Going with the Grain
NuCedar Mills Owner Hangs Out His Shingle — and His ClapboardTom Loper says he looks upon 2010 as what he calls a “restart” for his company, Chicopee-based NuCedar Mills.
Elaborating, he said the official start came in late 2006, when Loper, one of the founders of the Westfield-based company Kleer Lumber, a maker of PVC trimboard, decided to commence another venture that would go where Kleer Lumber didn’t or couldn’t — into the making of a product that reproduces vertical-grain cedar clapboard siding.
The product was several years and considerable pain and anguish in the making, but, when it was finally ready, it was everything that Loper hoped it would be — beautiful, durable, low-maintenance, and ‘green’ (more on that later). But more important was something it wasn’t — recession-proof.
“Our timing at the start wasn’t exactly good,” said Loper with a discernable trace of sarcasm. “I don’t think it could have been worse.”
But Loper has long known that his product is a good one, and he has since developed several new ones as well, including a shingle that is catching the attention of the marketplace. These developments have allowed his investors to remain patient and actually give him more room and capital with which to work. All this, coupled with the fact that the housing market, and especially the high-end market to which he caters, is coming around, has the energetic and entrepreneurial Loper quite optimistic about his restart.
NuCedar is a story that touches many bases: manufacturing, because Loper has done some pioneering to get his products to market in terms of innovation and waste-reduction efforts; entrepreneurship — there were some sizable risks with this startup; ‘green building,’ because of the environmentally friendly aspects to this product; and even marketing, for the ways Loper has been able to put his products in the spotlight — some through creativity and others through determination and simply having a good story to tell.
These include exposure through last summer’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project (his siding was chosen for the home built in Suffield) to upcoming appearances on the show This New House (produced by the same people who put on The Old House and debuting later this year) to face time on something called Renovation Nation, hosted by long-time This Old House host Steve Thomas, on the Planet Green channel. Those latter two shows highlighted both the manufacturing innovations and the green qualities of the products.
“We had the This New House people out to tour the plant, and they spent the entire day here; they watched us make clapboard from beginning to end,” said Loper. “We just got the call last week … we’re going to be on the premier show. The producers liked us so much, we’re going to be a big part of that show.
“And we received a lot of time on Renovation Nation, which is great PR for us — people know those names and faces like Steve Thomas, and they respect him,” he continued. “And whenever we’re on one of those shows, the hits to our Web site increase significantly. That’s how we know people are watching.”
Loper is hoping that all this publicity will help in his restarting efforts, which are already off to a promising start with the introduction of the shingles and an apparent willingness on the part of consumers to spend on their homes again.
“We’re about two years behind schedule,” he said, referring to the timetable outlined in an original business plan that has seen a number of revisions and updates. “But we’ve got a really good chance to do some catching up.”
For this issue and its focus on green business, BusinessWest takes a look at a company that might have gotten off to a slow start, through no fault of its own, but certainly seems to have the right products at the right time.
Tracing the history of NuCedar, Loper said it came about through the simple observation that, if Kleer Lumber could make a high-quality PVC trimboard, then logic dictated that a similar product approximating traditional cedar siding could also be produced.
But Loper knew it wasn’t that simple. First, a system would have to be devised for making a product that looked like real cedar, was durable, could hold paint, could withstand the elements, and, most importantly from a business perspective, could be produced in a cost-effective manner. A supplier of the PVC material would have to found, and financing would have to be obtained.
The good news, said Loper, is that all those hurdles were eventually cleared, and the company was up and running at more or less full speed by the middle of 2007. The bad news is that it wasn’t at that speed for long, as the economy took its serious nosedive, and the bottom completely fell out of the new-home construction and remodeling markets.
Telling the story more slowly, Lopor said there was a considerable amount of research and development that went into NuCedar’s main product, the vertical grain cedar, which meets a real need within the building community — something that looks like cedar, specifically old growth trees, but isn’t.
That’s because, as Loper put it, when it comes to the real thing, “you can’t get it.”
Part of the reason is the spotted owl, he said, noting that it is partial to cedar trees and its presence has limited the number of trees that can be cut. And in areas where trees can be cut, there are other problems. “There are two things going on, fires and floods, and you take trees down, it makes both worse.”
New growth trees can be cut, said Loper, but that cedar doesn’t have the same look, and it often develops moisture problems that limit paint’s ability to stay on the board. “I have that on my house,” he explained. “It’s beautiful cedar, the best that was available, but I have to paint it every four or five years.”
Coming up with a cellular PVC product that had cedar’s looks but also much more durability and sustainability, were just some of the hurdles for Loper to overcome.
Indeed, innovative and cost-effective methods were found for everything from cutting the board to applying the paint; from devising and producing an interlocking system that allows each clapboard to support the one below it, to recycling the dust created in the production process.
