Florida Family Sawmill Is Focused on Cypress

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Axley Brothers Sawmill Inc. is fully equipped by Jackson Lumber Harvester

LARGO, Florida — The operators of Axley Brothers Sawmill Inc. acknowledge how unusual the west-central coast of Florida is to locate a sawmill business. Largo is on the peninsula west of Tampa Bay that also contains Clearwater, Pinellas Park and Saint Petersburg. Yet it suits Axley Bros., which cuts only cypress.
Axley Bros. mills cypress logs into timbers, beams and siding for houses and other buildings and also makes fencing. The company buys tree-length cypress logs from within a 200-mile radius of its Sunshine State location. Most raw material comes from loggers doing selective cutting for pulp and paper companies; loggers deliver all the wood to Axley Bros.
The Axley Bros. mill is equipped exclusively with machinery from Jackson Lumber Harvester Co. Inc. in Mondovi, Wis. (Axley Bros. got its start decades ago in Minnesota with equipment from Jackson Lumber Harvester.) In addition to the head rig, the mill is equipped with a JLH log deck and log turner, gang edger, trim saw, and conveyors.
Ron Pauley is the son-in-law of the owners of Axley Bros., John and Lillian Axley. Ron, who handles wholesale sales and log procurement, talked to TimberLine about the company.
The long root of Axley Bros. stretches back to the company that brothers John and Ralph Axley launched in Minnesota more than half a century ago. (Ralph is now deceased.) In 1969, John bought a sawmill in Florida and moved the business there. John’s son, Bill, joined the company four years later, and now Bill’s son, Brian, also works at the company. Ron got started with Axley Bros. in 1975.
The first piece of equipment that John and Ralph bought for their business in Minnesota was a Jackson Lumber Harvester portable sawmill. Ralph ran the mill until the early 1970s and his son, Dave, still operates a business in Minnesota using a Jackson Lumber Harvester portable sawmill.
“John ran a portable Jackson Lumber Harvester mill in Florida for a while,” said Ron. When John decided to upgrade to a stationary mill, he stayed with JLH for many reasons.
“Jackson is always improving on what they’re doing,” said Ron. JLH’s forward-looking approach ranks high among the things that keep Axley Bros. a committed customer of JLH, he explained.
Some modifications were made on the most recent installation of a stationary JLH mill. “We’ve moved the hydraulic system from under to the side of the carriage,” said Ron, reducing noise and vibration. “We had to custom-make the undercarriage to get the correct configuration for hydraulics on the side,” said Ron. He contracted with a custom design builder who worked closely with JLH.
“On the sawmill, we do all of our own maintenance,” said Ron. “They’re very easy to work on,” he said of JLH components.
Axley Bros. does not use de-barking equipment. The logs are put up on a JLH deck and move down the deck to the head rig, where they are turned by a JLH kicker. Bill, the sawyer, visually inspects the log and begins making the cuts. Mudata setworks on the JLH mill simplify repetitive motions.
The combination of Bill’s expertise as a sawyer and the versatility of the JLH stationary mill adds up to accuracy, said Ron. Since Bill is also the manager and vice president of Axley Bros., the norm of high standards establishes the prevailing workplace philosophy.
“The emphasis is on quality,” said Ron. And with Bill’s expertise as a sawyer, the company is able to maximize lumber quality.
“Bill started here in 1973 and has been sawing ever since,” Ron noted. Bill brought a great deal of mechanical experience from his vocational training in high school, which he followed with a stint at an automotive facility where he specialized in detail painting.
Fifteen years ago, Brian started working at Axley Bros. right out of high school, and the retail and custom privacy fencing component of Axley Bros. — which he supervises — was added.
“We used to saw pine and oak also,” said Ron. However, as demand for cypress lumber products increased, the company migrated into sawing cypress exclusively.
“We do almost no advertising,” said Ron, yet the company has been running at maximum capacity for five years. “Every time the mill cranks up, we are sawing for a particular customer,” he explained.
Axley Bros. buys logs ranging from a minimum of 6 inches in diameter to 8-10 inches in diameter at the top. Slabs are sold for firewood. Other offal material is put through a Montgomery Industries 35 inch grinder to process it into mulch that is sold wholesale and retail.
Ninety percent of the lumber produced by Axley Bros. is sold rough and green, and 10% is air-dried prior to sale.
For some products that are sold semi-assembled, Stanley-Bostitch power fastening tools and staples are used. A Wadkins Ltd. resaw is also used in operations to manufacture fencing material.
“The largest industry we sell to is the boat trailer industry,” said Ron. The bunks on trailers are cypress, he explained.
“We get orders like a large lawyer’s home in Atlanta,” said Ron. “They come down here because they’ve heard about us. They know they’re going to get a good quality product. We are men of our word. We would rather lose an order than not do what we say we are going to do.”
Most customers pick up their orders at the Axley Bros. location in Largo, a growing community with more than 70,000 residents. The company has a 15-acre site. A 7,200-square-foot metal building is used for dry lumber storage and fence manufacturing. The company also has a 1,200-square-foot office.
The family business tradition at Axley Bros. is very strong. Ron’s wife, Julie, and Bill’s wife, Barbara, both work in the office. In a coincidence of sorts, John and his brother, Ralph, married sisters in Minnesota.
Three of the eight employees at Axley Bros. are not family members, but they are long-term employees — one of them has worked for the company for 29 years.
“Julie and I met when we both worked at J.C. Penny’s,” said Ron. “I used to come out on Saturdays” to Axley Bros. The weekend visits got him started working in the mill in the morning before going fishing with John and Bill in the afternoon. “Family is very important to us,” said Ron.
Axley Bros. is a member of the Florida Forestry Association and the Largo Chamber of Commerce.
A veteran of World War II and a former sheep shearer and farmer, John found a niche in the wood products industry when he and his brother purchased their first Jackson Lumber Harvester portable sawmill in the late 1940s.
“Most days John will come in,” said Ron. “He’s a real gem of an individual” and an example to everyone. John has the title of president and CEO, and Lillian is secretary-treasurer. John, Bill, Lillian, Julie and Ron are all corporate officers.
“Bill and I work together five and a half days a week, play golf on Saturday, and go to church together on Sunday” at First Christian Church in Largo, said Ron.