Wood products firms find new ways to succeed

2014-03-02 Ashley Bach

The timber business is one of the oldest industries in the country, particularly in the West, but it never stands still. Just last week, the media profiled four wood products firms that are using innovation to not just survive, but thrive.

To start, Rice Logging in Sweet Home, Ore., isn't as old as most timber firms (founded in the 1980s) but it makes up for that with strong family ties.

At 81, (founder) Bob Rice remains active in the business, mostly building roads, while sons, Chris, Dan and Doug take care of day-to-day operations and wife Rose, daughter Jeannette Hoover and niece, Heather Swanson, keep the office running smoothly.

The family-run operation has a successful niche.

After federal and state timber sales dried up in the 1990s, the business has worked almost totally for Weyerhaeuser, gaining a reputation for quality work and safety, both valued by their employer.

“We have done work for Cascade Timber Consulting, Roseburg Lumber and Roseboro Lumber, Guistina and Tomco, but mostly, we work for Weyerhaeuser,” Chris said.

Heading to the Midwest, Missouri Pacific Lumber in Fayette, Mo., is succeeding with a specific type of lumber more plentiful in Missouri than anywhere else in the world: American black walnut.

Walnut is a dark, rich wood, known for its use in luxury goods such as Rolls Royce cars and Learjets. “It’s a bit of a niche,” (says company president Bucky Pescaglia), “but we’d rather specialize in something and do really it well rather than offer all kinds of species.”

...The top 5 percent of logs that MoPac buys are resold to make veneers, and the rest are run through the sawmill: first debarked, then sawed into blocks, dried, treated in the kiln, stored and eventually sold. Anything left over is sold or used in MoPac’s production. The bark is sold to a company in Auxvasse that makes mulch for consumers; the leftover wood goes to a company that creates children’s playground wood chips and to the University of Missouri power plant’s biomass boiler; and the sawdust is used to fire MoPac’s own kilns.

Over in New England, the Bangor Daily News took a look at two innovative Maine firms, Sappi Fine Paper and Old Town Fuel and Fiber.

Sappi is Maine's oldest paper mill still in operation, starting business in 1854. Thirteen years ago, the mill switched gears and started to produce release paper, which is valuable for its texture.

The mill now produces 40 percent of the world’s supply of release paper, which is used by Sappi’s customers to provide the texture on products like soccer balls, shoes and high-end clothing. The release paper begins as a basic cellulose-based paper, but in the mill a special coating is applied.

“And this is where it goes from the ridiculous to the sublime,” (company manager Donna Cassese) said in explaining the process. “So we start on this centuries-old paper machine and the way we put the coatings on and cure it is with electron beams — very, very high tech. This is not your grandfather’s paper mill.”

That type of release paper is 10 times more valuable than the printing and publishing paper the Westbrook mill used to produce, and which most Maine mills still do, Cassese said.

Meanwhile, Old Town Fuel and Fiber took a leap forward by diversifying.

Old Town Fuel and Fiber has successfully shown with its pilot project that it can take wood pulp and, instead of baling it and selling it to papermakers, turn it into cellulosic sugars that can be used like other sugars derived from corn or sugar cane. The mill, which is owned by New York-based private equity firm Patriarch Partners, is currently in the process of getting the necessary permits to begin construction on a demonstration project that will transform that wood pulp-derived sugar into 40,000 gallons of ethanol a day, said Darrell Waite, process manager at the mill.

The mill’s innovation was driven by a “fail-fast-forward-type mentality,” Waite said Thursday morning. “Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying until you fail, then back up, re-evaluate and keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. It’s really speed to development, speed to market.”

The pulp mill currently employs roughly 210 and Waite said at least 30 jobs will be added late next year as the demonstration project comes online.

At the same time, Old Town Fuel and Fiber is working with a number of third parties to produce even higher-value products from the fermentation of its wood pulp-derived sugar, such as jet fuel and bioplastics, Waite said.

According to Donna Cassese of Sappi Fine Paper, the trick for wood products firms is to capitalize on the strengths that make your company stand out.

“That’s what I think is the most important thing for any business, whether you’re 150 years old or whatever it is: What are you really good at and how are you unique, and how can you capitalize that into a future growth strategy? ...That’s what it really boils down to.”