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Washington Firewood Business Gets Fired Up: Multitek Firewood Processor Helps Company Expand, Position for More Growth
BLW Firewood – Multitek Firewood Processor Spurs Growth for Washington Business
By Peter Hildebrandt
Date Posted: 6/1/2008
BURIEN, Washington — It might be hard to imagine mixing a firewood business and the ministry, but it works for Anthony Simmons. An important part of his successful firewood business is a Multitek 2040 firewood processor.
Anthony, 44, bought BLW Firewood in 2006. The company is in its 25th year of operation in 2008.
The previous owner and his son had a tree service business together, and they sold firewood on the side. The owner was getting up in years. “They were kind of playing around with the business and made some money at it, but they weren’t going great guns with it,” said Anthony.
Anthony is the pastor of Hope Christian Fellowship, a full-time job he has held for 18 years. He was looking for a way to earn extra income in order to pay for Christian school for his children and, in the future, college education for them.
Anthony grew up in Kodiak, Alaska, and he worked in logging and his grandfather’s sawmill before moving to Washington state. “This work was something I knew how to do, so I met with the former owner, we got along well, and I bought his business from him,” said Anthony.
“The first year we did really well, but last year demand for firewood rose so much that we doubled the production of our business, and that was with the use of the old-style hydraulic splitters. In our first year we did about 150 cords of firewood, last year we produced over 300 cords, and this year we are looking to produce very close to 1,200 cords.”
His Multitek firewood processor has made it possible to achieve that kind of production, said Anthony. Prior to investing in the Multitek, with only Anthony and another worker, the firewood business quickly became a full-time operation, and that was not what Anthony intended. With increasing demand for firewood, Anthony sought to implement the adage, ‘work smarter, not harder.’
Doubling Up with Logger
Anthony sought out a local contractor, P&D Logging and Tree Service, owned by Chris Powell, as a source for firewood logs. The two men agreed it would be in their mutual best interest to help each other out. With the housing industry slump, sawmills were paying less for logs and buying fewer logs. The market for firewood, however, was headed in the opposite direction.
“I am able to sell every stick of firewood I make right now,” said Anthony. “Demand is amazing. I have a list of customers. I’m delivering wood now, and last year at this time of the year, May, I wasn’t even making any deliveries. We’re selling 12 or 13 cords of wood per week in the spring -– a time when no one’s burning firewood.”
Anthony began buying firewood logs from P&D. As the business increased, he was buying so many logs that the two men worked out a business arrangement: P&D purchased the Multitek and provides the logs, and Anthony is responsible for producing and delivering the firewood. P&D delivers the wood to the yard where Anthony has the Multitek set up.
The men considered several brands of firewood processors before deciding on Multitek. The timber in the Pacific Northwest is big, Anthony noted. “The trees out here in the Northwest – softwoods included – are big, 100-footers, often,” he said. “On the butt end of many trees the trunk is so thick we have to quarter them down before we can run them on the processor, so there is still a lot of wood we must do the ‘old’ way. But for the most part, with the MultiTek we can place the logs on the deck and go.”
BLW Firewood processes a wide range of species. The only species Anthony does not use are cottonwood, dogwood or poplar, which are usually sold to pulp mills.
Anthony and Chris studied various makes of firewood processors. They are pretty hard on equipment, and they were persuaded the Multitek could take a beating.
“Even with the self-loader,” said Anthony, “you can sit at the log pile, set it up on the deck, and logs do not have to be laid down gently.” The model they chose uses a 5-foot circular saw blade to buck the logs to length. The processor makes a cut every four or five seconds, he estimated.
Running the Multitek 2040 has reduced costs for saw chains, gas and oil, although it was a substantial investment, Anthony acknowledged. “We decided to go with the more expensive unit and found it was the smartest purchase we’ve made in the firewood business. In the long run it will produce 3,000 cords per year with steady use. At present we’re making half of that because we don’t have the space yet. The Multitek can run more than we use it, which is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to grow into it and not have to replace it.”
BLW Firewood also has a few small hydraulic splitters that were part of the business when Anthony bought it. Any logs over 24 inches in diameter must be quartered down and then split; the Multitek 2040 is designed to cut and split logs up to 22 inches in diameter. Anthony has found he can process some softwood logs up to 24 inches on the Multitek, but not hardwood.
BLW Firewood cuts wood into lengths ranging from 11 to 22 inches. The operator sets the controls for a particular length, and the log is advanced by an overhead grapple that also holds it in place securely for the bucking cut. The piece drops down to the splitting head and is split according to the type of head being used.
“Basically everything is automated from the time it goes on live deck and it literally rolls into place, gets chopped, split, and the conveyor takes it up and drops it in a pile,” said Anthony.
The company is also equipped with a Kubota tractor, a self-loader and an old Brigadier log truck.
Business is booming, according to Anthony. “The demand for firewood is tremendous,” he said. “We simply cannot make enough firewood to meet it.” The business has grown from 168 customers to 750 last year; he projects the number will double in another year. As the business changes, so will the company’s name.
