Deep Roots and a Cut Above the Rest

Family-owned RBM Lumber Inc. is a blend of quality timber products,
sustainable harvest methods and innovative new ideas

By Sydney Jordt
Advertising Writer

1973. While still in high school, brothers Ben and Roy Thompson traded 10 cords of firewood for a chainsaw.

They may not have known it then, but that chainsaw was the humble beginning of what would become one of the Flathead Valley’s most respected, innovative and resourceful lumber mills:
RBM Lumber Inc.

“Keeping the environment healthy is a goal for nearly everyone in the logging industry, and RBM is no
exception,” says Roy. RBM Lumber is owned and continually developed by the Thompson family, who operates the business with the help of an extremely talented and experienced staff.

RBM does much of its own logging, combining old-world techniques with an incredible respect for the forests they harvest from.

“Throughout our history we’ve made a point of using as much salvaged timber as we can,” says Roy. “Sustainability is a huge part of our philosophy, and we do all of our logging with that in mind.” Timber is in the Thompson family blood, and “RBM
is always adding something new,” says Roy, feigning an exasperation that quickly melts into a laugh.

One such “something” is a brand new door shop, which RBM has been developing and refining for the past year. This shop is focused on fashioning unique doors unlike any other in the industry, giving each RBM customer yet another way to give their home a distinctive look and feel. “Most of our doors have a rustic feel to them; our focus is to bring out the natural character and beauty of the wood,” says Roy. “Really,” he adds, “That’s what we try to do with all of the wood in our mill.”

RBM Lumber offers a seemingly endless list of products, including flooring, paneling, molding, stair treads, railing, counter and table tops, furniture wood, wainscoting, rough lumber and beams, siding, picture frames and a large inventory out of which to service
their customers. In 2010, RBM added beautiful Huntwood cabinets and most major brand appliances to their product lineup.

Customers receive friendly help and solid advice every step of the way from the knowledgeable and caring RBM team, which now includes its own in-house kitchen designer, Janeth Thompson.

The newest RBM venture is a pellet mill, which utilizes much of the lumber mill’s byproducts by turning them into fuel
for wood-burning pellet stoves. The material used to create the pellets is always debarked and stored in bins to eliminate dirt and debris which greatly reduces “clinker” buildup in a pellet stove.

RBM also uses a high percentage of larch and fir in their pellets, which produce significantly less ash than other wood species. RBM is
currently offering pellets at the introductory prices of $3.75 per bag or $175 per ton, a limited-time value difficult to beat. “The pellet mill benefits RBM in that we can make better use of our byproducts, which melds well with our stance on making the very best use we can of every log that comes into the yard,” says Roy, who goes on to say that, “The pellets themselves benefit the environment as well as our customers, because they are cleaner-burning and more efficient than regular firewood.“We hate waste, and adding the pellet mill is just one more way we can make good use of what we consider to be a very beautiful and precious natural resource: timber. That’s what RBM Lumber is all about.”

RBM Lumber Inc. is located at 685 Berne Road in Columbia Falls (just off of MT 206) and can be reached at 406-892-4208. You can also
visit the Missoula store at 3535 W. Broadway (406-728-3535) or visit RBM online at www.rbmlumber.com

 

Posted in News and Events

Finding niches is the key to survival

By MICHAEL JAMISON of The Missoulian Link to this article on their site

COLUMBIA FALLS – In 1997, economies all along the Pacific Rim stumbled into a deep financial recession, and in Montana lumber mills responded by going dark.

If anyone still doubted that global pressures pushed and pulled Western woods work, the proof presented that year was hard to ignore. “The global market totally changed us,” said Frosty Buck, purchasing agent for Plum Creek Timber Co. “Everything we do is affected by global markets.”

Likewise at tiny RBM Lumber, where the Thompson family makes specialty board cuts just up the road from Plum Creek’s plants. The mills, it would seem, have much in common. But when the world got big and scary, the two outfits took very different paths to survival.

Plum Creek got bigger just like the world it lived in, evolving to meet the market on its terms. RBM, however, retreated into a smaller niche of safety, divorcing itself from commodity swings and that volatile food chain of international supply and demand.

Those responses fueled a field trip Monday, part of a University of Montana curriculum to bring students into rural Montana, learning about how to bridge the gulf between landscape and livelihood.

Coordinated by a Swan Valley organization called Northwest Connections, the field trip set out to follow trees from the forest to the mill, exploring along the way the forces that drive what has traditionally been one of the state’s largest moneymakers.

At the top of his lungs, over the roar of industry, Frosty Buck explained the high-tech computer scanner in Plum Creek’s plywood plant, how it “sees” flaws in the wood better than the humans who used to do the job. “The one thing about this,” he said of his machine, “is it doesn’t get tired.” It is, in fact, one of many computers in the largely automated plant, where mechanics seem more common than millworkers. This, Buck said, is how Plum Creek survives.

