Struggling Sawmill Finds Key to Success

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Ohio Valley Veneer uses Wood-Mizer industrial equipment to saw high-grade walnut.

Ed Robbins, owner of Ohio Valley Veneer, has had his share of difficulties in maintaining the bottom line, but in an industry that is suffering downsizing, shutdowns, and economical hardship, his company has been expanding. Within the last two years, Ed has purchased two sawmill locations to supplement his three existing locations. He is even ready to launch a foreign sawmill enterprise in Sierra Leone, Africa this fall, supplying mahogany and walnut to China, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
In spite of how the lumber industry has been hit by the economy, Ed shares that Ohio Valley Veneer has actually expanded during the last few years by being well diversified.
“Last year was my best year ever,” Ed explains. “We can go into a tract of timber and pretty much use it all. We can chip the tops for the chip mill (the low grade) we ship to the contract mill, and we ship all the grade logs to the big mill. Then of course, the walnut goes to our Piketon, Ohio location. We are very diversified.”
His present success was not always the case. In 2005, Ed was auctioning off a mill and downsizing, until he hit upon what he calls the key to turning a struggling mill into a “profit center.”
A third generation sawyer, Ed Robbins purchased his first mill in 1994, and started a chip mill a year later. In 1999, he bought the Piketon, Ohio facility to produce high-grade hard maple and walnut on a circle mill with vertical edger and producing up to 12,000 board feet daily. Although his other facilities were making profits, that was not the case with Piketon. “The Piketon mill,” recounts Ed, “I ran from ’99 to ’05, and struggled to make money… I had a 36 inch carriage with a circle saw, top saw, vertical edger, and a band resaw, and I couldn’t get it to make it.”
After 6 years, he was ready to try anything that would help the Piketon facility become profitable. He put the circle mill up for auction and made a decision his employees thought was “crazy” – putting in a Wood-Mizer thin-kerf headrig. Ed’s lead sawyer, Walt Vanhoy, had this to say, “I thought he was joking. It was my first time running one, I had always run the big mills, and I didn’t think it would work.”
But Ed Robbins had seen Wood-Mizer headrigs in operation at Dunaway Timber in Kentucky, and had talked to owner Sam Dunaway, who was running several Wood-Mizer headrigs as part of his operation producing 30 MMBF annually. Even though the idea of replacing a production-oriented rig with a narrow-bandblade headrig was thought by many to be counterintuitive, Ed took a long, hard look at the expenses tied up in the circle mill he was running and the potential profit in the high-grade logs he was pushing at the mill, and decided to make the change. “
As soon as I bought the Wood-Mizer, it’s been a profit center ever since. There’s a spot for the Wood-Mizer [head-rig]. And that is sawing that high dollar product, where you’re giving up a little volume, but you’re making it up with your margins.” With a thin-kerf headrig installed at the Piketon mill, and high-grade walnut and hard maple going to it, overall production decreased, but margins increased and profitability returned. Ed’s electric bill dropped to less than a third of what he had been paying. Being able to produce more product from fewer logs cut down on trucking costs and increased the profit per log. And the thin-kerf blades were much cheaper to replace and sharpen than his old blade. “
I think the [thin-kerf headrig] is definitely going to be a big part of the lumber industry in the future… The oversaw difference is tremendous… It’s not only the kerf: it’s your electric bill, it’s your parts bill. It all comes together at one big savings.”
With profitability returning to the mill, Ed decided he wanted more of a good thing, and added a second Wood-Mizer headrig. His setup now only requires five employees to keep logs coming in and lumber stacking up. He has positioned both sawmills in a building, fed by Wood-Mizer log decks.
The LT300s breakdown the walnut logs into boards, which are carried by conveyor to a Wood-Mizer industrial edger and a resaw, and the boards then go to the stackers. When asked what has helped his company make it and succeed in spite of this recession, Ed Robbins gives credit to the thin-kerf headrigs being the edge he needed – lowering production costs and raising profit from raw material. “The LT300/WM3000… should be integrated into any operation. If you utilize it and integrate it into your sawmills, it will make you money, and it has been one of the best investments I’ve made.”
So what does Walt, Ed’s lead sawyer think about his employer’s “crazy” decision now?
“This is what’s got us through the recession. When we first put this mill in, guys that got the big mills would come look at it. They thought we were crazy, but we were making lumber and making money when everyone else was shutting down. For sawing the high dollar lumber, in my opinion, these mills are the only way to go.”
Ed Robbins plans to continue to invest in thin-kerf sawmills as he expands his business. He is planning to install a thin-kerf headrig as the primary breakdown saw for his venture in Sierra Leone. Even as his sons get into the sawmill industry, his advice to them is, “My sons are looking at putting in a mill right now, and they said, ‘Dad, what would you put in?’ And I tell them I’d put in a WM3000 feeding a band resaw. You’ll be efficient, your overhead’s going to be down… Your main expense will be your blades, and you can resharpen them. To me, that is a perfect setup, especially in this market.”
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Editor’s note: The preceding was paid advertorial by Wood-Mizer.