Pole Company Puts Expertise in the Woods

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South Carolina pole and piling picks ‘Cream of the Crop’ of Southern Yellow Pine

LEESVILLE, South Carolina — When Sam Coker decided to go into the pole business, he started looking in South Carolina. A friend’s uncle owned some land on the outskirts of Leesville, which had been home to a small sawmill years ago.
It turned out to be the perfect spot to build his business, South Carolina Pole and Piling, for a number of reasons. Top among them, according to Sam, was geographic location.
“I especially liked this location because it is on a ridge located right between two regions of South Carolina, the sand hills and the piedmont,” Sam noted. “There are a number of species of Southern Yellow Pine, which includes long leaf and slash, in the sand hills just to the south. To the north are fine stands of loblolly and short leaf pines, also of Southern Yellow Pine group.”
Sam had a number of factors in his favor going into this new business venture in 1985. He was educated in forestry at Clemson University. He had worked for years in procurement for Southern Wood Piedmont, a subsidiary of ITT, and was an expert timber cruiser and forester. In pole manufacturing operations, strong expertise in forestry is critical because trees are selected individually, and finished poles must precisely meet specifications of power companies that use them.
Although Sam has developed a business that is relatively secure in serving a niche market for forest products, he risked much to reach his goal. “I didn’t have a lot of capital to work with,” he recalled. “I had to second-mortgage my home, take all my company corporate savings and basically mortgage my family and kids as well. I took a big risk. But I just knew this was what the Lord wanted to do.”
Sam moved his family, which included three children, from their spacious home in Augusta, Ga. to a small two-bedroom apartment in Lexington, S.C. He already had commuted back and forth from Augusta for a year before the move. The family lived in the small apartment for 18 months before Sam and his wife bought some land on nearby Lake Murray and built a house.
Sam bought two old, dilapidated mills from his former employer, Southern Wood Piedmont. “The parts were old and rusted out,” he recalled, “so we took wire brushes to the rust and cleaned them up. I then took the best parts, put them together and moved them here where there was a foundation of an old sawmill that had burned to the ground. After we cleared away all the junk on the yard, moved it into piles, cleaned off the original concrete pad of the old sawmill and set up the old pole mill on our site, we had an electrician hook everything up. Miraculously, everything worked.”
He started small. He bought a little timber, ran the mill enough to produce a small volume of poles, and sold them. “We just worked into things little by little with as small an initial capital expense at first as we could handle,” said Sam. With his previous experience and contacts, Sam was able to generate sales almost immediately.
SC Pole and Piling buys standing timber from timber companies and private landowners. They will contact Sam if they have what they think his company can use. “But it has to be the cream of the crop,” Sam explained. “The trees must be straight, clear of defects and excessive knots, and they have to be the appropriate size.” Sam usually pays 20%-30% more than the typical price for saw timber.
A representative of SC Pole and Piling will come and inspect the timber, let the owner know how many trees the company wants to buy and offer a price per ton, and then select and mark the trees. “We have a very good idea of how much each usable tree is going to weigh,” said Sam. “Then we can price accordingly by the ton, delivered to us. All we do then is go in and mark in front of their logging operations. Poles are selectively cut in solid loads and delivered to the pole mill.” Trucks are weighed at SC Pole and Piling.
“What a lot of people don’t realize,” said Sam, “is that we use a great deal of expertise in the woods. Power companies and contractors don’t buy poles like they grow in the woods. They want 5,000 of one size. Poles that may be a quarter of an inch smaller in diameter — they don’t want any of them. You’ve got to know what size and length to mark every pole because they’re not manufactured to size or quality. Every tree is purchased to size and quality. That’s what’s different about poles.”
The company buys pole timber in a variety of ways. Sometimes it will go in with another company and jointly buy an entire tract, contracting with a logger for cutting. SC Pole and Piling buys timber within about a 60-80 mile radius. It has gone as far south as Georgia and as far north as North Carolina, but the timber must be exceptional to go that far away.
