February 28, 2023
Meet Our Members: Steve Rustja
Steve Rustja is the vice president of trading at Weston Forest and 2023 Chair of the NAWLA Board of Directors. While his term as chair just started in January of this year, his involvement in the wholesale lumber industry spans decades. Get to know more about Steve, including how he got his start in the industry, the most rewarding part of his career so far, his advice for new NAWLA members and more below.
Tell us about yourself. What is your background and how did you get involved with wholesale lumber?
Hardly anyone grows up wanting to be in the lumber business, especially in Toronto. Everyone has a story of how they got involved.
I was first exposed to the lumber industry when I was about five years old and went to work with my father at Weston Forest. In the early 1970s, he left Weston to start a few of his own businesses. In 1985, he wanted to get back into the lumber business and bought a retail lumberyard where I worked part time during my senior year of high school and all the way through university. Once I graduated, I started to work full time in the family business and did every job: buying, selling, loading, delivering, sweeping the floor and cleaning the trash can. In 2000, my father decided to retire and sold the business.
I knew that I wanted to get out of retail and into wholesale, so I spoke with all the distributors in the Toronto area. I had offers from a few companies and was leaning toward one from a national distributor. I also met with Rick Ekstein, former president of Weston Forest. He told me that Weston is a place of opportunity for all and that there would be no limit to what I could achieve. “Heck, one day you could even be a partner,” he said.
In 2011, I was fortunate to become a partner at Weston Forest. I think I made the right choice.
What motivates you to continue on this career path and be a part of the wholesale lumber industry?
My primary motivator is friendship. I have made so many lifelong friends in this business. When my 20-year-old daughter took a summer internship in Vancouver last year, my wife and I were nervous to have her move to a city where she didn’t know anyone. When our Vancouver friends found out, many offered to be there for her if she needed anything. They even extended invitations to their houses for dinner.
The second motivator is honesty. I’m truly amazed at how much business is conducted on someone’s word. It’s unlike any industry I know of. You can’t buy a new phone without signing pages of documents, but you can buy millions of dollars of lumber on your word.
The third motivator is income potential. Many people have done extremely well in the lumber business, even before the last couple of record years. This isn’t something that is generally known if you are outside the industry.
In what ways have you seen the lumber industry evolve over the years?
The most obvious is consolidation on both sides of the equation: there are fewer suppliers and customers these days and likely even less in the future. This fundamentally changes how the industry operates and how markets behave.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career so far? Are there any “wow” moments that stand out to you?
In 2011, three of my colleagues and I were asked to join the executive team at Weston and were offered partnerships. Our lives and the direction of the company changed after that. We were given an amazing opportunity and took full advantage of it. Looking back on what we’ve accomplished, I am humbled and amazed.
Tell me about your involvement with NAWLA. How long have you been a member and what made you want to join?
I’ve been involved with NAWLA since 2001. For the first 10 years, I was just an attendee at the Traders Market. I remember walking into my first icebreaker activity not knowing anyone and feeling intimidated by the 1,500 people in the room.
In 2010, Rick Ekstein was on NAWLA’s executive committee and came to my desk one day. He said, “Guess what: you are joining the Traders Market Committee.” My response to him was, “Really, Rick? I have so many other things I need to do and I’m just too busy.” This push was one of the best things that happened to me as my volunteer work allowed me to meet some of the most incredible people in the industry, learn how to operate our business better and develop myself as a leader.
My wife and I have been going to the Leadership Summit since 2011 and we have met so many people that we are fortunate to call friends. My kids even tagged along for almost a decade. This was important to me because they got to see what I did for a living and who I did it with.
What advice would you give to a new NAWLA member?
Do everything you can. What you get out of NAWLA is directly related to what you put into it. NAWLA isn’t just the Traders Market. Join the 10 Groups, take the educational courses, go to the Leadership Summit, watch the webinars, go to regional meetings. Get involved.
What sparked your interest to get more involved with NAWLA and become a volunteer on the NAWLA Board of Directors?
When I was second vice chair of the Leadership Summit Committee, I was asked to go to a winter board meeting to give an update to the NAWLA Board of Directors. I knew then that I wanted become a board member and ultimately serve as chairman. I love the idea that I have an opportunity to impact the future of NAWLA, just as our previous leaders have done in the past.
As NAWLA’s 2023 chair, what goals and initiatives do you hope to achieve in your role?
Under the leadership of Bethany Doss and Bill Price, the NAWLA Board of Directors created a strategic plan, which gives us a roadmap for the next three years. Making sure we implement all of the strategies is important to me.
The one initiative that I have wanted to achieve for a while now is to establish a mentoring program for our younger members. There is a saying that in your 20s and 30s, you are learning. In your 30s and 40s, you are earning. In your 50s and 60s, you are returning. I want to match up the learners with the returners.
What has been your favorite NAWLA moment?
Slamming the gavel to start the 2023 winter board meeting and being humbled that I was chairing the 131st