Biewer Lumber Keeps Looking Ahead; Company Seeks to Have Stronger Presence in the Pallet Industry
Biewer Lumber, one of the largest softwood lumber producers in the Midwest, keeps shouldering ahead, looks to improve its presence in the pallet industry.
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 10/1/2011
Michigan-based Biewer Lumber™ has a strategy for surviving the downturn in the home building industry: keep looking ahead.
The company, one of the largest softwood lumber producers in the Midwest, is not willing to just sit back and ride out the tough times. It is growing and expanding.
In August, the company acquired two additional sawmills, a full-size mill in Lake City, Mich. and a smaller mill in Gladwin, Mich.
In addition to the two recently acquired sawmills, Biewer Lumber has sawmills in McBain, Mich. and Prentice, Wis. The company also has three lumber treating and distribution facilities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It employs 450 people throughout its operations and has annual sales in the range of $200 million.
The company also is expanding its customer base and putting renewed emphasis on its industrial division, which is an important supplier to the pallet and wood container industry in the Midwest as well as Canada.
Current production is at a level of about 250 million board feet per year. “We should be able to increase it to 300 million soon,” said Doug O’Rourke, director of sales and purchasing.
Biewer Lumber is named for its founder, Richard Biewer, who started the business in the 1950s. Although Dick, now 80, retains the title of president, the business now is overseen by his son, Tim, vice president.
The Biewer Family owned a wholesale sporting goods business and boat livery. Dick’s initial foray in the lumber business was selling material for docks and pilings. He had a customer who was unable to pay for some rental boats; they bartered and reached an agreement that the customer would pay off the debt with timber and a portable sawmill.
In the early days of modern lumber treatment, Dick made the astute decision to enter the lumber treating arena. The company bought lumber, treated the material at its own facilities, and sold the treated wood products to lumber dealers, ‘big box’ stores, and other customers. Its principal products were decking, fencing material, and material for permanent wood foundations.
The company did not enter the sawmill arena until 1984, when Dick built the company’s first mill in McBain. The mill primarily cut pine that was planted in the region by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression years of the 1930s.
“There was an abundant amount of undermanaged pine – red pine – in Michigan,” said Doug. The two largest timberholders are the federal government and state government. Dick worked with the various government agencies to ensure the new mill would have a steady supply of timber.
Red pine or Norway pine is the only softwood species naturally found in the northern Great Lakes region that readily accepts waterborn treatments. The trees are characterized by tall, straight growth and will reach a height of 90-100 feet and a diameter of 30-40 inches.
Red pine has restricted wane with small, tight knots, and its strength properties lend it for use in construction applications, such as girders, beams, joists, studs and trusses. Red pine is less dense than yellow pine, which makes it easier to use for framing and other applications. Red pine also remains lighter after treatment, which helps to minimize freight cost.
The sawmill in McBain has grown steadily since it was first opened. In 1990, Dick built a second mill in Prentice, Wis.
The sawmills in Michigan are grouped fairly close together. McBain is roughly 100 miles almost due north of Lansing. From McBain, Gladwin is just under 50 miles further west, and Lake City is only about 10 miles north of Gladwin.
The company says its mills in Prentice and McBain are the two largest volume random length sawmills in the Midwest with a combined capacity of 200 million board feet annually.
All the mills cut softwood, predominantly red pine. “We’ve started to cut aspen in Wisconsin,” said Doug. “That’s a new venture for us.”
The company’s McBain sawmill cuts mainly red pine, jack pine and spruce. The company buys logs ranging from 8-16 feet long with an average diameter of 8 inches. The logs are placed on an infeed deck, and the bark is removed by a Kodiak debarker before they are advanced into the mill. The logs are sorted according to various sizes and staged before arriving at the primary breakdown machine center. They are scanned and optimized by a Tree-D log rotation system that determines optimal log orientation for entering the infeed. The logs are then re-scanned by Tree D’s primary breakdown optimization system to calculate the maximum yield prior to entering the chipping heads. (These optimization systems are also used at the Wisconsin mill.)
The machine used for primary breakdown is a Cone Machinery canter; its four chipping heads process the log into a four-sided cant. Behind the chipping heads, vertical saws remove side boards from two sides of the cant. The side boards are sent to a USNR edger, and the cants continue to a Cone gang saw to be split into dimension lumber or decking. A Baxley Hi-Tech trim saw completes the manufacturing process, and the lumber is sorted by an automated, 53-bay system and stacked in preparation for drying and surfacing.
The mill is equipped with Wellons dry kilns – a fourth kiln was added earlier this year.
The mill machinery and equipment, front and back, has been upgraded in the past two years with the exception of the primary breakdown machine, which has been improved over the years. The company added a planning mill six years ago; surfacing is done by a Newman head planer.
The lumber produced at each mill is predominantly narrow dimension lumber, 2x4 through 2x8, radius edged decking, timbers (4x4 through 6x6), some 1x4 and 1x6, and industrial material.
Biewer Lumber has an industrial division that can supply customers with the red pine cut at its own sawmills as well as Southern yellow pine, SPF, and hardwoods. It offers complete lumber remanufacturing services and has heat-treating capability to supply ISPM-15-certified heat-treated lumber and components. Besides supplying the pallet and container industry, the industrial division also sells to other manufacturing business in the automotive, pipe, and other industries.