Pole timber is marked on two sides of each tree. The company uses certain marks for trees according to length — one stripe for a 35-foot pole, two stripes 40 feet, three stripes for 45 feet. The tree’s length is determined by the circumference at a point 6 feet from the ground. The circumference also determines the pole class; one is the largest size and six is the smallest. “Each length has five or six classes,” said Sam, “so you can imagine how many different piles of inventory we have out there.”
SC Pole and Piling is a ‘white pole’ supplier. It supplies poles to wood treating companies that treat the poles with preservatives and then sell them to utility companies and rural electric cooperatives.
(Environmental issues that arose in the late 1980s prompted ITT to get out of the wood treating business. The company sold its treating plants and exited the industry.)
SC Pole and Piling also supplies unusually long poles used by utility companies. “We do something that most outfits don’t and that is supply the really big transmission poles, 80 to 100 feet in length,” said Sam. “Fortunately we are able to get some of those very big poles of loblolly pine in this area of the lower piedmont of South Carolina.”
Some of the long transmission line poles go to an affiliated business, United Wood Treating, which has a treating plant and small pole mill in Whitmire, S.C., about 45 miles north. The transmission poles are treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which is still approved for treating wood for commercial applications. Sam is co-owner of United Wood Treating.
Steve Hudson, who replaced Sam at Southern Wood Piedmont, eventually partnered with Sam to launch United Wood Treating and is the manager of the company. The Whitmire plant was built with some of the plant’s original surplus equipment. “We built it the way one of these plants should be built,” said Sam, to eliminate CCA contamination.
The poles must be kiln-dried prior to treating. SC Pole and Piling has an Irvington-Moore dry-kiln but only has enough capacity to dry about 15%-20% of its production. The kiln can be filled with six truckloads of poles; it takes four days to dry the poles to less than 25% moisture content.
SC Pole and Pilings ships an average of eight to 10 truckloads of finished poles per day. They are trucked to customers from Florida to Canada.
The company also has gotten into the small piling business, setting up another mill last summer for this operation. Small pilings are considered anything 12-25 feet with a 10-inch butt.
In addition to the dry kiln, SC Pole and Piling is equipped with a peeler, grinder, hog, shaving mill, and a chipper. The company also has four front-end loaders and three small loaders — two skid steers and a mini-excavator. The company’s operations employ about 17 people year-round.
The big pole mill is equipped with an Efurd peeling machine. It removes the bark with a shaving process, leaving a clean surface and removing a minimum of wood fiber. A home-made four-wheel ‘live buggy’ moves the log to the peeler. Feed wheels move the log through the machine and also rotate it. The bark is removed by finishing heads that are lowered onto the log. After peeling, the logs are trimmed to exact length with a Morbark log cut-off saw.
SC Pole and Piling processes all its residual material for various markets. For example, the bark shavings generated by the peeler are processed in a hog and sold for fuel or mulch.
SC Pole and Piling also produces colored mulch. A shop-built machine mixes mulch with colorant to produce different colors. Red is a popular color, but the company can produce mulch in virtually any color. The coloring machine uses an auger to stir the mulch and sprayers to apply the colorant.
Log trim ends are processed by a shaving mill to produce wood shavings that are sold to poultry farmers. The company sells bark to a major agricultural supply company, and some is used to fuel the company’s dry kiln.
The company also is equipped with an old Staiger grinder. It is used for grinding trim ends that are too small for the shaving mill. Depending on markets, a Precision chipper can be used to process log trim ends into chips for paper makers.
Balancing inventory with sales is a constant challenge, noted Sam. “It’s not always good to have a lot of timber, especially if you don’t have sales for it. We have a perishable product. We cannot treat the logs until we have a customer for them. If you are unable to treat the poles, they will rot out on the yard, especially during the summer months when the heat and moisture will cause the poles to go bad in two to three months if you haven’t sold them by then. Then you have a product that you purchased for, say $70 a ton, with all the added processing costs that you have put into it, that is essentially worthless.” The company can use the peeling equipment to remove spoiled wood fiber, producing a smaller pole. That is a last resort, however, because it is very costly.
“Trees are a renewable resource,” said Sam. “We need to use them. You get a lot more out of your land by managing your forest on a continuous rotation basis.”