Next winter he plans to deliver firewood to apartment dwellers. “We get people coming in to get firewood for their little wood burning stoves in apartments because the fuel costs have become so expensive,” said Anthony. This drive-up business has gone from 5% to 30% of sales as people come to the company’s yard to buy firewood instead of paying extra for delivery. Anthony believes that drive-up business can grow to 40% of sales.
In-Place Business Key
“There were three other firewood companies starting up last year in Seattle to try to meet the demand,” said Anthony, “but this year they’re gone. I was fortunate because I bought a business that already had a steady clientele and already had a reputation, so I knew just what I was getting into.”
People think they can have a business like this, noted Anthony, but the first few years nearly all the money he earned went back into the business. With the exception of a little bit that he used for his children’s education, he reinvested profits back into the company.
“This is like farming,” he observed. “You have to purchase the logs and get the wood ready in advance. Most people don’t realize how much capital it takes to get over the hump to make it go. I think that’s why there have been many start-ups that haven’t made it. They’ll sell 50-60 cords, think they’re well on their way, and don’t realize the money must be put back into equipment. For us, there will be a threshold when we really start making money at this, at the point when it’s streamlined, more efficient, and the money’s going into our pocket instead of equipment.”
The trick with the firewood business, Anthony has found, and he admits he’s still new at this, is to minimize handling wood. If you use machines and conveyors to produce and move the firewood, minimizing manual labor, “you’ll be ahead,” he said.
BLW Firewood is located in the middle of Seattle with only an acre amid an urban, high-density setting. Anthony is looking at buying a small plot in nearby Maple Valley. He envisions setting up kiosks at four or five locations where customers will be able to buy firewood.
Growth in the Ministry
The firewood business is not the only thing that is growing in Anthony’s life. His church is growing, too.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve been asked if I’m a firewood guy or a pastor – which one? It’s taken a lot of my time to do the business. At my church I’m the senior pastor, and we’re just getting ready to move into a new building.”
Anthony has a very busy schedule. In Alaska, where he lived until age 24, life was much slower. He worked at Prudhoe Bay, running heavy equipment in the winter, and also worked in Alaska as a logger and commercial fisherman.
Between being a full-time pastor and running his firewood business, Anthony does not have much spare time. “I tend to be a little bit too busy all the time,” he said. “I never hear the complaint that I don’t spend enough time with my kids as I’ll take them all with me on deliveries. He has two sons ages 21 and 9 and a daughter age 11, and his wife, Lori, is expecting another child. One activity he pursues in his free time is coaching baseball, which his youngest son and daughter play.
Lori teaches Spanish and drama at a Christian school. The family also takes in exchange students from Korea and Vietnam through a program at their nearby Catholic High School.
As busy as he is, Anthony has a couple of business ideas. He is preparing to open a retail store that will sell wood stoves, fireplace inserts, accessories and firewood.
“And, we’re in the process of becoming a green company,” said Anthony. “We’re working with a company to produce bio-diesel. The slag by-product, called glycerin, is what’s used to produce pressed logs. We’ll take the glycerin, the sawdust waste from the Multitek and press it into pressed logs.”
“We’ll also screen all the bark prior to using it for hog fuel. For everything we use, every piece processed, there won’t be anything going to waste. That’s the direction we’re going. Here in Seattle, that’s what it’s all about. We should pick up a lot of business from those who want to go ‘green.’ We’re moving toward being the first ‘green’ firewood company. There is even grant money out there to develop in this direction.”
So far the firewood business consists only of Anthony and his oldest son. During peak months, from about September until January, Anthony adds three or four temporary employees.
“Multitek has been a fantastic company to deal with,” said Anthony. “They’ve done everything they said they’d do. I would definitely recommend them. It is the right kind of heavy-duty equipment we needed. Now, with a chance to run it, I can see it takes the abuse and handles the high production, too. If we had to do it again, we would have gotten their 3040 model for the bigger logs and higher production we’ve ended up doing. Trees out here warrant having a bigger unit such as their 3040.”
Multitek offers seven models of firewood processors. Production varies, depending on the model, from about one cord of firewood per hour to six cords per hour.
The Multitek model 2040 has a number of options available, such as an operator’s cab with heating and air-conditioning and lights to run at night. It can process logs up to 20 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. The bucking saw is a 60-inch circular saw.
Firewood sales are up, noted Marcus Steigerwaldt, sales manager for Multitek in Prentice, Wisconsin, at least in part because of escalating prices for other fuel and energy. The increased use of wood for fuel has generated interest in Multitek, he said.
“We’ve had a tremendous interest in our products,” said Marcus. “Firewood as an alternative fuel is in a growth stage right now, contrary to the situation with the rest of the logging industry, when it comes to resource utilization. Our equipment is working out really well for those in the firewood business.”
The firewood business is even up in the South, according to Marcus, a region where warmer temperatures mitigate the need for heating in winter. “Wood boilers are in use all over in the north country of Wisconsin and other Northern states,” he said.
“With electricity, coal, oil and all other fossil fuels high, with no sign of going down, the market remains strong for Multitek equipment,” he added.
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