Most years, he said, the company invests an average of about $6 million in technology, most of it computerized. This year, it’ll spend $11 million to stay competitive. “That’s probably where we’ve gained the most,” Buck said, “is in the efficiency of the machines.” All that technology does several things for Plum Creek. It helps the company use more of the log. It helps reduce waste and inefficiency. It improves quality as well as quantity, with production up some 10 percent, Buck said, in just 10 years.

But bigger production has not translated into bigger employment. The company’s labor force, he said, is at a steady state zero growth. More wood product goes out, but no new jobs make that happen.

In North America, lumber production increased 16 percent in the latter half of the 1990s, while during the same time 150 mills closed. That, he said, is a fact of life in a world where labor eats the lion’s share of your bottom line and safety insurance on a worker can far exceed his paycheck. Compare that reality, he said, to Plum Creek’s international competitors. In South America, for instance, “they’ll work for a dollar a day,” and trees are nearly free for the picking. Plum Creek is a big outfit, Buck said, with 8.4 million acres in 21 states, and 1,800 employees in the Flathead Valley alone. Entry pay is about $13 plus benefits, he said, and without the automation the budget just won’t balance, the payroll wouldn’t roll.

The company, in fact, is not a lumber company at all anymore, but rather is classified as a real estate investment trust. Not a few dollars are made transferring forests into residential spreads, and Buck said wood-products manufacturing now supplies less than 10 percent of annual revenue. It is, like the automation, a response to the global marketplace, as is the change in what sort of wood is produced.

The world is awash in plywood – from both home and abroad – and to compete, Buck said, Plum Creek has tried to wedge its big corporate structure into a narrow niche market. His plant makes high-end industrial-grade plywood, the kind used in RVs and boats and semitrailers. The shift from regular plywood sheeting, he said, has helped insulate Plum Creek from the vagaries of the standard building material market. (Although the world remains a player, with China gobbling up some of the raw materials much needed in Buck’s plant. And earlier this year, a short-term supply glut caused “several days of unplanned downtime” at another Plum Creek
plant.) In Buck’s new world, the plywood is sold before it’s made, and prices are locked down long before boards hit the
shelves.

“It works,” he said. “Anytime you can capture a niche market you’re going to do much better for yourself.”

That, in fact, is exactly the philosophy at RBM Lumber, where niche has been taken to the extreme.

Standing in a brightly lit room, tall, wide and dusty, Ben Thompson looks across racks upon racks of lumber at his family mill and figures there must be more than 7,000 different products on the walls. “Yep,” he said in a slow and careful voice, “lots and lots of specialty order and odd sizes. We specialize in making what you can’t get in other places. If you can go down and pick it up at Home Depot, then we tend not to make it.”

Instead, RBM mills wood for paneling and flooring and doors and countertops and tables and furniture and crazy specialty pieces only a true artist could appreciate. The company works in big wood – old-growth boles in excess of 3 feet across – but doesn’t actively log old growth forests. They get logs too big from Plum Creek, get the wind-thrown or burned or bug infested dead and dying. And, like a Plains Indian with a freshly killed buffalo, they use every bit of it.

A length of tongue-and-groove flooring with a knotty spot becomes two shorter lengths, and the bad piece is milled into something else. Rotten lodgepole pine becomes a picture frame, scraps become income. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of possibilities,” Thompson said. That diversity – combined with specialty – keeps RBM at arm’s length from global commodity markets, because none of these cuts are considered commodities.

“We pick the stuff that’s really unique,” Thompson said, “and we make something out of it.” Might take a week. Might take a month. Might take two years, but they make something out of it. Some of the inventory is here because people want it. Some is here because they had to do something with the scraps. “To us, waste is almost a moral issue,” said partner and brother Roy Thompson.

The family employs about two dozen, and produces perhaps 2 million board feet of products each year. At a more traditional mill, Ben said, two dozen people might produce 50 million board feet. “It’s about quality, not quantity,” Roy said. “These are high-value products.”

Of course, all of this takes time, and time is money, and money could buy automation. “But your $2 million scanner cannot do what your brain can do,” Roy said. “We invest in our people, not in machines.”

“Most people try to eliminate labor for more profit,” Ben said. “But that’s why we’re here — to make a living. Instead of
trying to eliminate as many jobs as possible, we want to create as many jobs as possible.”

It’s a nice philosophy, but even he concedes it probably wouldn’t work so well in the cutthroat world of dimensional
lumber sold on a global market. The business model is just too “complicated,” Roy said, to apply as a workable model
for the industry.

What would work on a bigger scale, however, is the idea of niche products and efficiencies that utilize the whole
buffalo, both of which Plum Creek is now exploring. “If you have the time and the patience,” Roy said, “you can make money at it.”
Mills that focus on volume and quantity go out of business, he said. Those that focus on quality and specialty remain
afloat – even when prices plummet on commodity lumber and energy costs soar and wildfires cut off woods work and
environmental laws slow the cut.

Even when the Pacific Rim stops buying boards.

“You can make it,” Roy said, “but not if you keep doing it the way your grandpa did. You have to be willing to
change.”

