Focus on kiln-dried firewood ignites a young firm in South Carolina.
OKATIE, South Carolina — College geology major and lacrosse player becomes a charter-boat operator, serving fishermen from ports in the Palmetto State (in mild intervals) and Islamorada Key in the Sunshine State (in winter). Then, the recession of 2008 takes hold and business declines. What happens next?
That was the question Brandon Thiess, the owner of Carolina Morning Firewood (CMF), happened to be pondering the night of “a big party” his roommate was having. During the party, serendipity provided the answer.
To fill out an income stream when the charter-boat business slowed, Brandon was helping a friend who had a tree company. After a day of cutting, they brought firewood to the party with them. Party-goers began to ask about buying firewood and Brandon saw the beginning of a new business.
In 2010, Brandon launched his company, essentially in his backyard, working with wood procured from the friend with a tree company. By October 2012, he had purchased a Multitek 2040 with a bar saw. “I outgrew the bar saw [fast],” said Brandon. And in September 2013, he replaced it with a brand new Multitek 2040 with a circle saw.
There was no question of staying with Multitek. “I love the machine,” said Brandon. “We use it 40 hours a week.” (Not only does the Multitek 2040xp2 come with a circle saw, but one model larger and 4 models smaller do have the optional circle saw).
By the fall of 2013, Carolina Morning Firewood was running at an annual run rate of 1,800 cords of firewood. The company occupies six acres and runs with between seven and 10 employees. Eighty percent of the wood is kiln-dried.
The firewood reaches customers in Florida via palletized loads. Some material is even exported to Saudi Arabia in shrink-wrapped bundles. And the company is the largest firewood supplier to the local residential and restaurant markets.
“We do a lot of barbecue hickory,” said Brandon. The wood that goes to Saudi Arabia is used primarily for ambience and cooking.
“We also do about 350 cords a year of seasoned firewood,” said Brandon. “It’s mostly sold to the local residential market and some is picked up by drive-by customers.” And some of the seasoned wood ultimately goes to kilns for more drying, reducing the kiln-drying time needed.
A distributor handles the dispersal of palletized wood – 200 pieces per pallet – in Florida. And CMF has the largest local delivery share. The company recently purchased a 2010 Western Star tractor. (Western Star makes its home in Spartanburg, S.C.)
Seventy percent of the wood processed at CMF is oak, while approximately 30 percent is hickory; there’s some cherry in the mix from time to time. After a kiln that Brandon designed and built himself broke down, he decided to seek a machine from an established kiln company and went to Kiln-Direct.
In March 2012, Brandon purchased a six-cord, MiniQuick kiln from Kiln-Direct and soon after, he added a second of the same model. Both kilns are heated with wood waste from the firewood tumbler. “The wood-waste kiln is a great way to get rid of wood waste,” said Brandon.
There is plenty of wood waste for the two kilns, but Brandon never wants to get into a situation where he has to buy wood to heat the kilns. “I don’t want to be struggling [to find wood to burn],” he said. So he is the process of doubling drying capacity by adding a 12-cord kiln from Kiln-Direct that will use natural gas off the grid as a heat source.
Loggers within a radius of 150 miles of Okatie, S.C., home to CMF, sell to the company. They deliver their loads to the yard. “We offload the log truck with a Volvo 150 front-end loader,” explained Brandon. “We use a knuckle boom, a Prentice 310E, to [load the Multitek]. It’s really sped up our production.”
The Prentice was two months old when Brandon spoke to us in early December. An S300 Bobcat serves as a backup to the front-end loader and the knuckle-boom. The Bobcat was an early addition to the CMF equipment roster, but to keep pace with the production capability of the Multitek 2040, Brandon explained that he needed more powerful loading and grappling equipment.
“One of my theories on equipment is [to] buy the biggest, ‘baddest’ piece of equipment you can – or you’ll wish you did,” said Brandon. Having equipment with a little extra capacity is important “so you’re not pushing it to the limit” and “so it doesn’t stress the equipment,” he explained.
Of course, capacity must be perfectly aligned with “reliability,” said Brandon. “It’s a huge thing in this business” to have reliable equipment. He noted that the team members he works with at Multitek, North America, LLC in Prentice, Wis. could not be more prompt when returning calls for advice or service.
