuring out.

family

Family is very important for Kent Lapp.

Managerial Challenges

Lapp finds that one of the biggest changes since 1983 is people’s motivations for, and expectations of, work in general.

“In 1983, you went to work, you got a paycheck, and you went home happy. Now people want to work with purpose— and we do, too,” he says. “We’re not looking anymore just to get a paycheck and go home.”

To that regard, the company works to promote team spirit, and talks openly about everyone’s purpose in coming into their shed building jobs every day.

To promote that strong team spirit among all of its employees, the company hosts typical celebrations such as summer picnics and holiday banquets. In addition, each branch does regular team building activities.

“Take New York, our biggest branch; there are four or five teams from the production shop to sales teams and each one of those teams does an activity about once a quarter. Our only requirement is the whole team needs to agree on the activity. They’ve done things like shooting clay birds after work, going out to eat, going to a Bass Pro Shop, having a picnic together, etc.,” Lapp says.

Lapp is quick to say that the company doesn’t have it all figured out. “We’re learning every day. But it does seem like promoting that team spirit is not a quick fix, and it needs to be used in combination with a lot of things.”

More important yet, he adds, “You can’t really fake it. If leadership really doesn’t care about the team, I don’t know that you can really do anything to remedy that. It’s hard enough to promote that team spirit when leadership truly does care. But I think you really have to care and then do the best you can from there.”

Evolving Industry

While Wood-Tex’s way of doing business may have changed over the years, and the company has expanded to now include branches in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas, in addition to New York, some things haven’t changed. Two of the company’s earliest shed styles — the Workshop and the Big Barn — remain the top sellers today.

To keep up with the times, however, the company now has five product lines: storage sheds, garages, horse barns, cabins, and chicken coops.

“It seems like a bit of a scattered product line, but they do all have a connecting factor in that you build them in the shop, they’re completely assembled in modules, you put them in a truck and deliver them to someone’s location,” Lapp explains.

Materials have evolved, as well. Thanks to new technology for wood products, shed builders today have more options than they would have had 20 years ago, Lapp points out.

“I think it’s fair to say that sheds built today will probably last longer than sheds that were built 20 or 30 years ago because of the improvements in the products over the years,” he says.

purpose

Wood-Tex employees want to work with a purpose.

Ensuring each finished product provides high quality to the customer is always a challenge—and a priority—Lapp says. “Everything we sell, we build, and so there are challenges getting things built on time, and quality production.”

But more challenging yet can be getting those products installed securely onsite. “A significant challenge in our industry is the delivery method because you deliver a building fully assembled and people will try to have you put them in some pretty crazy places. So for the delivery guys, some of their days go really well and some days are really long because their particular deliveries for those days are super-challenging,” Lapp says with a dry laugh. “For a driver who doesn’t like those unique challenges, they’ll get frustrated really quickly, but a lot of them thrive on that.”

Customer Service

Bringing in customers is another constant challenge for every shed builder, and Wood-Tex explores a number of ways to do that successfully.

“We try to do anything that works—and that’s the million-dollar question,” Lapp says. “The website is a great way to market. Having inventory for people who drive by and see is a great way to market. But we try a host of things: radio, TV, newspaper, live events, social media, etc. Marketing/advertising is an interesting thing, because for us—and this goes for any business—the key is to track it. If you don’t track it you’re never going to really know what’s working and you could be wasting money.”

But it’s not just enough to bring customers in. It’s crucial to give them what they want since word-of-mouth is still a significant source of business for many in this industry. And that’s another major challenge for most companies in the manufacturing and construction industries.

“It’s making sure that you build a quality product that the customer is happy with and then, if they’re not happy, doing what’s necessary to make them happy. If you don’t, word’s going to spread quickly and then you’ll have a real problem,” Lapp says.

He adds, “No one likes to talk about it, but occasionally mistakes are made, and it’s important to fix those mistakes in a timely fashion.”

In the end, it’s all about making sure the customer gets exactly what they want, and Wood-Tex sets out to make its overall customer experience a differentiator from its competitors.

“That, again, is something that first you have to care a lot about, and then you have to let everyone know that leadership cares about it. And then everyone, from the sales teams to the delivery guys, actually need to care about it, too,” Lapp says.

With that culture in place, Lapp takes pride in examples where team members go out of their way to promote a positive customer experience.

“For example, we had a salesperson who just found out someone’s spouse went to the hospital with cancer and they sent them something. Management or leadership didn’t tell them to do it, they just did it,” Lapp says.

Creating a culture of purpose, and of putting the customer first, may not be calculated risks but they certainly can be hard work. But hard work has the potential for big success.

“It can be tough — anything worthwhile always is. Sometimes the best thing you can do is hang on and power through. But,” Lapp advises, “always be quick to ask for help when you need it.”

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