How to build a successful, family-run import business

Posted On June 12, 2019

How do you turn a sawmill into a successful family import business that’s still thriving over a century later?

With a little foresight, a lot of travel, and paying attention to Mom.

Our guest in a recent episode of “What’s Working with Cam Marston” is Luckett Robinson, whose family’s company, Overseas Hardwoods Company, imports wood from all over the world for a variety of uses across the country.

In 1917, Robinson’s grandfather began the family’s immersion in the lumber business with the purchase of a sawmill. While that sawmill was ultimately sold to Scott Paper Company in the 1960s, Robinson’s father, T. Lee Robinson, Sr., had spent time selling wood in Europe and began importing hardwoods in 1967, spurred by the idea that the breakneck pace of housebuilding in the ‘60s might deplete the domestic supply of oak.

Mobile-based Overseas Hardwoods Company began with the production of wood boards for flatbed trailers, particularly using apitong, a very durable species of wood native to Southeast Asia. This niche remains the company’s “bread and butter” to this day, with contracts to supply trailer flooring for the U.S. military and the holding of a patent on full-length trailer flooring.

While the company has “kept a lot of people employed in Mobile and Stockton making those trailer floors,” Robinson says, it’s also branched out into other areas, with facilities in Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin, and other industries, such as boat building and millwork.

Through it all, OHC has remained a family business, and Robinson credits his mother’s insistence that Robinson and his siblings treat each other respectfully as the foundation for its success. Respect for one another, a willingness to work hard and pull your own weight, and the utilization of differing skill sets are all key elements in making a family business work, he says.

“Family businesses can be the absolutely best businesses in the world. They can also be the absolute worst businesses in the world,” says Robinson, whose law background serves the company well in his capacity as Vice President of Finance & General Counsel. “We work through issues and reach a consensus on the best way to go and then we all get behind that decision and start working in that direction.

“It’s a lot of fun working with your siblings if you get along like that.”

Robinson also shares with us how often he travels and why it isn’t as exciting as it sounds, how tariffs are affecting the industry, the value of a well-run port, why it’s important to see the mills from which he purchases wood, and why “responsible lumber men are the biggest environmentalists you will find.”

Join us for a hardy discussion about lumber importing and family businesses.

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