Lumberjacks, Inc. Produces Packaged Firewood, Aims for Just-the-right-size Footprint in Market

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Kiln-direct firewood-drying kilns chosen for ease of use and scalability. 

WOODSTOCK, Illinois – There’s the business professor who lectures on the concept of throughput. Then, there’s the common-sense business owner who knows from experience the very last place to tie up capital is in inventory that sits – for whatever reason – for a long span of time.

Jack Foss, president of Lumberjacks, Inc. is the latter. He certainly thinks about throughput and every other logistical angle of his business, an enterprise that supplies bundled and bagged firewood to box stores, restaurants, and campgrounds in greater Chicago. But it’s all in the context of doing. Take the difference between open-air seasoning and kiln drying firewood.

“With a kiln, you can kind of simplify matters – put wood in today and pull it out tomorrow,” said Jack. “Kilns make a just-in-time supply chain possible.” Contrast that with firewood being seasoned in open air for 10 or 12 months.

With kilns, cash keeps flowing. For every pile of firewood being seasoned, capital is being held.

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It’s fundamentally good business practice to kiln dry, explained Jack. Dry and sell.

Kiln-dried firewood also burns hotter, so it’s a higher value product. And with the correct kiln, firewood can be treated to temperatures that kill destructive insects, a requirement for sales in some regions.

“I think kilns are the way of the firewood future,” said Jack. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to be a purveyor without kilns.”

Today, Jack’s operation relies on three firewood-drying kilns from Kiln-direct in Burgaw, N.C. The fuel source for all three is natural gas (grid supplied). The first kiln was purchased seven years ago, the second at the end of 2013 and the third in spring 2014. The kilns hold between four and six cords. The newest kiln from Kiln-direct is the MiniQuick firewood-drying kiln, which holds six cords and meets the 160F sterilizing requirement for wood.

“Kiln-direct is good because you can piece [the kilns] together as you go,” said Jack. Having one large kiln to start (with anticipation of growth) can be inefficient. (Is the kiln run half empty or does it stand idle waiting for a full charge?) “With three kilns, not all your eggs are in one basket,” he explained, given there’s the possibility of running one, two or three as needed.

“I don’t think there’s a kiln that’s as simple [to use] as Kiln-direct,” said Jack. It’s pretty bulletproof. It’s efficient.”

And Kiln-direct is always ready to help. “Their phone support is really good,” said Jack. “Their support is really good.”

Seventy-five percent of the firewood Lumberjacks sells is kiln-dried. “We sell 3,000 cords a year,” said Jack. “We sell 10 cords a day, every day.”

Jack started his business in 1992 with a “beat-up Suburban and an old chain saw.” He lost money at first. But he got hooked on firewood.

“I was always an entrepreneur,” said Jack. After college (where he played baseball and studied Spanish), he worked for himself doing seasonal jobs. “I was looking for something to do in winter.”

Lumberjacks has grown into a multifaceted enterprise. Mulch, for example, is made from wood waste, but Jack does not own the grinder. Instead, he contracts with a grinder owner to do the conversion.

Moreover, Jack once owned log trucks. Procurement has changed. “I buy maybe 70 percent of my wood in log form from loggers,” he said. “I buy 30 percent finished from various wholesalers. I buy from some big guys – from loggers in Wisconsin – and from small producers that make me wood. All wood is delivered to our site. We don’t run any of our own trucks anymore.”

One of the small producers who supplies Lumberjacks with about 400 cords a year purchased a used Power Split machine from Jack. In June 2006, when Jack’s business was profiled in TimberLine, he relied on four Power Split machines from Power Split International, Inc. and was running one at each of his four yards.

Jack still has four yards – one pure retail, one a drying site, two production sites. Now, he uses two Power Split machines.

“My business as a whole has feet in the retail and commercial side of the [firewood business]. The commercial side sells packaged firewood – all hickory, all oak, all cherry or apple. Lumberjacks has its own label and it private labels.

“We sell retail firewood loose,” explained Jack. We premeasure wood in containers. I want to know what I’m selling.” It’s all part of being efficient. Customer relations and the bottom line are dependent on accurate measurements. Both depend on steady production, as well.

