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Virginia Hardwood Lumber Company Growing Again, Positions for the Future: Installation of SII Lumber Kilns Provides Drying Capacity
SII Kilns Position Virginia Hardwood Company for More Growth
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 7/1/2018
FISHERSVILLE, Virginia — Blue Ridge Lumber Co. has expanded steadily since 2000, including a number of key initiatives before the onset of the Great Recession. With the economic downturn the hardwood lumber manufacturer took steps to improve efficiency and reduce costs, and it is growing again. Its most recently completed project was the addition of lumber kilns supplied by SII Dry Kilns this year to enable the company to begin drying lumber at a log yard in eastern Virginia.
Blue Ridge Lumber has 160 employees at six facilities that stretch from Covington, less than 20 miles from the West Virginia border, to Miller’s Tavern, a hamlet a little more than 30 miles northeast of Richmond. The company’s operations produce 38 million board feet of Appalachian hardwood lumber products.
Most of the company’s facilities are located in the Shenandoah Valley, within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those facilities include offices and two sawmills and log yards in Fishersville, where the company has its origins, an affiliated millwork business in Augusta Springs, and drying operations in Goshen. The company also has a sawmill near Covington and a log yard in Monterey, which are located on the other side of the mountains. The facilities in Goshen and Augusta Springs are on the eastern edge of the George Washington National Forest while Covington is surrounded by the national forest.
Blue Ridge Lumber was founded by John Root in 1981. The company has grown steadily and expanded since then, organically and by acquisition, and John sold the business in 2001.
The company’s sawmills are equipped with some of the best-known manufacturers of machinery and equipment for the lumber industry. In Fishersville, one mill is equipped with an HMC circle mill and the other is a newer Klamath band mill with McDonough setworks. The Covington sawmill is equipped with an optimized HMC double-cut band mill, gang edger, and resaw. Other principal suppliers include Salem, Fulghum, and Morbark.
The millwork business unit, Stillwater Woodworking, is equipped with machines from Newman Machine Co., Mereen-Johnson, Weinig, and Ultimizers.
The company began relying on SII for dry kilns in 1991, and today it is SII’s largest customer in Virginia.
The Bells Valley facility in Goshen has extensive drying operations. It specializes in drying 4/4-6/4 red oak and white oak and 8/4-16/4 poplar. Bells Valley has 800,000 board feet of air-dry pre-driers, 1 million board feet of covered air-dry sheds, and 1.5 million board feet of SII dry kilns — kilns all equipped with SII electronic computer controls. The facility carries about 2 million board feet of kiln-dried lumber that is distributed world-wide.
Other lumber kilns and drying operations are located at Fishersville and — the newest — at Miller’s Tavern. Green lumber produced at the Covington mill is graded and sorted for sale and shipment or trucked to the company’s drying facilities in Goshen or Fishersville.
The company buys both logs and standing timber and specializes in large diameter timber. Blue Ridge Lumber president Tom Sheets explained the strategy. “Because bigger is better. It gives you more options. It commands premiums, and it makes for more efficient processing.”
The company also buys green lumber, but its own sawmills supply 90 percent of the green material for the dry kilns. It expects to grow its business further, buying 60 percent of the green material it requires.
Sourcing logs and timber from hardwood forests in Virginia and West Virginia, Blue Ridge Lumber offers a range of high quality products from rough-sawn green, air dried or kiln dried lumber to custom millwork and flooring. The company produces graded rough-sawn and quartered or rift sawn lumber ranging in thickness from 4/4 to 16/4, specializing in 8/4 to 16/4.
Lumber is sold random length and random width although the company also has the capability to produce lumber in fixed widths at Stillwater Woodworking, which also can provide services like ripping and surfacing. “We can do pretty much whatever the customers need,” said Tom.
Blue Ridge Lumber specializes in red oak, white oak, poplar, ash, hard maple, soft maple, hickory, cherry, and walnut. It also offers cedar, basswood, butternut, elm, and sassafras.
About 60 percent of the company’s production is kiln-dried lumber, and green lumber accounts for about 20 percent. Millwork is 10 percent, and raw logs are 10 percent. The company’s main customers are lumber distributors and flooring mills.
Sales are split evenly, about 50-50, between domestic markets and export customers. The company ships an average of 1,500 containers of lumber and veneer logs annually from ports in Norfolk to ports in the United Kingdom, Italy, China, Japan, and Taiwan. It also has customers in Canada and Mexico.
The company supplies chips made from scrap wood material to paper mills, and it sells several types of bark mulch produced at the sawmills to landscape contractors and homeowners. The grinding operations are equipped with a Jones Manufacturing Mighty Giant tub grinder and a Fulghum Industries bark hog.
Green sawdust is used to fuel the wood-fired boilers that supply hot water and steam for the company’s dry kilns. “We burn it all,” said Tom.
Blue Ridge Lumber has a forestry department led by degreed foresters, and the company practices sustainable forest management.
The company operates its own fleet of trucks. Its operations in Fishersville are located near the connection of Interstate 64 and Interstate 81, which provides excellent access east, west, north, and south, and to ports on the East Coast.
The company has expanded significantly since 2000. It acquired the Covington mill and log yard and added the other log yards in Monterey and Miller’s Tavern, and it ventured into the value-added arena with the opening of Stillwater Woodworking.
Its last major initiative before the severe economic downturn was opening the log yard in Miller’s Tavern in 2009, which enables the company to source logs from hardwood forests in eastern Virginia.
Blue Ridge Lumber weathered the Great Recession because it “lived off our inventory” and also increased production, said Tom. Those may seem like opposite business tactics, but he explained.
