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Downes & Reader Hardwood Co., “Stewards” in Every Sense of the Word

By Terry Miller, Excerpted from August 2000 issue of National Hardwood Magazine

STOUGHTON, MA — About 27 years ago two coworkers, whose company was sold, had an idea they describe it now, was “borderline insanity.” One came up with some wild ideas about serving the Northeastern Hardwood lumber market and the other thought it would be better if he didn’t do it alone.

So the two started the company with an old truck and a couple of bundles of lumber. Today that company, Downes & Reader Hardwood Co. Inc., has around 30 employees, 1.6 million board feet of kiln dried inventory, six ten-wheel trucks, and 18-wheeler and a facility equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.

“I guess we are real entrepreneurs,” said Rod Reader, president of the company. “People are real smart, don’t do this kind of thing. Really, as I view it now, it was very questionable sanity.”

The two decided to take out what they needed to raise a family and pour the rest of the profit back into the company. Although the initial decision to start could be categorized as risky, the next 27 years have been quite conservative, according to Reader.

“We are pretty careful with what we do and we don’t run an absentee business,” he said. “One of us is here everyday with the exception of the National Hardwood Lumber Assoc. convention. I think it makes a difference. It sounds kind of basic, but some of the old basic fundamentals have kept some of these old companies around.”

Ed Downes and Rod Reader actually cut their teeth in the Hardwood business in 1966 at Downes Lumber Co., which was Ed’s father and uncle’s operation.

“That was our college, we had to learn how to do everything,” Downes said. “Once we made it into sales, we had already worked in every facet of the operation.”

Downes & Reader Hardwood Co., sitting on 3.5 acres, carries mostly Northern and Appalachian species, as well as a sizable Mahogany inventory. “About 75 percent of the Hardwoods that we handle are Red Oak, Poplar, and Cherry.” said Jim Reader, Rod’s son, who is purchasing manager and handles some sales. “The bulk is Poplar and we will have at any given time about 250,000 board feet of Poplar and about 60 percent of that will be 13 feet or longer. Red Oak, Cherry, and Hard and Soft Maple are available in 4/4 through 16/4.”

In addition, the company also handles Genuine Mahogany, Basswood, Walnut, Birch, Beech, Ash, Hickory, Eastern White Pine, Spanish Cedar and others.

Jim deals with about 75 mills for purchasing lumber. As for customers, the firm will service a hobbyist coming in for a piece of 16/4 Basswood or a wholesaler who is looking for a trailer load of 4/4 Sap and Better White Hard Maple.

“And everything in between,” Jim said. “We do direct mill shipments for green and kiln dried lumber.”

The company markets its product throughout the United States and Canada. Wally Ring is the sales manager for the operation.

“We are focused on meeting the needs of our customers and mills that supply us,” Jim said. “We don’t have an order that sits here on the shelf for over three days.”

The curtain side trailer and truck is registered to go in 24 states. Every load is tarped whether green or kiln dried.

“Because we are a distribution/concentration yard, a mixed truckload with 13,000 board feet of 10 or 12 items on it is not out of the line,” Jim said. “We can do whatever the customer needs. If they don’t buy a trailer load at a time, they can buy from us because we can mix it up.”

In addition, the firm offers straight line ripping, S4S, container loading, mixed container shipments, among others.

“We keep working and keep trying to give better service and I think we’ve done that,” Downes said. “Adding more services and more inventory for our customers.”

“We’re stubborn,” Rod said. “We just never gave up. We’ve seen over the years, bad times and good. This old timer told me a story about a three-legged stool. One leg is your product and service, the second leg is a proper mark up and the third leg is collecting your money. Take one of those away and the stool will fall over. You can apply that story with Downes & Reader, General Motors or any size business. Sounds simple, but it’s difficult. You buy the best lumber you can, give the people the best service you can and you treat people fair.”

Downes & Reader Hardwood Co. is a member of the NHLA, Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc., Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Assoc., Wood Product Manufacturers Assoc. and the Penn-York Lumber-men’s Club. The company is very active in promoting the forest product industry as a sustainable resource.

“In fact, we recently made a large contribution to the Hardwood Forest Foundation to educate the children in grade schools in Massachusetts about the dynamics of the forest and the important role it plays in society today,” Jim said.

“We are here to make money, survive and keep our company healthy,” Rod concluded. “It’s a stewardship, that doesn’t just mean we are users of the land and the environment, but also good stewards towards our employees and their families, along with our customers. Running this company is both a moral responsibility and a profit making venture, which makes it a true challenge.”