January February 2005
 

 

 

 

GUEST COLUMNIST

Thinking Thin: How a Traditional Mill Changed with the Times

By Craig Rawlings, Small Wood Enterprise Agent, Montana Community Development Corporation (MCDC)

Fire suppression has produced millions of acres of fireprone forests. The solution is to thin the smaller trees. But what to do with them? My job is to help entrepreneurs answer that question—in other words, to create value-added uses for small-diameter trees. During my two years on the job, I’ve had the privilege to be part of some groundbreaking projects. One of the most interesting involves a mill owner named Ken Verley. Ken co-owns Tricon Timber, in St. Regis, a small town in western Montana. Tricon is a traditional stud mill, so almost by definition, Ken is facing a swarm of economic challenges. Lawsuits have cut into his supply of logs from federal timber lands. And since structural grade lumber is a commodity, his product is increasingly at the mercy of unforgiving international markets. Those factors were on Ken’s mind in January of 2003 as he attended a seminar on small wood that was co-sponsored by my organization, Montana Community Development Corporation (MCDC).

Several presenters addressed the topic of flooring as a value-added wood product, and Ken became intrigued by the idea of supplementing his lumber business. He learned that flooring blanks can be as narrow as 1 3/4", and can be installed in lengths as short as two feet. And he liked the fact that a mill that makes flooring blanks can use smaller trees and offer a product with more profit (and marketability) than two by fours. However, flooring requires a specialized (and expensive) slow-drying kiln. With that in mind, Ken contacted Dean Graham. Dean is the utilization and wood products specialist for USFS Regions 1 & 4 and the USFS Forest Products Lab. Soon Dean and I were meeting with two of Tricon’s top managers: Assistant Plant Manager Angelo Ververis and Lumber Sales Manager Christy Hollenback. Later that spring, MCDC helped Tricon apply for a Forest Service Economic Action Program grant, to pay for part of a new kiln.

That got the ball rolling for manufacturing. But what about creating a market? As it happened, in the spring of 2003 I also got a call from Peter Stark, an outdoor writer from Missoula who recently thinned 80 acres.. Reluctant to send the logs to the pulp mill, Peter had researched and discovered the potential of flooring. Together with restoration forester Matt Arno, installer Shannon O’Keefe, and lawyer Mike Wood, Peter was considering a business that specialized in "green-certified" tamarack flooring. Peter and his associates had sent some of his trees to a mill in Dillon, Mont., and had used the results to build the floor of a dance studio. But now they were looking for a mill closer to home.

Tricon was the logical choice, so I introduced Peter to Angelo Ververis and Christy Hollenback of Tricon. That fall, MCDC and the USFS sponsored the National Smallwood Conference in Seeley Lake, Mont. Peter, Matt, Shannon, and Mike attended, and soon they were talking about forming a partnership—Northslope Sustainable Woods. Christy Hollenback of Tricon was there, too, and took the opportunity to start a business relationship with Peter. I should add, I’m also the guy who connects the dots. I help people form networks so that resources flow efficiently— across town or across the country. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to introduce talented people to each other and then simply let good things happen.

That was the case with Ken and Northslope. Having Tricon as a potential resource gave Northslope the confidence to proceed. Conversely, knowing that outfits like Northslope were out there gave Tricon even more confidence in the size of the market. Success built upon success. Northslope incorporated in early 2004. By July, with MCDC’s help, the partners had a one-year business plan in place. This fall, the Tricon kiln went online, and two of their first projects were to run tamarack flooring for Northslope. Tricon’s new venture is now off and running, but I’m still helping connect the dots.

This fall I contacted a specialist at Montana State University’s Forestry Extension Service, who spent several days researching markets for Tricon. He also picked the brain of Hayfork, California entrepreneur Jim Jungwirth, who shared his knowledge of small wood product manufacturing. At the Seeley Lake conference, I had put the Tricon folks in touch with Mark Stella of Green Mountain Woodworks, an Oregon-based marketer of "sustainably produced solid wood flooring". Tricon is now finalizing a deal to sell flooring blanks to Green Mountain. It’s also talking to molding companies in the hopes of creating its own brand of finished flooring. But the mill’s biggest potential client is on the horizon.

The USFS’s Dean Graham has been discussing small wood product opportunities with Mike Stewart, director of the Cascade Forest Resource Center, and Larry Walters, the mayor of Cascade, Idaho. An upscale ski resort is being developed near Cascade, and Larry had been considering buying equipment to process logs from local thinning projects. His plan was to make engineered trusses, lumber, and flooring, and market them to the area’s soon-to-arrive high income residents. However, after Dean and I took them on a tour of Western Montana’s smallwood facilities, Mike and Larry realized that all the equipment they needed for flooring and lumber was at Tricon. Now Larry, Mike and Tricon’s Ken Verley are in the first stages of a deal. If all goes smoothly, Tricon will buy Cascade’s trees, and Cascade will buy Tricon’s flooring and building materials. Like all stud mills, Tricon still faces challenges. But it looks like its big investment in a new kiln is about to pay off big. Craig Rawlings can be contacted by calling (406) 728-9234, extension 203; or emailing to crawlings@mtcdc.org.

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 23, 2005