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Little River Wood Products Simultaneously Balances Between the Niche Pallet and Shavings Mill Markets

Tom and Greg Boland of Little River Wood Products work two big markets: niche pallets and shavings. Most of their equipment is manufactured by Jackson Lumber Harvester Co.

By Maya L. Brewer
Date Posted: 12/1/2010

Arcadia, Wisconsin—If Tom Boland isn’t making his product, then he’s out delivering his product. As one of the co-owners of Little River Products Co., Tom and his younger brother, Greg, have worked hard to create a unique niche in both the pallet and the shavings industries.

            In 1989, Tom’s father Thomas P. Boland abandoned a long heritage of dairy farming to venture into the sawmill industry. The Bolands had been farmers since the early 1800’s. But due to low-profit margins in the 1980’s, Tom P. Boland pulled out of farming to embark on the American dream to make a better life for himself and his family. He began Little River Lumber and Pallet Co. by himself, cutting lumber for local companies. Within five years, the business got too big, so he convinced his sons to join him. Both brothers accepted the challenge and a family-run business was born.

            During that first year, 1994, Tom trained under his father’s watchful eye, learning to run their shop-built sawmill with a Jackson vertical edger and resaw. Tom attempted to learn everything he could but after that first year his dad had an incapacitating stroke, which impaired his communication and his sons’ training. According to Tom, the equipment was “light-duty and unreliable,” requiring monthly modification during the 13 years it was used.

            “My father taught me quite a bit,” stated Tom. “But I basically had to find out stuff the hard way. For instance, I had to figure out the angle on sharpening the blades properly for how much lead to run into the saw. I had to repeat the process again and again until I got it down to an exact science.”

            According to Tom, winter was the hardest part of operating their fledgling business. Tom described how he, his brother, father, and a few others would work rotating shifts to keep the mill operating. Their humble shop was unheated. The day often began at 4am with warming up their make-shift hydraulic mill to have it operational by 7am. The men would work half-hour shifts in the cold shop and warm up in the heated 8x10 tool room for five to ten minutes at a time. This lasted for four 10-hour days through the week with the fifth day being a delivery, maintenance, and overtime day. While the weekly shifts were the same, the business has transformed from the single shop to three completely heated buildings and from a handful of employees to thirteen. Tom’s thankful to have those cold days behind him now. His dad, who passed away in February 2009, was mighty proud of his boys and how large the business had grown.

            Since its founding in 1989, Little River Wood Products has traditionally been known as Little River Lumber & Pallet Co.  Because the company rarely focuses on lumber production, the brothers are in the process of renaming the company to Little River Wood Products to better describe their business. The company used to focus on two markets: lumber and pallets. But in 1999 they began specializing in the pallet niche market, specifically small one-use pallet mats. Then in 2008 a shaving mill was added to their business.  The company now balances the joint ventures between three buildings.

            The main building, measuring 24,000 square feet, houses a complete Jackson hydraulic sawmill, which includes a Jackson head rig, vertical edger, and log decks, along with a Baker four-band resaw with return conveyors and turnarounds and a Fulghum chipper. The Jackson system was purchased in 2007.  Also within the main building are the cut-up and pallet areas, a location for bagged shavings, offices, break rooms, loading docks, and a pallet stapling machine built by Stapling Machine Company out of Rockaway, NJ.

            A 2009 Jackson shaving mill system complete with drying mill is operated in a secondary building, the 2,500 square-foot space which was the company’s original unheated building. Little River also has a 2,000 square-foot heated shop for maintenance and a 1,400 square-foot loading area. The brothers have two trailers, a Freightliner and an International, but they are hoping to purchase two more.

            Both brothers work the company together, but Greg mainly handles the resawing for Little River’s unique pallet niche. Weekly the company cranks out from 10,000 to 12,000 pallets. Until 2009, the quantity was around 20,000 pallets per week, but the poor economy affected them like everyone else. Tom is quick to admit that his pallets are not typical. His mats are a specially designed product for Little River’s main customer, a national furniture company. These mat sizes vary with nearly 70 different specifications per week depending on its customer’s needs. The biggest volume mat is a 2-ft. square pallet, built from ˝-inch thick boards. These small mats are disposable furniture packaging pallets that are secured within cardboard boxes for furniture shipment. On the other extreme, the Bolands also produce large (4 ft. x 7 ft.) heavy-duty warehouse pallets for this customer’s in-house needs as well.  Each 100-mat unit rests on skids, which are also produced by Little River.

            Tom explained that Little River literally jumped into this niche within a week. They had been anticipating a change within their company for some time especially within their pallet market. So when they were approached by their now main customer, who’s located less than two miles from their facility, they seized the opportunity.

            “When you see a chance to make a profit you’ve got to make a quick decision to make it all happen. The need was immediate and we needed to act fast,” stated Tom. “I suppose it runs in our family’s Irish blood. We’re following in our dad’s footsteps.”

            Over the years, the Bolands had developed a long history with Jackson Lumber Harvester Co., located in Mondovi, WI. In the late 1980’s, Tom Meis and Dick McGee of Jackson Lumber Harvester had helped Tom’s dad with his original make-shift sawmill by supplying him with the parts he needed. So when the Boland brothers began investigating an entirely new sawmill system, Jackson Lumber turned out to be the best choice with a well-built, reliable, and cost-effective system when compared with the other systems they investigated. 