In December 2013, Jack purchased a Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor from Multitek, North America, LLC in Prentice, Wisc. “It’s a monster of a machine,” he said. “It’s just an extremely well-built machine. It really ‘upped’ our production.”

The circular saw on the Multitek 2040XP2 is what first got Jack’s attention. “We wanted to get away from the saw chain,” he said. “There was too much maintenance on the chain – sharpening.”

The tolerance that the circular saw on the Multitek has for dirt makes it a steady producer. “The ability to cut 24-inch wood with a low-maintenance saw” boosts production, said Jack.

In purchasing the Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor, Jack worked closely with Marcus Steigerwaldt, whom he described as “a really nice guy” who understood his needs. “[Marcus is] a straightforward, easy-to-talk-to guy. He helped me get the machine that fit my requirements.”

The Multitek 2040XP2 has many features that enhance the value of the circular saw arrangement, including a laser measuring system that stops the machine at the exact preset measurement and a load-sensing variable displacement pump, which operates at a lower temperature and increases fuel efficiency. Other features include a position sensor that tells where the saw is, allowing the valve to cushion the saw when the reaches the top of it stroke, eliminating shaking, and joysticks that are built into the arm of the operator chair for additional comfort and ease of operation. According to Marcus, the Multitek 2040XP2 is also the only machine in the industry with no hydraulic lines inside the cab, a significant safety feature, as well as one that increases operator comfort by keeping the cab cooler in summer.

For Jack, though, the “efficiency” of the machine is the most important attribute, one borne of power and reliability. “My Multitek sits more than it runs because it’s so efficient,” he said.

Like Lumberjacks, Kiln-direct and Multitek strive to make their product a match for what the customer needs. It’s a symmetry Jack appreciates.

It was five years ago, for example, when Lumberjacks started to stretch-wrap products with two machines from Twister Industries in Mora, Minn. The two machines continue to be integral parts of the operation.

More recently, when some customers wanted shrink-wrapped firewood, Jack invested in a used Wood-paker, shrink-wrapping machine from B&B Manufacturing in Olean, N.Y. Now, he can provide customers with the type of wrap they prefer.

The B&B machine has been a reliable performer, said Jack. “It’s really simple. There’s not a lot that goes wrong.”

Providing customers with a product they want is as important as any dimension of business. Jack said he spends a lot of time thinking about “the firewood industry as a whole” and he is “intrigued” by the differences among the players, some of whom produce firewood as an add-on and others who make it the core of their enterprise, as he does.

Lumberjacks employs 15 people. The company is based in Woodstock, Illinois, a town with a population of 20,000 in McHenry County. Woodstock lies approximately 51 miles northwest of Chicago.

Jack affectionately refers to the greater-Chicago territory his company serves as Chicagoland.

He emphasizes, though, that the quality product made and sold derives from a team that is as committed to the enterprise as he is. “I’m not on this ride by myself,” said Jack.

Employees are paid well, explained Jack, because a lot is expected of them. “I teach them. I enlighten them.” The employees know how to do their jobs and how to pitch in and help others when needed. Every employee can depend on the other – and Jack can depend on all of them. Everyone “is excited” about the enterprise and their role in it. Retention is excellent.

“My philosophy has been honed over time,” said Jack. “If you do what you do and are best at, there is no way you can’t be successful – whether a welder or a doctor or a firewood producer.”

If a quality product is at the core of a business, explained Jack, it can command a premium price. “There are $5 pizzas and $20 pizzas. I’m selling $20 pizza. I look to capitalize on the margins.”

The three firewood drying kilns from Kiln-direct enlarge those margins because they speed the path from raw material to product and add value to the product.

“A kiln gives you the ability to put wood in and take it out tomorrow,” said Jack. Air-drying wood is difficult to justify from the supply-chain perspective. It’s limited by the weather and it ties up money.

To write that Jack enjoys his profession would be to understate the reality. “I can’t believe I get paid to do what I’m doing,” he said. He is so happy with his day-to-day commitment to Lumberjacks – always thinking about what to do next to improve the logistics and the product –- it does not feel like work to him.

Yet when he is officially not working, Jack has some definite interests. “I like to play golf – I like to play a lot of golf,” said Jack. “I like to boat with my wife. I walk my dogs, six dogs – all rescue.”