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Meister Forest Products– Four Generations Turn to Baker for Rebuilding After Second Major Fire
Wisconsin pallet lumber mill rebuilds from the ashes, finds right equipment partner in Baker Products.

By Dr. Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 9/6/2011

Endeavor, Wis.— One of the delights of working with the pallet and forest products industries is the beauty of the family run business tradition. The first time I spoke with Paul Meister I was impressed by his dedication to both his family and his business. His father worked in the sawmill industry all his life, and Paul followed in his footsteps. At 76 years of age, Paul says, “I love to work. The challenge is an enjoyment.”

Paul’s father, Martin, started in the sawmill business in 1935, manufacturing mostly railroad ties and grade lumber. When he retired in 1970, Paul and his brother assumed control of the family run business where they had developed an outstanding reputation in producing high grade hardwoods, railroad ties and veneer logs. Paul bought out his brother in 1984 and ran the mill until 1988. Paul then sold the business, Meister Log and Lumber, in 1988. Paul worked for the new owner for five years and then seriously considered retiring—but—could not get the wood industry out of his blood—so decided to start a new business. Along with his son Mark, who owned a trucking business, they established Meisters Forest Products in 1992 at Endeavor, Wisconsin and in 1999 went on to build a similar plant in Black Water, Wisconsin.

Paul shared what has become something of a company motto, “We call to sell you the first load; after that the customer will call for the second.” He believes that if you make a good product, the customers will be there.

Baker Helps Rebuild the Mill

In May of 1997, a fire destroyed the Endeavor mill. After being told by everybody that it would take at least three or four months to rebuild and get up and going, the Meisters worked very hard and were back in business exactly two months later. Paul said, “I was not a young man, but I had a lot of energy and enjoyed doing what I do. I didn’t feel like retiring.” He wanted to rebuild and perpetuate his family’s tradition in the sawmill industry.

All of us have heard the expression ‘lightning never strikes twice in the same place.’ Well, Meisters is proof that fire can strike twice in the same place. In 2010, the Endeavor mill was totally destroyed by its second fire in less than 15 years. This time the company was insured by the Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company. Paul said, “Pennsylvania Lumbermens is really a good insurance company. They wanted to see us up and running again as fast as possible. We had a loss of time policy, so it was to everybody’s benefit if we could rebuilt quickly. We also had a lot of logs on our yard, which we hauled to our other plant to be processed. Pennsylvania Lumbermens was excellent.”

When he was hit by the second fire, Paul seriously debated about rebuilding. While he was in a solid economic position, by now Paul had two sons and two grandsons who were interested in continuing the family sawmilling tradition. He decided to rebuild again. What he had thought was about a million and a half dollar fire turned into a three million dollar rebuilding effort before the new factory was complete – everything new – new buildings, new electrical, new machinery, new forklifts and loaders, all new yard equipment.

Paul said, “We kept buying logs all the time. We have some of the best log producers coming from a radius of 90-100 miles around our plants. We pay every week and wanted to keep our good supply sources.” There was no doubt that the Meisters planned on staying in business and wasted no time making it happen.

Two days after the second fire Paul and his son Mark flew down to Ellington, Missouri, to examine the Baker Products machinery plant. Paul said, “We had talked to Baker’s staff at shows, seen their ads, and read about their products. We had known Ken Gore for over ten years and really like him; he is a down to earth kind of guy who had stopped by to see us. This was instrumental in helping us decide to pay a visit to Missouri. Baker Products always has a major display with lots of machinery at the Lake States Logging Congress. We were really impressed with their mill and their plant. We had Fastline sawing machinery in our previous locations at both Endeavor and Black River Falls. The Baker machinery seemed to be built heavier; we liked that. Clay Hedrick has been our Baker contact throughout the rebuilding process.

“Everybody who sees our mill is impressed; it is a unique facility. We keep it so clean! When we clean up at night, it is as clean as a school floor. We have a big lighting system. Everything is dust free. Once you get used to keeping it clean, it is much easier. It becomes a continuous effort.”

The new building is 100x200 ft. in size, all concrete construction, with black top around it. Since their log yard is covered by rock, Meisters has no problem with a soft yard during winter operation.

Incoming logs go through a Fastline chop saw merchandising system, the only piece of machinery in the mill that survived the second fire. A Morbark debarker, a MDI metal detector, a Fastline merchandizing chop saw, and then a Baker Tri-Scragg circle saw scragg mill with two 48” circle saws complete the new low-grade mill. The scragg was delivered in the early fall of 2010. Late in 2010, the new mill was up and running. The three sided logs are cut to length on two Baker double end-trim bandsaws. The 4” and 6” three-sided center cants go through one of the two Baker multi-head resaws (a five-head saw and a six-head saw). Meisters cuts its stringers and some decking from the center cants. The slab sides are cut into deck boards.

When asked about his MDI metal detector, Paul said that it works extremely well. They did not have a metal detector before but found that it pays for itself; damage from imbedded metal used to cause a a lot of problems. It saves downtime and wear and tear on the saws. Any log that contains metal is kicked out to the side and sold for firewood.