            “With Jackson Lumber’s equipment, I have no down time at all,” stated Tom. “The equipment works just like they said it would. And the service is great. I can drive a half hour down the road to pick up the parts that I need anytime. That’s helpful to an Irish guy like me who likes to procrastinate.”

            According to Tom Meis, Jackson’s plant layout consultant, it’s small family businesses like the Bolands that are the back-bones of the timber industry in North America. Jackson Lumber deals mainly with custom-built units for these types of businesses all over North America and internationally.

            “We’re on a first name basis with a hands-on type of approach within this industry,” stated Tom Meis of Jackson Lumber. “These are the type of people that work hard. They can jump on any piece of machinery in the industry and operate it. It’s not like anyone’s in the upper echelon telling people what to do without knowing how to do it themselves. The Bolands are making the American dream happen. They own their company and they work it themselves.”

            Tom Meis also commended the Bolands because of their commitment to employing locals and their dedication to using indigenous raw materials. In fact, the Bolands purchase their Aspen saw logs for the pallets and low-grade pulpwood for shavings from a five-county region within WI. Because of Little River’s two-fold business ventures, the area loggers’ landings are cleaner. Full loads are delivered to Little River pre-divided between saw logs and pulpwood, creating enriched opportunities for the loggers to continue site work without waiting for landings to be cleared.

            Even though Little Rivers’ pallets are only delivered a short distance away, the pallets are required to be heat-treated because the furniture shipments are international. In 2005, a TempAir heat treater was added to the sawmill shop. The drying time for the pallets varies in the summer and winter months. A core temperature of 133 degrees Fahrenheit must be held for 30 minutes. In the summer a load takes 2.5 hours, while in the winter it takes much longer, over 4 hours. Package Research Lab inspectors visit the company once a month to inspect and certify that treating is being done to ISPM 15 requirements.

            “We are examined very carefully,” stated Tom of Little River. “They look at our records, stamps, procedures. They have to test our heat treating process to ensure that the probes are calibrated correctly. We’ve had recalls because of bark issues or stamps that weren’t clearly marked. We’ve had to learn a lot being in this business. But it’s all been good.”

            Because Tom prefers to keep his pallets “high and dry” he has designed Little River’s sawmill with a series of Baker drop-belt tables built at varying levels; they guide the slabs so they’re never touched by human hands. A Baker four-head resaw cuts Little River’s cants into pallet stock. Seventy-five percent of the resawn lumber lengths are precise within one to two millimeters. According to Tom, it’s their experience, consistently practiced since 1990, that has enabled them “to hold the right size.”

            Tom’s current focus has been developing the shavings end of their business. Their Jackson Shaving mill was added in the spring of 2008, after a continuous demand for saw dust created a new opportunity for Little River.

            “We were having so much sawdust with our sawmill. Farmers started buying it off us for their dairy cows,” explained Tom. “Then the demand grew so much that we didn’t have enough product. Once we purchased the shaving mill we sold the shavings green but then we added the Jackson drying system when a local poultry company wanted to work with us. Their ‘big’ name behind us helped us get the loan for the drying system from our local bank.”

            According to Dick McGee, a sales representative for Jackson Lumber Harvester, Tom has one of Jackson’s larger units, the 36-inch shaving mill with an 8-24 drum drying system and a 12 million BTU burner. Little River’s system comes with all the additional pieces, conveyers, cyclones, etc. and the bagging system.

            Tom admitted that he’s had quite a learning curve in learning all the specialized bedding needs of area livestock, such as horses, chickens, turkeys, cows, goats, chinchillas, and rabbits. He’s learning what kind of product each prefers while creating the preferred blend that’s going to be mutually beneficial to each unique breed. Right now he’s aiming at trying to please everybody and get as much business as he possibly can. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make the product just right for his customers.                  

            According to Tom, he’s adjusted the product for his largest poultry customer ten times, attempting to create a superior product. Tom also delivers the 53-foot trailer loads directly to the customer’s locations without ever having it sit in his shop. The trailers are top loaded and travel with a tarp cover to keep the product dry. Once at the delivery site, Tom uses walking floors to distribute the product evenly into manageable piles for the farming crew to spread.

            “We only have two trailers. I wish I had four more cause we’re under the gun to get the product out and delivered fast enough,” explained Tom. “We just don’t have room to store any at our facility.”

            In addition to the drying system, Little River also invested in a Verville (later bought by Premier Tech Industries) bagger system. According to Tom, the drying system has kept them “afloat” in 2009 when their pallet market suffered a 50% decline. The two businesses are “leaning on each other going back and forth” to help them maintain profit in this economy. Even though Little River is new in the shavings market they are gaining new customers each week as news spreads about the quality product Tom offers. Their facility, located near Minnesota, attracts 25% of their business from Minn. and 75% from Wis. Recently some Iowa farmers have expressed interest.

            Tom’s wife, Jerrilynn, works in the office getting leads for the company, while Tom makes the cold calls. It’s not uncommon for him to receive a call after leaving a printed shavings bag at a farmer’s doorstep. Little River advertises in the local paper, by word of mouth, and a website is about to make its debut. Tom finds the best thing to do is to just get his “foot in the door” and the product sells itself.

            With 60% of Little River’s profits coming from its pallets and another 40% plus coming from shavings, the Boland brothers are balancing things quite steadily. And with Jackson Lumber Harvester Co. on their side, there’s nothing that can stop them. The Boland family service motto is “We’ll do whatever it takes.” Ironically, Jackson Lumber’s motto is “No matter what it takes, we’ll keep you going.” The two together are unstoppable.


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