The paint itself was a work in progress for many months. Working with supplier Sherwin Williams, Loper was able to secure a product that has a two-part coating that chemically hardens to form an impenetrable barrier. It also helps reduce energy costs and is available in more than 1,400 custom colors, five ‘historical colors,’ and 17 popular selections, including Watch Hill white, Chatham sand, Sunapee stone, Mohegan tan, and Suffield blue (the color chosen for the Extreme Makeover home).
The downturn in the economy certainly slowed the company’s development, but it didn’t stop it in its tracks, nor did it derail efforts to build on the original product line.
“We’ve been lucky … during the downturn, we went to our investors and said, ‘our timing really stunk getting started in the first place, based upon the way the housing market has gone. We’ve seen a lot of manufacturers shuttering their doors,’” he said. “We told them, ‘we’d like to go in the opposite direction. You can close the doors if you want to, but we’d actually like to get a little more money out of you and build a couple of other lines.’ And they let us go ahead and do it.”
So in addition to the traditional, or ‘smooth,’ cedar, the company has subsequently produced a few other offerings, including a roughsawn model that is proving to be quite popular with homeowners, said Loper, adding that it was this development that eventually brought the company into an entirely new product line: shingles.
“People looked at the roughsawn clapboard and said, ‘if you can do this, why don’t you just go ahead and make shingles?” he said, adding that the products are similar in looks and manufacturing techniques. “We did, and now it seems like we can’t make them fast enough, with the market coming back, especially on the high end.
“For a long time, people with money were reluctant to spend it, because they didn’t feel secure enough to,” he continued. “Now, they’ve gained the confidence to make the investments in their homes that they want to make and have probably put off for a long time.”
But there are other elements leading to NuCedar’s success beyond the economy and a unique way to replicate cedar.
Indeed, beyond the good looks and durability of the company’s products are a number of ‘green’ attributes, said Loper, noting that these qualities have made NuCedar products popular among architects who want to incorporate green into their design, and also with consumers, who like being environmentally friendly — and saving money.
NuCedar’s offerings are 100% recyclable, said Loper, adding that they can yield 5% to 9% savings on energy bills, depending on location and wall insulation, due in large part to a solar-reflective coating that reduces heat transfer from the sun’s rays, reduces the energy required to heat a home, and permits dark colors to be used in warm climates. The company calls it “cool-wall technology.”
“The Department of Energy did a study — those are their numbers, not ours,” he said, referring to the potential savings rates. “And in the south, those percentages equate to big money on air-conditioning costs; we’re talking about thousands of dollars in some instances.”
One key to those savings is the use of ceramic-based pigments in the paint applied to the siding as well as the shingles, said Loper, noting that it is the same material used in what’s known as ‘cool-roof technology,’ now mandated in many parts of the South and West. It’s also used by the U.S. military on ground vehicles and aircraft.
“If you take a aircraft that’s made out of composite materials that goes from being in 100-plus-degree heat in the desert to 20 below when they’re high in the atmosphere — and they do that every day — the composite material expands and contracts at a furious rate,” he explained. “Our product also expands and contracts, but with this coating on it, there is less of that. More importantly, it’s solar-reflective.”
Moving forward, Loper says the pieces are falling into place for what is shaping up to be a very solid restart for his company. He noted that the high-end housing market is rebounding, with consumers now confident enough to move forward with renovations and new building. This confidence, coupled with the products’ increasingly popular green qualities, would seem to indicate that, this time around, the timing couldn’t be better for the company.
“The Wall Street people have gotten their bonuses, and a lot of them are spending them on their homes,” he said, citing just one example of consumer activity that is giving the company a needed lift as it looks to grow market share.
“All of the sudden, people who let the paint go and let the shingles go, they don’t want to let them go anymore, and we’re getting those jobs,” he said. “And we’re getting work all along the East Coast; Florida is still hurting, but many other areas are coming back.”
And then, there’s all that exposure through the media, which is prompting Web-site hits that lead to phone calls and, eventually, jobs to bid on. And once he has a chance to show what his products can do, Loper believes he has a solid chance of getting the work.
Through the Roof
As he talked about the strong start for his shingle products, Loper said they are opening the door to other types of business and bigger contracts. “People will look at them and how well they work and say, ‘what else do you have?’ This leads to people looking at the trimboard, and then eventually to the clapboard.
“We’ve seen that happen I don’t know how many times,” he said, adding that the diversity of product offerings and the chance to handle one or several aspects of a home-renovation project have led to opportunities as the market picks up.
This is just another of many factors that together indicate that, while this company didn’t get off to a good start, it may get off to a great restart.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]