“When the market is falling, you can’t adjust your costs that quickly,” observed Tom. “You eventually get your raw materials in line, and you’re selling material out of your warehouse.”
“Then we tried to increase our production,” he continued, by improving efficiency. A big factor in that was adding the HMC resaw at the Covington sawmill, and the company also cut some positions and made other moves to control costs. Now the company produces the same volume of lumber with 160 employees as it did when it had 200 employees. The efficiency gains positively affected the bottom line, increasing production per man hour and reducing costs.
Blue Ridge Lumber executives joined with state officials in December to announce the company would invest nearly $2.7 million to expand its operations in Miller’s Tavern and add dry kiln capacity.
This spring SII installed four steam-heated kilns at the Miller’s Tavern log yard with a combined capacity of a little over 300,000 board feet. Two of them are conventional kilns, each with capacity of 50,000-plus board feet capacity, and two are the SII design kilns with capacity of 100,000 board feet each. The SII design kilns feature a center fan wall that allows the kiln to be loaded from both sides — fans go all the way to the floor — for very consistent drying, noted Brian Turlington, vice- president of SII Dry Kilns.
Blue Ridge Lumber used the same approach, having both types of kilns, previously at other locations, noted Dan. The SII design kiln has larger holding capacities without the need for the chamber to be exceptionally wide or deep, he added.
The kilns feature SII’s 9060 computerized control system for automatic operation with operator-weighed sampling. With the data from the samples, the control system projects daily moisture loss to advance the kiln operations and the lumber drying process.
“Everything else is state of the art,” added Brian, such as powered vents and frequency drives on fan systems. The kilns should provide “considerable energy savings” and consistent drying for quality lumber, he said.
Blue Ridge Lumber has 21 SII dry kilns with combined capacity of well over 2 million board feet, according to Dan Mathews, SII president.
The company’s SII dry kilns feature all aluminum construction with stainless steel wall and roof panels in the drying chamber “since day one,” noted Tom.
At Miller’s Tavern the company is drying some of its own green lumber production as well as green lumber it buys from other producers. “The business model is to expand production and purchase lumber,” said Tom.
Tom and Blue Ridge Lumber have a very solid relationship with SII Dry Kilns. “We find them very cooperative,” said Tom, “so when we have a new project, we call them. We usually do not entertain offers from anybody else. We believe in repeat business, whether we’re selling or buying. Once you find somebody, why waste time trying to find somebody else?”
“The relationship is both ways,” he added. “You’re in a partnership with someone who builds your dry kilns. So when you have a problem, they don’t pull out the warranty sheet. They listen to you, and they deal with it.”
“They’ve given me no reason to look,” said Tom, who is familiar with other dry kiln suppliers.
The Miller’s Tavern dry kiln project was overseen by Bob Root, a nephew of company founder John Root and its first employee. The company’s resident engineer and technical trainer, he has built two sawmills and modified another and installed three sets of dry kilns. Bob will semi-retire in July. “We are fortunate that he will still answer his phone and pay us a visit as needed,” said Tom.
Export sales have increased somewhat in the past five years, indicated Tom, 67, who has served as company president since 2001 and previously was vice president from 1984-2001. “We go back and forth. One of the advantages we have is we try to maintain customers in several areas.”
The company has done a “little bit of advertising” to market to overseas customers, said Tom. However, most overseas business has been generated by word-of-mouth referrals. “Our lumber sells itself,” said Tom, “and our service keeps the customers engaged…More people find us than we find them.”
The company also has participated in a few state-sponsored trade mission trips overseas. A trip to Mexico proved fruitful for the company, and it also is in the process of cultivating business contacts established during a visit to Cuba.
Blue Ridge Lumber provides up to two weeks of vacation and seven paid holidays. The company offers insurance benefits and a 401(k) retirement savings plan and also has a liberal family leave policy. It is a sponsor of Log-A-Load for Kids as well as Young Life, a Christian youth organization.
The company is active in several trade associations — the National Hardwood Lumber Association, Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc., and the Appalachian Hardwood Export Council. Tom serves on the board of trustees of the AHMI, and he occasionally helps represent the AHEC when it has a booth at a trade show or convention overseas. Other employees attend the NHLA annual meeting regularly.
Tom, who still has a close pulse on company sales, puts a strong emphasis on customer satisfaction. “We try to find out what a customer needs, and we try to sell them what we have. We try to be flexible. We sell mainly to distribution yards here and overseas. Particularly with customers here, you’re seldom selling a full load any more. And they want just-in-time delivery.”
He strives to cultivate the kind of business relationship with customers where they pick up the phone and call Blue Ridge Lumber when they need to buy lumber instead of a sales representative initiating a call to solicit a sale.
“My goal in sales is this,” he said. “There are sales people, and there are order takers. My goal is to convince my customers that I’m just taking an order, even though I may be selling them. That means they’re looking to me when they need lumber. Usually price is the last thing we talk about.”
He remains closely involved in the company’s sales. “It all crosses my desk.” He is either personally involved with the customer or the sales representative.
“We are what we are,” said Tom. “Just about everybody knows who we are. We’re big, but we’re not that big. We don’t have to try to take care of everybody.”
Tom has no immediate plans to retire, but he is making plans for the company’s future without him. “The thing that I’ve worked hard on the last three years is succession for Blue Ridge Lumber,” he said. “We have good people.”
He has assembled a management team of young and middle-aged employees, preparing for the exit of some senior managers who may retire within a few years. “We believe very strongly in promoting from within, and we’ve been building this team for the future,” he said.
The decision to add SII kilns to the company’s log yard Miller’s Tavern was part of that plan for the future, he indicated.
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