Turning & Shaping the Industry

Wood Products Manufacturers Association
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

Approaching its 100th anniversary, the Wood Products Manufacturers Association (WPMA) is proud of its past and, with new global developments affecting the industry, welcomes the future.

Founded in 1929 as the Wood Turners and Shapers Association for woodworking companies primarily in the northeast United States, “the Association was formed was to help give the companies representation and to promote friendly business relations and to promote the natural beauty of wood in the home and industry,” says Executive Director Philip A. Bibeau.

Woodworking family

Coming on board in 1995, Bibeau follows in the footsteps of his father Al, who was hired in 1981 to save the Association. Al said it was important all woodworking companies work together to survive, and the name changed from Wood Turners and Shapers Association to Wood Products Manufacturers Association.

A purchasing agent, Al had years of prior experience dealing with members of the Association and finding the people to make items.

“So, Al was doing what the Association hired him to do years before it was even popular, and he was doing it on his own,” says Philip Bibeau. “He was hired because he had the experience, and could do what the board wanted, which was mostly networking and connecting people with buyers and sellers. He would walk through facilities and put together deals.

“You have to be a dealmaker and understand what you are doing. When I was eventually hired to take his place, I had a lot of experience brokering materials, wholesaling materials.”

Growing membership

Like his father before him, Philip had considerable industry experience before joining the WPMA, including working for a hardwood sawmill and brokerage business, and being responsible for sales at one of America’s premier hardwood dimension manufacturers.

Soon after he became head of the WPMA, Philip dedicated himself to building the Association’s membership, and was wildly successful, doubling membership to over 600 companies throughout the U.S. and Canada.

One reason for the growth was successfully putting together a large business and property insurance program through highly rated Federated Insurance®. With an A+ (Superior) rating by A.M. Best® Company, Federated is on the Ward Group® list of top 50 insurance industry performers.

Services available to WPMA members include property and casualty insurance, workers compensation insurance, and life and disability income protection, along with referrals to succession-planning attorneys, and access to risk management materials. As the Association’s exclusive business insurance partner, the relationship with Federated is founded on mutual respect.

Respect and trust

“People are looking for somebody they can put their trust in,” says Bibeau. “There’s a lot to running a woodworking business today. You wear a lot of hats, from sales to hiring people to finding raw materials, collecting on invoices, and some stuff you don’t want to deal with because it takes time.”

While the association serves a range of member companies, from one-man operations to companies of 300 of 400 employees, most members fall in the 75 to 100 employee range, since these are the companies the WPMA can help the most.

Companies with over 100 employees are likely to have full-time salespersons and human resources staff; businesses under 100 are more likely not to have people in these roles, and the employer has to wear all those hats.

Membership is open to those engaged in the manufacture of wood products, and annual dues vary, depending on the number of employees. Associate Membership is open to brokers (office only); suppliers of machinery and equipment, industrial finishes, coatings, adhesives, abrasives, metal parts, rollers, etc.; and educational and governmental representatives. Applications can be downloaded at www.wpma.org/media/join-wpma/WPMAMemberApp2019.pdf.

Along with exhibiting at some national trades shows to promote itself and generate inquiries for members, the WPMA promotes the Association, and members, through other channels.

Focused on working to increase business for members, the WPMA was the first in the nation to employ a free ‘Sourcing Guide.’ This valuable guide connects companies looking to purchase a specific product with a list of members able to provide these products.

“It is a sort of high-end ‘dating service’ that’s free for customers to use,” says Bibeau, “and connects qualified companies looking to sell products. In doing our follow-up calls, we are hearing that all prospects are receiving five to seven quotes on each job they’re looking to place. It has generated a lot of potential new and profitable business for our members.”

Another benefit WPMA offers its members is the opportunity to take part in group programs by utilizing the purchasing power of the Association. By combining all its potential ‘buying power,’ the WPMA can offer members programs and services at prices that would not be available to them as individual companies.

“The association has put together programs such as a comprehensive business insurance program (property and casualty), a national health insurance program, cyber insurance, a merchant fee reduction program, an energy cost reduction program, leads for new and profitable business, and The Sourcing Guide, the most informative monthly newsletter in the industry, and one of the best annual meetings that focus on business development and networking.”

An industry changes…

In the 29 years since he began heading the WPMA, Executive Director Bibeau has seen the wood products industry change dramatically.

One of the biggest changes affecting the past two decades is that many owners—who are excellent woodworkers—are reaching their mid-to-late seventies. Tired of the run-around, they are shutting down operations. A primary driver behind this tendency is the inability to hire qualified staff.

To help with this, the Association has a free staff referral system that is often helpful, as people may know of a company in their area slated for closing that has staff who will be looking for well-paying jobs. “The next ‘nail in the coffin’ is that many purchasing agents or buyers do not know their costs,” says Bibeau. “My father used to say this on a daily basis and did up until he died almost 15 years ago, and it is truer today than ever.”

The commodity side of the business—turnings and shapings—went over to China years ago because of price, with the Chinese government helping to subsidize their own wood products industry. As a result, many started buying wood products from China because they were cheap, though that has changed drastically with skyrocketing costs for freight and fuel.

… and changes again

“The WPMA office receives calls almost daily from companies that have been purchasing in China forever and want to pay less for the product than the ocean freight rate,” he says. “Companies that wish to stay in business will not take an order below their cost, no matter what the potential upside is.”

Relatively inexpensive in the past, the price of bringing a shipping container from China to the West Coast (Long Beach or LA docks) now runs at a staggering $23,000 to $26,000 U.S., if you can get it shipped. Once the container arrives, it needs to be transported across the country, and with diesel prices, now costs over a dollar per mile.

Then there is the issue of shipping containers in China getting ‘rolled’—being bumped off the intended vessel in favor of containers of products that make more money, such as flat-screen TVs and computers. Shipments that used to take a month to arrive now turn up 120 days later. And as widely reported since the start of COVID, the price of all raw materials, especially wood, has increased.

“As a result, a lot of our members have been busy, which is a good thing,” comments Bibeau. “It makes more sense to buy American-made products.”

Like other skilled trades, woodworking companies are having a hard time getting help. To compensate for this, many WPMA members have moved to a four-day work week with 10-hour shifts to keep staff. This also has the benefit of saving employers heating and electrical costs, since some of their machinery is expensive to start and re-start.

Despite challenges, the woodworking industry is stronger than ever, and the WPMA plans to be there for them for the long term, providing excellent information, networking opportunities, leads for new and qualified business, and money-saving programs.



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