For the pallet and wood container industry, the company produces 1-1/8 and 1-1/4 boards, some dimension lumber, and some 4x4 material for block pallets. “It’s a multitude…primarily boards of narrow dimension and some timber,” said Doug.
For industrial markets like the pallet and wood container industry, Biewer Lumber supplies remanufactured components and value-added wood and panel products. The company has the capability to remanufacture any and all species of lumber, plywood and oriented strand board to specifications, including resawing, ripping, precision end trimming, and grooving. The company’s lumber products can be cut to spec and is suited for pallets, skids, crates, boxes, and other wood packaging. In addition to manufacturing boards, dimension lumber and timbers, Biewer produces low grade material in 2x4, 2x6, 5/4x6, 4x4, 1x4, and 1x6.
The company sells to pallet and container manufacturers in the Midwest and also into Canada. Primary industrial markets for pallet and container manufacturing in the U.S. are Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.
Industrial lumber markets represent about 30% of the company’s business, according to Doug.
Each mill buys pretty much the same type of raw material. The mill in Prentice, Wis. buys logs at set lengths and also tree-length wood. The Gladwin mill is set up to process shorter logs and buys wood accordingly. The company buys stumpage from state and national forests and contracts for cutting, and it also buys some logs on the open market.
Each sawmill has its own drying operations and planning mill, with the exception of Gladwin. The company’s mills all are set up to apply a chemical to finished lumber to protect it from mold and sapstain. Three of the mills are equipped with spray systems and the fourth has a dip tank system. The company uses an Arch Chemicals product for protection.
A considerable volume of the company’s lumber production is destined for Biewer’s treating plants and distribution centers. Its lumber products are eventually sold to retailers like The Home Depot and ProBuild as well as independent lumber yards and wholesalers.
“We are vertically integrated from manufacturing to the retail outlets,” said Doug. The company also has some customers in manufacturing industries.
The geographic market for its lumber products stretches throughout the Midwest, roughly from Michigan to Minnesota, and into Eastern Canada.
Residuals are collected and sold into various markets. “Most everything is used,” said Doug. Some bark is burned in the company’s boilers along with sawdust, but the rest of the bark is supplied to the landscape industry. Chips are sold to paper mills, wood pellet manufacturers, and mills that manufacture medium density fiberboard. The company collects planer shavings and has a system to package them in bags for sale for animal bedding.
Doug talked about the company’s strategies for getting through the recession and the downturn in the home building industry. “It’s definitely been a long one,” he said. “The way we’ve gone about that is investing in manufacturing to improve efficiencies, as difficult as that is.” The company also has diversified its customer base and instituted some measures to control costs. The result: “We’ve been able to run our mills and keep the wood moving through these tough times” said Doug.
The company has its own internal trucking unit, Biewer Logistics, LLC and uses a combination of company-owned equipment and outside carriers for all hauling. Biewer Logistics also brokers some additional trucking business.
Biewer Lumber is committed to sustainable forestry practice and environmental stewardship. The company selects trees to be harvested, thinning rather than clear-cutting. Thinning improves the growth rate, size and health of the remaining trees and enables them to flourish.
The company, which is active in the Michigan Forest Productivity Council and the North American Wholesale Lumber Association, also offers a forestry management program to private landowners that applies practices of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council. The voluntary program, designed specifically for pine forests, provides free sustainable-forest management assistance and technical forestry services to landowners to ensure timber yield for generations to come.
Biewer Lumber offers many products. The company’s signature brand, Select Cut® is a high quality line of appearance grade lumber. Select Cut lumber is hand-selected for quality and appearance, and each individual board undergoes multiple inspections.
Biewer’s own ThermalGuard™ - thermally modified wood - is dried to reduce moisture content. This process has been proven to preserve the material for up to twenty-five years without the need for chemical additives. The product is further enhanced with a premium acrylic sealant. It features a unique engineered profile to accommodate a hidden fastener system.
Its treated wood products are marketed under the Everguard™ brand, and the company also offers another, more advanced treated line called Micronized Everguard.
The company also offers fire retardant wood products, FSC certified products, and standard grade lumber. It produces permanent wood foundation components and is a distributor of Fiberon composite decking and railing.
The company’s treating facilities can process and treat 300 million board feet of lumber annually. Its flagship facility, in Lansing, began production in 2000 and is the largest pressure-treated lumber facility in the Midwest. Treating is done with two 90-foot cylinders, both utilizing a completely mechanized handling system. Many products are kiln-dried after treatment and stored in the 185,000 square feet of dry inside storage.
At its plant in Seneca, Ill., just west of Chicago, the company is the largest producer in the U.S. of Dricon fire retardant wood and also produces the company’s line of Everguard pressure-treated lumber and plywood products. Adjacent to its sawmill in Prentice, the company has another facility to produce Everguard pressure-treated lumber and plywood.
Although the company’s primary target is finished lumber for the building trades, it is putting a stronger focus on serving the wood packaging industry. “We’re looking to have a stronger presence in the pallet and container industry in the years to come,” said Doug. Check out www.biewerlumber.com for more company information.
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