Leadership through the Generations, by the Generations

Many companies are now contending with the challenge of managing four generations of workers in the same workplace. It’s no surprise that each group carries its distinct characteristics, values, and attitudes toward work, based on its generation’s life experiences. To successfully integrate these diverse generations into the workplace, companies will need to embrace changes in how they do business including recruitment strategy, benefits, and creating a corporate culture that actively demonstrates respect and inclusion for its multigenerational workforce.

Allegheny Mountain Hardwood Flooring is part of a fourth generation, family-owned business based in Emlenton, Pennsylvania. The company attributes its success to its ability to evolve with the times and change its business model based on current market needs.

The Hickman Family has been in the hardwood industry since 1938 when Harry Hickman, Jr. started a sawmill with a team of horses, and a crosscut saw. The original Hickman Lumber Company still operates today and is the prime source of material for the flooring plant, as well as serves dimension lumber markets throughout the United States and the world.

Before its current flooring facility was outfitted for producing quality hardwood floors, it was a hardwood lumber dimension plant with the company name of Mill Creek Hardwood Dimensions. That company existed for a short time in the 1980s and into the 1990s until the
furniture market disappeared. During that time, the company perfected the art of milling rift and quarter sawn hardwood flooring for furniture clients.

In the year 2000, Denny Hickman, third generation family member, was able to convince his father, Larry, second generation family member, that hardwood flooring was a developing market and he could easily retool the dimension plant to produce premium quality solid hardwood flooring. The timing was right with the housing market boom and quality rift and quarter sawn hardwood flooring was scarce and in demand. The rest, as they say, is history.

According to the Family Business Institute, only about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation of owners, 12 percent into the third generation, and a mere three percent of all family businesses operate into the fourth generation or beyond of ownership. As a successful fourth generation business, Hardwood Floors Magazine recently interviewed Larry, Denny, and fourth generation family members, Jake and Jessica Hickman who are continuing the family legacy and growing the sawmill started by Harry in the 1930s. We learned their secrets to addressing today’s challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce while staying true to the company’s original values and inspirations.

Tell me about the role you play in the business.

Larry: In the early days of the company, my role was to work with the employees and foresters to produce the highest quality hardwood possible. I worked with the various positions to utilize resources in the best way possible to produce the specialty products that we were known for. The last 10 – 15 years have been spent helping to keep the pipeline full of the species and products that the flooring operation needs.

Denny: I’m more of a coach than a position player. I oversee everything from the foresters, timber management, and timber bids, to the sawmill, including what is being cut, giving priorities, and knowing the demand and what is needed at the flooring plant and with
lumber sales.

Jake: I deal with the day-to-day logistics of running Hickman Lumber. If someone is off work, I fill in their spot. Some days I’ll be grading lumber, working in the dry kilns, running the forklift, and even stacking boards. I do it all. I’m in charge of hiring and firing, and listening to the employees’ problems.

Jessica: I’m in charge of marketing and sales. My brother, Jake, thinks I just sit on Facebook all day, but I wear a lot of hats. I spend most of my hours on the phone and emailing quotes and handling sales for Allegheny Mountain Hardwood flooring. I’m also in charge of marketing. I do the website, social media, blogs, print media, and set up and work home shows and trade shows. I’m also adamant about education within the design-build community and am involved with the local ASID, and Pittsburgh Green Build. I’ll do Lunch and Learns for architects, interior design classes at local colleges, and general presentations open to the community. We’ve been hosting a day-tour of our operations that I’ve organized the last four years. We’ll visit the woods, sawmill, and flooring plant, and explain everything from FSC certification and how the forest is managed to how the lumber is cut, dried, and manufactured into flooring.

There are four generations working side-by-side within most organizations today. What are some common challenges you see between employees from different generations?

Larry: The older employees, long time or new, appreciate the benefits we offer (full family health insurance, 401(k), vacation, etc.), and for the most part, have better work ethics. The younger employees are slower to pick up on that, but the younger generation is very quick to pick up on new technology in the way of automation and computer-oriented utilization.

Denny: The older guys hardly ever took a vacation. It’s tough for us now to find young ones to work. The turnover rate is much higher with the younger generation.

Jake: Our biggest challenge between generations is that the older generations show up to work every day and soon they will all be retired. There are more than a dozen guys who have worked with us for more than 20 years. The longest to date is more than 40 years. It’s hard to get the younger generation to how up and do their job. The older generation does have a harder time picking up the new technology.

Jessica: I definitely see the technology gap. Five years ago, the guys at the sawmill would still fax down information to the office instead of using email!  It’s hard to “teach the old dogs new tricks,” but that adds to the fun challenge of creating simplicity in the new ideas.