Brandon said that he can text a question to Marcus or Gordon at Multitek virtually any time and get an immediate call back, even on the weekends. Being able to depend on vendors is paramount to success, he explained. And he gets the same sort of quick response from Niels Jorgensen at Kiln-Direct, which is headquartered in Burgaw, N.C.
“Niels, he’s been here,” said Brandon. So, too, have representatives from Multitek. “Customer service from Kiln Direct is phenomenal – just like that from Multitek.”
Maintenance of the Multitek is quite straightforward. One example is replacing the teeth on the circle saw. “It’s not too difficult,” said Brandon. “We just pop them in and pop them out.”
A Multitek 16-way wedge is most often used by CMF; the company also has an eight-way wedge. CMF offloads the Multitek with a 30-foot conveyor that dumps the split pieces into a tumbler after which they fall into either kiln baskets or a dump truck. The truck takes them to what Brandon calls “the runway,” or the path to the kilns. On the day Brandon spoke with us he was pouring concrete to extend the paved transition area from wood processor to kilns. The 16-way wedge system is unique to the Multitek 2040xp2; it ensures that pieces of firewood are specific for packaging. “We’ve tried many other wedge systems from other companies and the patented Multitek system is the one system that works. Hands down, this system saves the need for 2 full time re-splitters,” stated Brandon.
Drying time depends on the status of the incoming wood. Hickory dried for barbecue restaurant customers may be taken to 10 percent moisture content. Most wood is dried to 20 percent moisture content. “If I go green, it takes 48 hours,” said Brandon. “If it’s seasoned, it takes 30 hours.”
All drying surpasses the 160F USDA standard for sterilization. Shrink wrapping of bundles is done with a WOOD-PAKerTM from B&B Manufacturing in Olean, N.Y.
This year, CMF introduced a new option for customers that want containment for a relatively large load. The CMF Pack-a-Rack is now at some 200 units in place at customer sites. The steel mesh, four-foot cube is collapsible when empty. Each rack holds one-third of a full cord (one rick). Customers have responded positively. ‘They love it,” said Brandon. Commercial establishments particularly like the tidiness the structure affords them.
Customers are the highest priority. “The customer is always right,” said Brandon. “We always take care of our customers.”
CMF is involved with the Save the Forest Foundation. It also is engaged with the community in any number of ways. “We work with wood turners,” said Brandon, citing one example. They come to the CMF site to “go through logs” and “look for a perfect piece of wood.”
For his part, Brandon can easily single out the one thing he most enjoys about his day. “I like working around machines,” he said. He often runs the Multitek 2040. Also running the Multitek is Rick Riley, who manages the log yard area of CMF.
Six months ago, Brandon hired Ron Palmer to oversee the “front shop” operations, or those dealing with such things as parts preparation of firewood for delivery to customers. It’s a strong team, said Brandon. Shanda Lucas, CMF’s adminstrator, answers phones, plans delivery schedules and handles most customer communications.
As for free-time activities, right now free time is not really part of the equation. Brandon is aiming to grow the business, seeing the opportunity to increase production by adding a second Multitek soon. The next Multitek Brandon purchases will absolutely have the 16-way splitting head; that system pays for itself in labor savings very quickly.
The Okatie home of Carolina Morning Firewood is part of the Greater Bluffton area in Beaufort County, S.C. Fast-growing Bluffton in the southeast part of the state has a population of approximately 13,000 and is the gateway to Hilton Head Island.
Brandon attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He brought some experience with tree cutting to his business. “I helped in the tree business [of a friend], Arbor Nature Tree Service – hand sawing,” he said “We used Stihl 880s.” And he once thought of starting a logging business. But he sees the firewood niche as a good fit and a business with a lot of potential.
Focus is important. It is something Brandon learned from his father, a certified public accountant and a source of good business advice. (On the reciprocal side, Brandon’s father sometimes runs the Multitek 2040.)
When a broker approached Brandon about shipping firewood bundles to the Middle East, Brandon realized it would be complicated – there are 15 forms or so, but it was also a tremendous opportunity. And he seized it.
Every change made at CMF is geared toward one overarching goal, said Brandon. That is “to make a better product,” or one that will be a strong competitor among similar products in the marketplace.