Back at Plum Creek, Frosty Buck stands next to an automated conveyor and shouts over the din of that change. “We’ve made lots of investment,” he said, “lots of high-tech. I think we’re in a very strong position to compete worldwide.”

Copyright © 2007 Missoulian

Posted in News and Events

RBM Lumber logs Houzz’s 2013 “Best of Houzz” Award

Annual Survey and Analysis of 11 Million Monthly Users Reveals Top-Rated U.S. Professionals

[Columbia Falls, MT] — January 20, 2013 – RBM Lumber has been awarded “Best Of Houzz” 2013 by Houzz, the leading online platform for residential remodeling and design. The progressive wood products company was chosen by the more than 11 million monthly users that comprise the Houzz community.

The Houzz “Best Of Houzz” award for 2013 is given in two categories: Customer Satisfaction and Design. Customer Satisfaction award winners are based on homeowner members who rated their experience working with remodeling professionals in 12 categories ranging from architects, and interior designers to contractors and other residential remodeling professionals. Design award winners’ work was the most popular among the community of 11 million monthly users, also known as “Houzzers,” who saved more than 124 million professional images of home interiors and exteriors to their personal ideabooks via the Houzz site, iPad/iPhone app and Android app.

RBM was recognized as a Customer Satisfaction winner, but it’s obvious from well over 2000 images of RBM products posted by clients that the beautiful and sustainable RBM products are generating a lot of enthusiasm for their design esthetic as well.

“Houzz provides homeowners with an in-depth, 360-degree view of building, remodeling and design professionals through images of their work, reviews and an opportunity to interact with them directly in the Houzz community,” said Liza Hausman, vice president of community. “We’re delighted to recognize [Insert winner name] among our “Best Of” professionals for exceptional customer service as judged by our community of homeowners and design enthusiasts who are actively remodeling and decorating their homes.”

With Houzz, homeowners can identify not only the top-rated professionals like [Insert award winner name], but also those whose work matches their own aspirations for their home. Homeowners can also evaluate professionals by contacting them directly on the Houzz platform, asking questions about their work and evaluating their responses to questions from others in the Houzz community.

About RBM Lumber:

RBM is a family-owned Montana wood products company that is vertically integrated … harvesting logs in a sustainable manner, and using every scrap of the product to create high quality doors, flooring, siding, molding, beams, rough lumber, paneling, and wood stove pellets. The company also uses the scraps it produces to dry its products to precise moisture tolerances, resulting in stable installations regardless of the weather. It employs about 40 people and serves clients across the U.S. and Canada. RBM even makes delivery trips on behalf of its many Canadian customers. @RBMlumber

About Houzz

Houzz (www.houzz.com) is a leading online platform for home remodeling, providing inspiration, information, ‘advice and support for homeowners and home improvement professionals through its website and mobile applications. Houzz features the largest residential design database in the world, articles written by design experts, product recommendations, a vibrant community powered by social tools, and information on more than 1.5 million remodeling and design professionals worldwide who can help turn ideas into reality. @houzz_inc

 

Posted in News and Events

Flooring Keys

RBM flooring has five key qualities that make it look great and go down easy:

  1. Dried right. You’d think getting your flooring shipment delivered at the right moisture content (6%) would be easy. Often, it comes with enough moisture to open gaps and creak points as it dries in your home. RBM kiln dries it before so it fits tight when you put it down, and stays that way.
  2. Few splinters. To get it dry and tight-fitting, we have to do the milling and sanding and grooving on each board WHILE it is already at 6% moisture. That’s tough to do, because most milling techniques bring out the worst in dry boards: splinters, breakaways, blown-out knots. At RBM we have developed techniques for beating this devil… and it’s a huge competitive advantage for us.
  3. Random lengths. As our people are working with each board, they’re watching all the time. When a breakaway or bad knothole appears, they cut out just the few inches of offending board. That means the lengths are truly random. They’ll vary from 3 feet to 12 feet and everything in between. And that means when you get your skid of bundled flooring from RBM, you can put it down just as it comes. No sorting or planning… it’s going to go down randomly from end to end without any visible pattern to the seams.
  4. Squared ends. Not only are the ends random, they’re square with tongue & groove matching on every board. So you don’t have to get out a precision chop-saw to keep your end seams from showing a crack. Each board seats tight against the one next to it, corner to corner.
  5. Textured any way you like it. Smooth, wire brushed, band sawn, circle sawn, circle sawn skip sanded.
Posted in Uncategorized

Evelyn Thompson – Montana Woman

This article first appeared as the cover story in Montana Woman magazine.

“…It doesn’t have to be a big issue. If it’s what you love, go do it.”

Evelyn Thompson on the cover of Montana Woman Evelyn Thompson talks about her personal dreams and passions found expression in the business her sons started… and she continues to impact.

 

 

Posted in News and Events

Testimonials

RBM Lumber
My clients are always amazed

Whenever I send a client to their mill they are always amazed at how much product and how many choices they have there.
02/25/2013