In spite of all the differences between the generations, what do you see as the areas of common ground on which to build strong and effective working relationships?

Larry: I like to communicate with the employees, ask about how things are going, and share comments from customers about the products they are helping produce. That seems to give them a common goal.

Denny: There are not a lot of jobs in the area. A successful business is going to keep food on everyone’s table.

Jake: Keeping everyone on the same page and focused on the same ultimate goal, which is to produce a high-quality product every time.

Jessica: I enjoy finding ways with new technology that I can simplify the process for some of the older generations. Especially with sales and management, which I deal with more. Using Excel and creating programs for inventory, saving formulas to figure things like equal lineal footage without having to sit down and do the calculations each time. I like taking their years of knowledge and experience and sharing the stories and knowledge through blogs and lessons with people who did not grow up in a sawmill.

What are the most common workplace stereotypes you’ve heard about your generation?

Larry: Most of my generation are hardworking, at least until they get too old. They have devoted their careers to coming up with innovative ways to produce products using a renewable resource. They’ve also found a way to make a living doing it to support their families, which is very important for my generation.

Jake: We are lazy, we are addicted to our phones, and we have a short attention span.

Jessica: We’re idealistic, lazy, and entitled.

In your opinion, what are the greatest contributions your generation has made to the business world?

Larry: Relating to the hardwood industry – first, the practice of sustainable forest management has evolved over the last several decades, largely inspired by several organizations such as FSC, SFI, and others. There should never be a shortage of high-quality lumber in the U.S. Second, the industry, starting from the seedling to the finished product, has learned to use everything. There is virtually no waste. All kinds of products are made from what used to be considered waste. Third, we have learned to stretch the resources via veneer and engineered products. Flooring and furniture with many innovative finishes and designs to beautify and decorate millions of homes around the world.

Denny: Bill Gates was my generation. Computers, the internet, etc.

Jake: Technology. Computer programs that allow us to transport information from your phone to computer or being able to easily find parts for maintenance.

Jessica: Social media is huge. It’s an amazing resource for people to share ideas, quickly find answers and help, analyze trends, and find new customers or products. I also appreciate the increased demand in my generation focusing on green building and buying local. Sometimes, I’m afraid I’m just in a bubble, which is why I see so much of this. But, most of the people in my generation who find us and want to do business with us do so because they are looking for a good product. They are typically smaller jobs, but they want products that are supportive of the environment and the local community.

You’ve been in business for four generations; how have your business practices evolved over the years to stay successful?

Larry: We have always been interested in unique and different products. Our Allegheny live sawn was very new to the market when we started to produce this item. Some of our herringbone and basket weave products are unique. We also very much enjoy working with talented artisans in the industry on new designs and finishes.

Denny: We keep adapting. My grandpa, Harry Hickman, made a good living cutting railroad ties and blocking for the steel mills. Dad (Larry) continued to evolve the sawmill by going to lumber grading school and selling to the furniture companies throughout the 1960s – 1990s. We added our dry kilns in the 1980s, rebuilt after two fires and had a pretty good thing going with that for years. Then when the furniture market began to decline, we had to figure out something else for our lumber. We had been cutting the rift and quarter sawn for the furniture market, and we took that into the flooring industry. We were the first company at an NWFA show with a character grade R&Q product. The rise in in-floor radiant heat and the popularity of character grade along with the good housing market in the early 2000s allowed us to find our niche in the industry. Fortunately, we didn’t over expand during the boom, and we survived the recession. We continue to pay attention to current and future trends and stay on our toes.

Jake: Allegheny Mountain and Hickman Lumber have been successful because we have a niche, and offer a quality product. We do our best to pay attention to the details throughout the milling process. Especially the minor details. From the daily testing of the dry kilns to how we stack the lumber. It all adds to and reflects our reputation. One-third of the sawmills in Pennsylvania went out of business during the recession. We’ve had to adapt our milling and operations just to keep above water. During that time, we decided it was more important than ever to continue our focus and goal of making a high-quality product. Our overall production has decreased immensely and still isn’t back to our highest production, but we are proud that our customers never doubt the quality of our product when it’s sent to them.

Jessica: Customer service is very important. From the sales perspective, we are honest with what we can do and what we can’t. We know our limitations, but offer the best product possible with what we do. I am sure to give every customer the same amount of time and respect. It doesn’t matter if they are looking for 300 SF or 3000 SF. It amazes me how often people thank me for returning their call. Before I started with the increased amount of marketing, the majority of our sales were from customers we found at NWFA. These would be our larger jobs with consistent, loyal customers. The other, local retail sales were typically all based on referrals. Since we’ve increased our online and social media presence, we get a lot more people finding us online, and the online reviews from sites like Houzz, Facebook, and Google are tremendously helpful. We still receive a ton of referrals, and I’m grateful that I’m never afraid to reach out to a past customer and see how their floors turned out. It amazes me the passion people have for their hardwood floors! I often wonder if other industries like window salesmen have such grateful and excited customers. I highly doubt it, though.

