Where Are They Now? 

Mark Williams, Inspector Training School 148th Class

As Vice President of Commodity Finance with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York, NY, Mark Williams’ roots are deep within the forest products industry.

“Prior to becoming a commodity banker, I worked for my father (Dave Williams) at Champlain Hardwoods, a wholesaler in Vermont. At Champlain, I did a bit of everything - traffic, sales, inventory management, payables/receivables, etc. I also grew-up with plenty of fatherly ‘lessons’ on hardwood,” Williams said.

It was this fatherly connection that led Williams to the halls of the NHLA Inspector Training School in Memphis.

“My father is a fellow graduate of the School, so I heard stories my entire life, including listening to my father periodically quiz my mother on the definition of bark pocket to see if she still remembered it,” Williams said.

“When my wife and I got married, we decided to move out of Boston, where I was working in Brown Brothers’ custody business, to be closer to family. I had inquired about working for Champlain Hardwoods twice prior, but my father was always a very firm advocate of working for someone else before going into the family business. The mistake I made, of course, was soliciting my father for a job when I should have gone directly to his boss – my mother! I think it was finally the prospect of having grandchildren nearby that got him to cave…Kidding aside, I think my father and I both knew that it was probably the last chance I would have to become the fifth generation lumberman in the family. It was pretty special seeing my father at work first-hand and I think he also enjoyed a bit of nostalgia showing me the ropes. Neither of us wanted to pass on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Williams added.

As most NHLA Inspector Training School graduates do, Williams has fond memories of his days in Memphis.

“The age range was 17 to 41, I believe, and we were a motley bunch. I had the bad sense to wear a pink polo shirt on the first day, which took about four weeks to recover from! Despite a diverse set of backgrounds, it was fun to see some otherwise unlikely friendships develop over the course of the program, which I think is indicative of the broader industry. The best thing about the curriculum was the periodic guest speaker or field trip, which made the program a perfect industry primer. We toured sawmills, a flooring manufacturer, a couple of distribution yards and a re-grade facility. I also found the local lumbermen, most of whom are graduates themselves, to be happy to spend a little time advising an NHLA student who asks for it,” Williams said.

“Even though most of our time was spent debating defects and ‘looking for clear wood,’ the things I remember about the program are the great friends, some outrageous moments and the adventures my wife and I had as newlyweds living in Memphis- we arrived two days after Katrina with no hotel booked (Memphis was a major destination for Hurricane Katrina refugees),” Williams added.

Upon graduation from the School, Williams retuned to Champlain Hardwoods where he found himself serving in many roles.

“I rotated through every department, including answering the phone at the front desk. I accompanied the salesmen on every complaint, road trip and ‘boondoggle’ (as our friendly suppliers referred to the conventions) and my father insisted that I see as much lumber, as many manufacturing facilities and get to know as many people as possible,” Williams said.

Despite the various roles and deep roots within the lumber industry, Williams wanted more. He took his experiences at the School and Champlain Hardwoods and shared it with the financial industry.

“I don’t think I’ve ‘left’ the lumber business. I’m just on a different side of it now, financing the merchants rather than trading the product. I still follow it closely and think it is a great cultural fit for our financial institution,” Williams said.

“My move into banking was driven more by my own aptitudes than anything else. Champlain Hardwoods is a small company with a straight-forward approach to the business. At a certain point, I found myself craving more analytical financial work, but in order to find that at Champlain Hardwoods, it would have entailed creating an unnecessary financial function or radically changing the business model, neither of which made sense. My wife and I also started talking about moving closer to Manhattan where her family is. Traveling regularly from Manhattan to the locale of the mills would have been completely impractical…I got the impression from conversations with friendly competitors that many of the banks financing hardwood don’t completely understand the business. I approached Brown Brothers to explore whether there might be a way to apply my experience in the lumber business to a financial product. Fortunately, there was an opening in our merchant banking group, which finances privately-held physical traders of other commodities, with very similar profiles to Champlain Hardwoods,” Williams added.

Williams credits his experience at the School and Champlain for his ability to relate to his clients.

“All of our banking clients and prospects are small to mid-sized, privately-held, physical commodity distributors of similar profile to the typical hardwood distribution yard or wholesaler. The challenges within the lumber supply chain – logistics, quality control, counterparty risk, inventory management – are exactly the same as in other commodities. Understanding the hardwood value chain is transferable to other commodities like coffee, cotton, metals and even energy. I’d like to think that having first-hand experience working for a raw material trading company leads to questions that are more on point and makes it easier to understand and explain my clients’ businesses and the inherent risks,” Williams said.

Williams is an advocate for the NHLA Inspector Training School for many reasons.

“For one thing, I’m convinced that there is going to be a shortage of graders when the housing market recovers. Too much production has been pushed out of the market, and when demand recovers and production has to follow suit, one of the bottlenecks will be qualified graders. A new lumber piler can be trained in a day, but it takes months of training to accurately grade lumber at a production speed. I also think that the School is underutilized by industry management. The next generation of management is entering the industry with more advanced degrees, financial backgrounds and technological savvy. A freshly-minted MBA is probably well-equipped to face the strategic challenges of a globalizing trade and maturing industry, but may not be able to relate as well to some of the industrial workers as someone who came up through the trenches. A relatively short three months in the NHLA Inspector Training School can serve as a pretty good proxy for that lost hands-on experience to gain respect and credibility within the trade. Considering that the entire hardwood industry revolves around the Grading Rules, a three-month investment to gain a foundation from which one can progress more easily over a 40 or 50 year career seems like a sensible decision to me,” Williams said.

With a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College and a MBA from Basbon College, Williams ranks his education high with the NHLA Inspector Training School and other post secondary higher educational institutions.

“My experience in Memphis was actually more similar to business school than undergrad because there was a broad range of backgrounds, a very specific subject matter, and everyone had a common interest. With that said, the Inspector Training School was still quite different from any other school I’d been through. The program was extremely detail oriented, including the fact that we had to know every rule, word-for-word. There was quite a diverse group of people, but we were all on equal footing. Nobody’s background mattered because we were judged entirely on our accuracy of proving the Grade and nothing else,” Williams said.

“The most significant difference is the camaraderie that exists between fellow NHLA graduates. When I run into someone from Middlebury or Babson, there is some degree of commonality, but when I meet someone who went through the NHLA Inspector Training School, it’s like running into a fraternity brother. There is a certain sense of a common proper initiation that leads to an immediate mutual respect.”