Wisconsin Hardwood Mill Adapts to Change

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Wisconsin Mill Has Long Relationship with Jackson Lumber

CAMERON, Wisconsin — When Mervin Hanson decided to add a forest products business to his dairy farm, he invested in a Jackson Lumber Harvester sawmill. It was a good decision. Not only did the machine do the job he needed, the support he received from the company was a critical factor that allowed him to build the strong, well-established company that Hanson Holsteins and Hardwoods is today.
“Jackson helped me build my first mill 25 years ago,” Mervin said. “They sold me the parts and I built it. Later I traded it for another Jackson Harvester mill, and then last fall we traded for a third Jackson Harvester.”
Mervin, now 64, said that getting into the forest products industry was more or less an accident.
“I liked the timber business, and I always did a little logging,” he said. “But in 1980, when I was 39 years old, I decided to start a mill. We had some timber of our own, and we starting buying timber as well.”
With his first Jackson Lumber Harvester mill, Mervin began sawing pine logs into lumber and selling it locally. “The very first lumber we cut went to Menard’s,” he said. “They pressure treated most of it.”
After about a year, Mervin decided that the hardwood market made more sense for what he was doing, and he started cutting more hardwood species and less pine. The company continued to focus on hardwood. Today, the mill largely cuts native hardwood species in the area, mainly northern red oak.
“The northern red oak in this area is some of the best in the world,” said Mervin. “We do still cut some pine as well, but all the pine we do now is kiln-dried and graded.”
Hanson Hardwoods follows Sustainable Forestry Initiative guidelines. “We do all our own marking and logging,” Mervin explained. “We bring everything to the mill, saw it, dry it, and surface it. So we bring everything through to surfaced lumber.”
The company has evolved since its beginnings as a small sawmill. At first, Hanson Hardwoods bought a lot of logs from loggers and did a little logging of its own. Logs were milled into 4/4 lumber and sold green.
In 1993, the company underwent a growth phase. Mervin purchased his second Jackson Lumber Harvester. He also added a dry kiln and did some general remodeling and upgrading of the entire mill. The changes and new investments enabled him to begin producing the kiln-dried, surfaced lumber, which is sold to cabinet shops and furniture makers. Over time the market for the company’s lumber products has evolved, too; 10 years ago Hanson Hardwoods sold its lumber to several big furniture manufacturers, but today the clientele is a larger number of smaller companies.
“We sell to the smaller companies now because there aren’t any big ones left in the area,” Mervin said. “The bigger furniture manufacturers that we did sell to are gone; I think most of the furniture that they made is being done in China. We lost some really good, big furniture makers here that we sold large quantities of lumber to at the time.”
The 1993 upgrades also allowed Hanson Hardwoods to expand the geographic area of its client base, which has helped offset the loss of the larger manufacturers. The company has customers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, and a few in Illinois.
Six years ago, Hanson Hardwoods underwent another growth spurt as another member of the Hanson family joined the business. Mervin’s son, Rodney, who was deeply involved in the dairy farm operations, decided he wanted to move into the forest products side of the company. Rodney, 40, takes care of a lot of the sawing; he also owns the trucks and the logging equipment that’s used by Hanson Hardwoods.
Rodney is not the only one of Mervin’s children to join Hanson Hardwoods. His youngest daughter and her husband — Kathleen and Mike Brion — own the dry kiln and oversee the drying operations, and Mike is the company’s main salesman. Mervin also has two other daughters who are not involved in Hanson Hardwoods.
Mervin’s wife, Pat, also works in the company. Pat does most of the office work and also works with Mervin in timber marking by keeping talleys. “She puts in a lot of seven-day weeks,” said Mervin. “I doubt if the business could run without her.”
Hanson Hardwoods has seven other employees in the mill. Between the loggers, truck drivers, mill employees and the owners, the company has a total of about 25 employees.
Although Hanson Hardwoods carries the requisite workman’s compensation insurance, Mervin has not been happy with the group health insurance he has found for employees.
