Bell Lumber & Pole Co./Alamco Wood Products LLC

No matter how sophisticated or “smart” utilities or commercial builders have become, they still rely in many cases on products and services that one might think aren’t very complicated at all: the wooden utility pole and the laminated wood beam. For more than 100 years, Bell Lumber & Pole Co. has provided poles for utilities throughout North America, and its success in that market has allowed it to branch out to other areas such as laminated wood beam construction for commercial and industrial applications. 

President Tom Bell says the key to Bell Lumber & Pole’s success throughout its history has been its insistence on dealing with customers face-to-face and always keeping one eye on the long-term. As the company gears up to commence its 10-year plan in 2016, Bell says the company’s future looks as promising as its past, even as the needs of its customers continue to evolve. 

The company was founded in 1909 by M.J. Bell, a former lumberjack who opened a series of sawmills in Wisconsin that were soon incorporated as the company that would eventually grow into Bell Lumber & Pole. Although the larger part of the company’s business remains high-quality, pressure-treated utility poles made of Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Red Pine and Southern Yellow Pine, its determination to diversify is what led it into the realm of commercial laminated beam construction and installation, building unique wood structures such as religious structures, water parks, timber bridges and other commercial structures.

Bell Lumber & Pole’s customers are spread across North America, but Bell says the company has its sights set on an even bigger customer base in the near future. As long as it maintains its focus on what has made it successful, he adds, the company should achieve its goals for the next decade and beyond. “We serve the markets in North America – the U.S.A., Canada and some in Mexico – and we’re expanding to other markets offshore in our next 10-year plan,” Bell says. 

Face to Face

Among the many reasons why Bell Lumber & Pole has been a valued partner for its customers over the years are the company’s service, reliability and ability to develop customized solutions for their needs. However, Bell says the attribute that really makes the company stand out is its passion for working face-to-face with its customers, rather than deal with them long-distance. “We’re not going to be phone jockeys,” he says. “We’re going to be in front of the customers, solving problems.” 

The company’s willingness to meet with its customers in person and see exactly what their needs are with its own eyes makes it extremely valuable to its customer base, especially considering how many of Bell Lumber & Pole’s competitors go the impersonal route with their customer service efforts. “The bigger our competition is, the more relevant that is for our customers, we’ve found,” Bell says. 

Always Improving

Although Bell Lumber & Pole has been successful for more than a century, that doesn’t mean the company has stopped working to improve itself. “We are maturing in all departments across our company as we have grown our company significantly since the early 2000s,” Bell says. “We have brought in some world-class teammates because we know that for us to achieve our plans we need to become world-class.” 

The company’s growth has pushed it to embrace certain practices such as lean manufacturing to take on more of the qualities of a world-class organization. Bell says the company can’t rely on the tactics it used to get to the level that it has achieved in the first 106 years, citing the evolving marketplace. 

A big part of the company’s strategy for the 21st century has been diversification, not only in its existing markets but into new ones as well. Bell says the company is expanding its footprint in commercial buildings thanks in part to the current and growing interest in heavy timber construction for many commercial projects. Additionally, the company has set its sights on offering other products and services to its utility customers. By having a more diversified presence in all of the markets that it serves, Bell says, Bell Lumber & Pole has been able to weather market cycles much more effectively. 

Looking Forward

Bell says the company’s 10-year plan eventually has it diversifying even further. For example, he says, Bell Lumber & Pole is looking into providing engineering and construction services for its utility and commercial building customers. The company also expects to expand its markets to treated wood products for the railroad markets in North America.   

Bell says the commercial construction market has improved somewhat since the recession, which has meant good things for Bell Lumber & Pole’s laminating business. On the other hand, the utility market has slowed down as utilities have focused their attention away from distribution systems and onto clean generation and other infrastructure. 

In some cases, he says, utilities are migrating to steel or concrete poles, so the company is looking into getting into those materials after it optimizes its opportunities in wood poles. Bell says Bell Lumber & Pole is keeping its eyes on the future. 

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