What new technology has most benefited your business through the years?

Larry: I think every step in the production of quality hardwood has improved. Starting with the moulder, sanding, and installation. New ideas in texturing are popular, hand scraped, wire brush, circle sawn marks, etc. Also, very good adhesives and vapor barriers have made it possible to install beautiful hardwood flooring in places you would never think of years ago. Some of the new finishes are absolutely beautiful.

Denny: Obviously, computers, but in respect to the mill production, we have equipment like optimizing edgers to get the most yield from the lumber, thin kerf saws creating less waste, lineal position carriages, and computer programs to assist in our drying. The internet has completely changed commerce as well.

Jake: The technology that has most benefited Hickman Lumber is the end tallier for tallying packs of lumber. Before the end tallier, the lumber inspector would have to hand tally every board that came through the mill. At the end of the day, he would add all the tallies up for a total footage. Now, once the bundle is packed down, someone measures the end of each board and enters it into a computer and automatically calculates the footage.

Jessica: The Internet, computers, and technology changing how we connect with our customers and educate them.

What does your succession planning look like to ensure future growth?

Larry: From my point of view, it looks very good. Two grandchildren working in the business and doing very well is very encouraging. All we can do is continue to supply the market with the best possible product we can and continue to expand our customer base and the succession part will take care of itself.

Denny: Hoping these kids will be ready to take it over.  Then I can quit and spend more time fishing.

Jake: I think slow and steady. Growth is important, but we can’t grow too fast. We must continue with quality customer service and a quality product. I think these are values that were passed down to me, and I hope to help pass them on to the new generations, like my new baby, Eli. He’d represent the fifth generation of our family business.

Jessica: Our future growth will be based on continuing to offer quality products and customer service, and awareness of the industry trends. It’s also important to be aware and involved with what’s happening in Harrisburg and Washington, and understand how their decisions are going to affect our business.

What trends do you expect to emerge in the future with regard to generational differences in the workplace?

Larry: I don’t see much change, although, with a mandated minimum wage, I think there will be more automation. However, products like ours will always be a specialty hands-on product and there will always be employees coaching other employees, young and old.

Denny: I think the younger generation and the time-saving tools that go along with technology will continue to emerge, although at times it seems the more “time-saving” tools we have like the internet, cell phones, etc., the more work and less time we have. In the woods, I think the biggest change will be with smartphones and tools for foresters. Smartphones showing property lines and who owns the property will help save foresters time from going to the courthouse to look up records. This will give them more time to focus on timber management and noting changes. The timber management is as much of an art as it is a science and there’s always more to learn. Efficiency and new sales techniques will continue to challenge us, push us, and help us grow.

Jake: Technology will continue to evolve and will be more integrated with the sawmill and flooring plant. This will simplify the process for finding more efficient ways to cut and dry the lumber, which saves resources. It also provides an opportunity for the older generation to learn from the younger generation, and vice versa, which will enhance and strengthen generational bonds and collaboration.

Jessica: I think in the next 50 years we’ll have more and more automation within the workplace. Unfortunately, the increased cost of employees due to insurance, pay increases, lack of employees, retraining due to high turnover, and the rapid development of technology is going to change. I think the more skilled and technical jobs will remain and gain importance, but it’ll take less physical people to operate.

What is one final piece of advice you have for being a successful leader in today’s workplace?

Larry: You must be able to put yourself in the employee’s place so you can teach them to see solutions as you see them and give them a sense of pride in producing a premium product.

Denny: Do what you say you’re going to do. Be honest, keep your word, don’t over promise, and work your butt off.

Jake: My advice as a manager is to be patient. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be yelling and screaming all the time. It kills morale. If I do have a problem with an employee, I talk to them away from the other employees, so there isn’t an embarrassing moment for them. For the most part, if I have a positive attitude, I feel the employees will too. I get to know the employees on a personal level, so I talk to them about their lives and families and not just about work.

Jessica: Try and be well-rounded and balanced. Read various new sources and ideas.  Communicate and learn from people in all walks of life and in different industries. Appreciate the knowledge from the past generations, but don’t be afraid of changing and improving.

One thought

  1. What a fantastic commitment to family and the lumber industry!! So impressed with the efforts to face challenges as a family and meet the issue head-on. Keep up the great work, Hickman family !

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