Paul said, “The Baker equipment is working well. In spite of some adjustments in our circle saw blades, our Baker equipment is running very well. Production on our new Baker sawmill and cutup line is at least 25% greater than what we got on our old system we ran before the fire. We recently changed our circle saw 48” blades from 44 teeth to 36 teeth and increased the feed speed into our scragg.”

Menominee Saw recently made these blade and speed suggestions. Paul is very happy that what had already been a proven productive scragg mill is promising an even better rate of production. Menominee indicated that their sawdust was too much like powder and not enough like chips. The blade change and higher feed speed seems to be fixing this. Meisters buys both its circle blades and band blades from Menominee Saw.

The mill used to use another manufacturer’s brand of deduster to provide clean lumber, but it sometimes had trouble getting all the dust off its lumber. The Meisters decided to build their own deduster with a different design concept. It resembles a street sweeper with steel brushes on both the top and the bottom. Paul says he no longer gets a lot of sawdust complaints.

Like most sawmills, Meisters tries other product manufacturers when appropriate. Two Pendu notchers and Pendu stackers have worked pretty well.

The company is still making adjustments in its new mill. It is currently averaging about 45-50 thousand board feet of pallet stock a day. They have hit a few 60 thousand bd.ft. days and hope to eventually get the average up to about 55 thousand feet. The recent blade change makes this goal look even more achievable. The Black River Falls sawmill is the same as the previous mill at Endeavor. Every day it cuts about 40 thousand bd.ft. of pallet stock on its FastLine circle scragg with two four-headed thin-kerf bandsaw systems. Since both mills employ about the same number of people, Meisters has a grand total of about 45 employees to produce some 90 to 100 thousand bd.ft. of pallet stock a day. The two mills produce approximately seven loads of pallet cut stock per day.

Two wheel loaders burned in the fire. Now Meisters has one Cat and one John Deere loader outside, along with a Mitsubishi and a Yale forklift inside the plant.

Meisters doesn’t own delivery trucks; Handy Enterprises handles a lot of its trucking. Most of the pallet stock from Black River Falls plant goes west to Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. The Endeavor markets consist of southern Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

The company usually has 3000-4000 cords of logs in the yard. These are debarked, sawn into lumber, and the remainder is turned into chips and sawdust for total utilization of the product. All lumber is cut and shipped as soon as possible. The company keeps no finished inventory in stock. Meisters’ buildings are designed so that the semis drive inside. It can load a truck from both sides and can typically turn it around in no more than 20 minutes.

The People at Meisters Make It Work

The company has never known the cause of its first fire. The company had never had water and sewer service in Endeavor. It was considering leaving the town, but Endeavor wanted to keep the company around; after all it employs over twenty people. The town is now putting in a sewer system; it has drilled a 750 gallon a minute well and a storage tank. They expect to have water within the next two months. Both fires had required six or seven fire departments to extinguish them. The Meisters are installing sprinkler systems in both plants now that they will have access to water.

With a new plant and desirable fire protection the Meisters are looking forward to a bright future for the company as the fourth generation of the family matures into its leadership. Paul still comes in three or four days a week, and his wife Mary still comes in on Tuesdays and Fridays to do the bookkeeping work while their two sons Mark and Matt are busy managing the company. Mark, a partner in the business, runs the Endeavor plant, the home of the company management. Matt manages the Black River mill. A third son Kurt had a serious accident sliding into home while playing baseball and is now a quadriplegic but he still contributes his talents by handling lumber sales over the phone. Two of their grandsons, Tyler and Cody, are out of high school and work in the mill. Paul said, “My two grandsons are really hardworking men. The plant starts at 6 a.m.; they have to leave home at about 5 a.m. to get there on time. We constantly hear from other people outside of our own family how hard these young men work. We are really proud of them. They represent the future; we are excited.”

Teri Whaley, secretary in the main Endeavor plant, handles office duties for the two plants, pays for all the logs, and handles all the payroll. Teri had been a manager at an army surplus store that closed. When she applied for a job in production, the Meisters decided to train her. Paul said that he cannot overstate how much she has meant to the company.

William Narvaez, a Puerto Rican foreman, came to work on the bottom of the line and has risen to the top production man in the plant. Because he is bilingual, William can converse effectively with everybody. He often goes with the Meisters to trade shows.

Meisters Forest Products has the usual paid holidays, pays 60% of employees’ health insurance, and offers one week of vacation after the first year and two weeks after the second year. Between the two plant locations, Meisters employs about 40 people.

In spite of the adversity the Meisters have faced over the years, the family loves the forest products industry and loves the products and service they provide. They are indicative of the entrepreneurial spirit and drive that exists in our country. Few if any industries illustrate this fantastic American spirit like the forest products industry does.

Any reader who wants to talk with the Meisters about their precut pallet hardwood lumber, can call 608/587-2050.

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