“On two different occasions we’ve tried to offer health insurance, with employees paying part of the expense,” he said. “But it hasn’t worked out either time, so we aren’t doing it now. We’d like to offer health insurance if we possibly could, because that would help us with employees, too.”
The company provides training through the Forest Industries Safety Training Alliance. Everyone in the company comes in once a year for FIST training and also must go through other training during the year as well.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” Mervin said. “I think this kind of training is really important. I know it has helped us quite a lot to have a good safety record both for logging and in the mill.”
Today, Hanson Hardwoods buys standing timber, and company loggers cut about 90% of the logs the mill requires. “We buy timber from local landowners, mostly within a 50-mile radius,” Mervin said. Hanson Hardwoods buys more logs from independent logging contractors.
Every log coming into the yard is scaled and sorted according to species and length. Logs ready to be milled are processed first by a debarker, and then they go into the sawmill to be cut into 4/4 lumber. The mill is equipped with several pieces of equipment from Jackson Lumber Harvester, including the log infeed deck with stop and loader. The Jackson Lumber Harvester head rig squares up the log. Edging and resawing is accomplished on a Jackson Lumber Harvester combination edger and gang saw. The rough, green lumber is stacked, separated by stickers, and placed in the yard for air-drying or kiln-dried. Some lumber is then sold kiln-dried rough, and some of the dried lumber goes into the planing mill to be surfaced and then is stored in sheds for eventual sale. The company’s annual production is about 2.5-3 million board feet of lumber.
Hanson Hardwoods operates on about 20 acres, with about 26,000 square feet under roof. During the Wisconsin winter, the only way to work is indoors. In December, for example, the region experienced a number of days with highs only in the 20s and lows around 0. Sawing lumber outdoors in those conditions would be almost impossible, Mervin noted.
At least part of the company’s success has been due to Jackson Lumber Harvester Company, according to Mervin. “They have been absolutely wonderful people to work with all through the years,” he said. “Their service has been excellent. Any time there’s been a problem, they’ve been right here to help us. We’ve stuck with them because we don’t know anyone who could possibly do any better for us. That’s why we’re on our third piece of Jackson equipment.”
Mervin believes the biggest challenge Hanson Hardwoods will face in the next decade is globalization. “That’s having a big effect on us,” he said. “We’re going to have to produce lumber that’s less costly in order for the manufacturers to compete, and that’s going to be a little difficult. I think we’re in a transition period right now in that we’re going to have to change who we’re selling lumber to and how we’re selling it. We’re specializing in smaller orders, and for certain people we’re specializing in the type of lumber they want. I think the coming things are going to be color-sorted red oak and split truckloads of different grades and species of lumber. We’re situated in such a way that we can do those things.”
Mervin said he has deliberately positioned the company so that it can be flexible enough to deal with such changes and to provide these types of services to customers.
“We started out marking our own timber,” he said. “So now when we go out into a tract, we’re probably going to log basswood, soft and hard maple, red and white oak, black and white ash, birch, aspen and some white pine…Over the years we’ve made contact with people who will buy all the different species of wood. It takes a long time to make those contacts, but now that we have them, we can work with them and sell all the different species and grades. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Despite these challenges, Mervin sees a bright future for Hanson Hardwoods. “We like what we’re doing,” he said. “And I think the rest of the family likes what we’re doing. With the size we are and where we’re located, I think we’re in a good position for the future.”
As a part of planning for the future, Mervin expects to see some changes in the company in the next few years. He expects to add some equipment, including some additional finishing equipment.
Mervin also expects to see additional family involvement in the business, in particular a certain grandson who’s starting at the bottom and learning his way up the ladder.
“I have one grandson who’s working at the mill who’s 19 years old now,” he said. “His name is Brandon Miller. We’re teaching him about grading right now.” Interestingly, Brandon’s mother — Mervin’s daughter — is not involved in Hanson Hardwoods; in that part of the family, interest in the forest industry has literally “skipped” a generation.
Mervin plans to continue his association with Jackson Lumber Harvester. “They’ve just been extremely good to work with,” he said.