Harvesting Profits

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Nenana Lumber Builds Business with Wood-Mizer Sawmill

The green roof of Grande Denali Lodge rises sharply into the air. The lodge is next to Denali National Park in Alaska. Its log walls and roof complement even grander surroundings, including Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.
There is something inside the logs of Grande Denali that no one sees. Steel beams anchor the lodge’s massive roof and sturdy walls. But the beams are wrapped in 30-inch white spruce logs that were cut and split with a Wood-Mizer sawmill.
Mike Holz calls the Denali lodge a “great project.” It is one of several major construction jobs in the past ten years for Holz and his company, Nenana Lumber. Nenana, the tiny namesake hometown of the company in Central Alaska, is a jumping off point for Holz and his sixty employees as they build lodges, homes, office buildings and airplane hangars from Denali, 75 miles to the south, to Fairbanks, located 65 miles northeast.
Holz began cutting wood with a Wood-Mizer sawmill nearly ten years before founding Nenana Lumber. Just getting the company started was an adventure, but adventure is exactly what Holz had in mind when he moved to the 49th state from Washington in the mid seventies at age 23. At first, he hunted and trapped for a living. In 1982, he married his wife, Susan, and they shared other business ventures.
In 1986, Holz picked up his first mill at a railroad station in Fairbanks. He trucked the sawmill by highway to Nenana, and then lugged it an additional 75 miles southwest across frozen countryside and icy rivers. It was twenty degrees below zero.
Holz pulled that first Wood-Mizer with a 440 John Deere track loader that cost him $1,500. “I just took a chance that it would make it cross country for 75 miles,” he says.
He dared not stop the engine because it may not have restarted in the frigid air. So he kept going for nearly a day.
Alongside the Kantishna River, on a homestead he shared with his wife, Holz set up the mill and started cutting. The setting was rich in Alaska white spruce trees, a ready source of lumber. It was also far from the nearest town. Holz says the phone never rang; the only sounds were wildlife, the river, and the sound of sawing.
In 1995, he decided it was time to move into Nenana and start his company. Holz loaded his sawmill on a river barge and moved down the Kantishna River to the Tanana River and eventually to Nenana, an Athabascan native village of 500 people. There, he opened Nenana Lumber Company.
Nenana is a break in the wilderness along the Alaska railroad and the George Parks highway. Nenana is a diverse outpost, populated by native Alaskans and many others who hunt, fish, and tend to summer vacationers.
Sales were no problem for the fledgling Nenana Lumber Company.
“I used the saw mill every day,” Holz says.
“I had it set up beside the only highway connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks. I worked in a large field and kept it very neat. I started at 6 o’clock each morning and cut well into the evenings. People stopped every day just to see it cut. They were impressed with the quality of the lumber produced and the nice clean operation. These people became our customer base and have stayed with us through today.”
Working alone, Mike recalls, “There were days that I would cant in the morning and trim slabs, and then turn the cants into lap siding in the afternoon.”
“In one day I made over a mile of 8-inch beveled siding, starting from round trees, with no additional help.”
Almost right away, Holz needed to bump up to a higher volume Wood-Mizer sawmill.
He says: “We bought an LT40, fully hydraulic, in 1995. What a change! We sold the other mill the very day the new 40 showed up for $2,000 more than we had paid. Four people wanted it. We bought the second (LT 40) in 2000 and it was also fully hydraulic. We sold the first 40 at that time to the Village of Fort Yukon.”
There is another part to the Nenana Lumber story that is perhaps even better than the adventurous trip into the woods, the relocation to Nenana, and building the business from a one-man sawmill to a company with five dozen employees.
Most of the people who work for Nenana Lumber are native Alaskans. “Hiring native Alaskans was a good way to grow,” Holz says. “We got some native preference work. We have some of the same people with us.”
Two had never held jobs until Holz hired them in their thirties. The men are still valuable employees, building work histories and credit records along with customer projects. They also married, constructed homes of their own and began raising families.
Nenana Lumber has grown every year without advertising. Holz says: “The size of the project just kept getting bigger and bigger. Pretty soon you are working on the big ones. It was a one-customer-at-a-time approach.”
Under construction by Nenana Lumber now are a 50,000 square-foot hanger at Fairbanks International Airport and a 35,000 square-foot office complex for the Fairbanks Community Mental Health Center.
Those buildings are made of lumber and steel. Log structures remain a specialty: work is beginning on a luxury oceanfront home near Anchorage, and a recently-completed meeting hall for the Tanana Tribal Chiefs Conference – at 10,000 square feet – is Alaska’s largest single log structure.
So far, Holz’s singular achievement is the Grande Denali Lodge. It has 154 guest rooms, a dining room under a vaulted ceiling, and several lounges.
Holz is animated as he talks about it. “Grande Denali was a great project. It was about as rough a ground as you can be on,” he says.
“Architects insisted on steel framing, so we split and hollowed hundreds of logs – every piece of steel was covered in wood. Our job was to make it look like something tourists would expect to see in Alaska.”
For this large task, Holz and his crew split 30-foot logs “right down the middle. We used your [Wood-Mizer] band saw. It makes a nice size cut. All the logs you see in the pictures [the roof and siding] have a steel beam in the middle.”
The latest big change for Nenana Lumber came in 2005. Needing to concentrate on construction, Holz sold his Wood-Mizer LT40 sawmill to Joe Young. Young already has a business, the Great Alaska Mushroom Company. But he started Young’s Timber and sells virtually all its logs and lumber to Nenana Lumber.
Young has used other sawmills, but says his Wood-Mizer LT40 cuts better and easier than any he’s encountered.
Young says he builds his entire business around forest fires. He sends bulldozers out to help the U.S. Forest Service fight the fires. Three years later, his crews harvest standing logs that are charred on the outside and dry on the inside: “like they were kiln-dried,” Young says.
“When you cut a dry log, the dimensions stay true,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about it twisting as it dries, like when you cut a green log.”
Last year, 1.2 million acres burned in the area, and that’s a typical year.
Thus, one company becomes two, thanks to two determined men and Wood-Mizer sawmills.
Nearly 20 years ago, when the snow was falling, it was dark and so cold he couldn’t stop the motor on his truck for fear he could not restart it, you might think that Mike Holz must have wondered if it was a good idea to lug a sawmill on a 15-hour trip to the deep Alaskan woods.
He says he never doubted this is what he wanted to do. It paid off. Nenana Lumber, started by one man and his Wood-Mizer sawmill, reached gross sales of around $20 million in 2005.
Editors Note: The preceding is paid advertorial submitted by Wood-Mizer.