Building Up Western Canada’s Lumber and Building Supply Industry

By Heather Romito

Last year, the Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA) celebrated their 130-year history as a catalyst for collaboration in the Western Canadian lumber and building supply industry. While 2020 may not have been the best year for face-to-face relationship-building, Liz Kovach, WRLA’s President, is proud of the way the Association’s 1,200-strong membership came together in the face of a global pandemic.

“Our members worked hard to keep their doors opened last year when deemed an essential service. They’ve gone through a lot of adjustments. I’m grateful for the way they continue to support the work we are doing, contributing to our advocacy efforts and even just calling from time-to-time to share their challenges. We may not have been able to see each other but we were still able to work together and accomplish some really great things in a really tough year.”

A 130-year history

Facing challenges is nothing new for the WRLA and its members. Founded in 1890 by Theo A. Burrows, who started his first lumber company in 1879 in Winnipeg, the Association’s inception was rooted in the belief that companies within the lumber and building supply chain could better succeed if they shared business experiences. At the time, there was a large influx of families coming from the United States and Europe to settle in Western Canada, and these families needed homes, schools, barns, stores and hospitals to be built. The Association served as a valuable resource for the very specific challenges and opportunities of the lumber industry.

Advocating for the industry and government

Staying true to its roots, the Association continues to serve its ever-growing membership by bringing lumber retailers and other participants in the building supply industry together in a learning environment. But going one step further, the WRLA of today is working to position itself as an advocate to bridge the gap between its member companies and their respective provincial governments as well as shine a spotlight on the importance of the lumber and building supply industry to provincial and federal economies.

“One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years as President of the WRLA, which I found to be shocking, is how far below the radar this industry has fallen in terms of government support. We are a massive industry and this past year we really endeavoured to understand our impact on the Canadian economy as well as the provincial economies that our members contribute to. We want government to understand why it’s important to work with us and to have a connection.”

To support this message, the WRLA put together an economic impact report for building supply dealers in the prairie provinces (i.e. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) as a tool to clearly demonstrate and communicate the industry’s immense value to the provincial economies. According to the report, the Prairie Provinces’ building supply dealers represent more than 1,300 stores, 27,000 employees, and $7.2 billion in sales in 2019. In addition, operational expenditures of the industry increased provincial gross domestic product (GDP) by $2.9 billion.

Facing a pandemic in an already soft economy

Understanding the lumber and building supply industry and its economic significance to Prairie Provinces, Ms. Kovach and her team have certainly spent the past year working hard for their members, building towards an uncertain future while addressing the opportunities and pain points of the present-day situation.

With soft economies coming into March 2020, and a construction industry that was lagging as a result, WRLA members in the Western provinces inevitably faced some cashflow issues with the onset of the pandemic. “These are the types of things we’d like to be able to stay on top of for our members – to advocate on their behalf and find solutions for them in terms of business grants that might be available to them or connecting them to resources that can help them apply for a loan,” says Kovach.

In fact, the work of the WRLA recently included successfully advocating for the implementation of a home renovation tax credit in Saskatchewan. The tax credit will help encourage Saskatchewan citizens to undertake eligible home improvements, which in turn stimulates the lumber and builder supply industry. Not to be left out, having residents spend money on retail items also generates tax dollars for the local governments. It’s a win-win-win scenario; and facilitating similar scenarios with other provincial governments is exactly how Liz Kovach envisions the role of the Association. “Yes, we want to liaise with the government on behalf of our members, but we want to be a resource for those governments as well.”

There is no doubt the WRLA is big on support for the local economy. As part of their mandate, the Association often helps its members with marketing endeavours. The pandemic offered a great opportunity for WRLA to partner with its members on a “support local” campaign, which was spear-headed by the Association and co-branded with members.

Education for the future of the lumber industry

WRLA is also big on education, as evidenced not only by their education grants for members and their children, but also by their focus on creating online learning opportunities to advance business and industry knowledge. Together with Saskatchewan Polytechnic School of Construction, and in response to member demand, the Association developed a Building Science and Energy Efficiency course focusing on climate strategy. WRLA is also in the planning stages of offering a micro-certification course to provide those who are interested in working in the industry with a resource for specialized knowledge and perhaps a leg up when it comes to hiring opportunities.

Of course, due to the pandemic, the Association has faced its own challenges. With the majority of WRLA’s revenue for operations coming from in-person industry events and tradeshows, they are relying on a history of fiscal responsibility and an ability to pivot in order to maintain their service offerings and connections with members and government.

At the end of they day, it’s all about the WRLA members. “Our corporate culture is highly member focused. Everything we do has to benefit our members and be relevant. If we ensure that the programs and services we offer truly add value to their teams and operations – that is what we really want to do and we are committed to it.”