Bryan Reid Sr. doesn’t hesitate when asked why there is such strong global demand for the custom-made log homes his company produces at its Williams Lake, British Columbia facility.
“We’re the best in the world, period,” he shoots back. “There’s no doubt about it.”
And with customers in 23 countries on four continents who snap up close to 80 per cent of Pioneer Log Homes of British Columbia’s production, it’s hard to question Reid’s confidence.
He started the company 43 years ago soon after building a log home made of locally-sourced logs for his family in Williams Lake. Other residents liked what they saw and asked him to build log homes for them too and the business was born.
Reid says his love of log homes goes back to his childhood when he would accompany his father, a fur trapper in northern B.C., on expeditions into the back country in the dead of winter.
“The temperature was often down to 50 below zero and after setting traps we would head to a little log cabin in the woods to sit around a fire and get warm,” he says. “It seemed like a great way to live.”
For his first home, Reid went into the woods, cut the timber and peeled it himself and built the home with the help of Samson Jack, a local First Nations member. For the next seven years Jack worked in the business with Reid passing on all he knew about log home construction.
The company’s export market opened almost by chance in 1983. A university professor from California was passing through Williams Lake on his way to a vacation in Alaska when he noticed one of Pioneer’s log homes in the town. He stopped and asked the owner who had built it. Ultimately, Pioneer would go on to build a log home for the professor in Florence, Oregon.
Getting into the export market in those days was tough, says Reid.
“There was no free trade agreement yet and import duty was 25 per cent,” he adds.
But NAFTA changed that and exports to the United States boomed after 1993. An increase in tourists traveling through Williams Lake also had a positive impact on sales.
“Suddenly requests for log homes rocketed, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but from some European customers as well,” says Reid. “It was all about exposure. We became known, and sales soared.”
The HGTV program Timber Kings, a reality show about how Pioneer builds log homes and delivers them to customers around the world, has also helped. The program is now seen in 123 countries, says Reid. And while it may not lead directly to a significant number of sales, it has helped to build the brand and create awareness in markets that would otherwise not have been exposed to Pioneer.
Close to 80 per cent of Pioneer’s production is now exported to the U.S. and markets in Europe including Russia where the company sold a 53,000 sq. ft. log home that required 100 shipping containers to transport it to its location in Moscow.
Logistics are a big challenge for Pioneer. The log homes are designed and constructed at its facility in Williams Lake then dismantled piece by piece and shipped to their final destination where Pioneer craftsmen reassemble the home.
Keeping track of containers is essential, particularly for big homes that may require dozens of units to transport all the components.
“The last container we pack at Williams Lake, which is usually the foundations, is the first one we need to unpack at the destination,” explains Reid. “We can waste a lot of time and energy if the logistics systems aren’t right.”
Export growth for Pioneer will continue to come from countries with stable and growing economies, as has always been the case, he says.
The company’s log homes are not cheap, but with its order book already filled into the first half of 2017, there seems to be no shortage of affluent buyers around the world.
“When recession hit the U.S. a few years back we were exporting more than 80 per cent of our homes into that market,” says Reid. “We were also selling in Europe, but we weren’t pushing sales there because we didn’t need to. When sales in the U.S. dropped from around 75 units to 15, we had a hole to fill and started marketing heavily in other countries and that’s where we’ve seen strong growth.”
Fiver questions with Pioneer Log Homes of British Columbia founder Bryan Reid Sr.
What was your first export sale?
A log home to a customer in Florence, Oregon in 1983.
How did that first export opportunity arise?
Quite by chance. An American tourist on his way to Alaska passed through Williams Lake and saw one of our log homes. He stopped to ask the owner who built it, was referred to me and he bought a home.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Everything, but perhaps above all is the importance of telling the world about your company and your product. My motor home and my pick-up are completely wrapped with very high quality pictures of log homes. Your competition isn’t going to advertise for you, you have to do it yourself. If you have something worth selling, tell everyone about it.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
For one thing, you couldn’t find a shipping container back then. Product was loaded by longshoremen one piece at a time. Now everything is containerized. You can track a container from Williams Lake to Moscow every 15 minutes if you like. Communication has also changed. When we first did a deal in Japan we didn’t even have a fax machine. We were communicating by push-button phone in a foreign language in a foreign country. Electronics has made it much easier to do business.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
You must have a product the world wants or needs. When you’ve got it, promote it for all you are worth. You can cut an established company right out of the water by using your brain.