Hardwood Mill Rebounds After 2015 Blaze: Cleereman Industries Provides Key Support to Help Jim C. Hamer Co. Recover

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Cleereman Industries an Important Supplier to Hardwood Producer Jim C. Hamer Co.

 

The Jim C. Hamer Co. – like the lumber industry itself – has undergone considerable turmoil and change in the last 10 years precipitated by the collapse of the U.S. housing industry and the resulting economic downturn.

One of the most severe challenges the hardwood lumber producer faced was a fire that struck its sawmill in Curtin, W. Va., in April 2015.

Thankfully, a key machinery supplier, Cleereman Industries, helped the mill to get quickly back on its feet. In fact, within a couple days of the fire Francis (Fran) Cleereman, president of the company that bears his name, and his son, Paul, vice president, flew to West Virginia to personally help assess the damage to the mill and make plans to get it back up and running.

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That type of commitment and effort by a supplier was not lost on Steve Hamer, president of the company founded by his late father, from whom the business takes its name. Steve was effusive in his praise for Fran and his company as he recalled the crisis. “No one’s ever treated us like that and catered to us,” he said. “It was just incredible.”

Following the fire, Steve estimated it might be eight months before the mill was operational again. One Cleereman carriage had been damaged by the blaze, and another was a total loss. The company did however have a Cleereman carriage in storage at a different location. So Fran assured mill personnel that Cleereman Industries would repair and refurbish two Cleereman log carriages within two weeks of receiving them. Steve was very impressed with the supplier’s response as well as appreciative. “We were losing money every day we were shut down,” he recalled.

“I can’t thank Fran enough…It meant a lot to me and all those families who depend on that sawmill running,” added Steve. About 80 families in the small community of Curtin had someone on the mill payroll, not counting about 20 families with men who worked in logging to keep the mill supplied with round wood. The temporary shutdown also impacted numerous truck drivers and their families.

Paul commented on the support, “When a Cleereman customer has a fire it becomes our company’s priority to help that mill get back up and running as soon as possible. Things were very busy for us at the time, so our team worked overtime to get equipment ready for the Curtin mill, while continuing to fill orders and provide support to our broader customer base.”

The Jim C. Hamer Co. has operations in two states, West Virginia and Kentucky. It operates three sawmills, multiple lumber drying operations and yards, and also one pellet mill that manufactures hardwood pellet fuel for the residential fuel market.

Steve is the fourth generation of Hamers in the hardwood lumber business. His great-grandfather worked for a lumber company, and his grandfather started his own business during the Great Depression. When his grandfather sold the company in 1971, Steve’s father, James C. Hamer, launched the Jim C. Hamer Company. It has grown from a short-lived wholesale lumber business to one of the leaders in the industry, manufacturing lumber from Appalachian hardwoods and supplying customers around the world.

Steve, 54, began working in the business as a teenager, stacking lumber at his father’s first sawmill in eastern Kentucky. “I got a real education working at that sawmill,” he recalled.

The company’s sawmills began running Cleereman Industries log carriages in the 1980s. Steve said the decision to change to Cleereman Industries was driven by the quality of the company’s carriages, the improved reliability which decreased downtime, and Cleereman’s service. “It’s kind of like buying a car today,” he said. “You can go shop it to death, and most everybody’s going to give you a competitive price, but where can you get it serviced after the sale? In this case, we got what we paid for and more.”

Wisconsin-based Cleereman Industries has developed and manufactured sawmill machinery for over 67 years. The company is guided by three principles: manufacture high quality, durable equipment designed for high yield and production, use simple but effective designs to minimize moving parts while maximizing performance, and provide strong support to customers.

Although the company is probably known more for its log carriages, it also makes related equipment such as material handling systems and sawmill packages. The list of products includes carriage drives and carriage rails and track frames, log turners, and conveying and handling equipment for cant resaw, board edger, and trim and grading machine centers.

The company’s sawmill packages include conventional circular mills with a top saw and log carriage as well as its new Lumber Pro thin kerf band mills, which feature a stationary carriage paired with a traveling 54-inch or 62-inch bandsaw mounted at a 17-degree angle. Multiple blades up to a 10-inch double-cut blade can be used to produce high quality lumber and cants. The modular design makes installation easy and fast and greatly reduces floor space requirements and energy costs. The Cleereman Industries Lumber Pro has been well received by the lumber industry, and the company continues to enjoy strong sales of this innovative thin kerf band mill.

Paul commented regarding the growth of Cleereman Industries, “Historically we have been known for our carriages, but Cleereman Industries today is able to provide complete turn-key operations for a sawmill; from mill planning, to engineering, to equipment manufacturing, to installation.”

As recently as 2006 the Jim C. Hamer Co employed 450-plus people. That year and for the following seven years the business was in “survival” mode, recalled Steve; as was most of the lumber industry. Within a two-year period, downsizing and restructuring in order to adapt to falling demand for lumber products, the company’s payroll fell to about 113 employees. The Jim C. Hamer Co. went from producing a combined 80 million board feet of lumber annually from five sawmills in 2006 to about 20 million by 2012.

In recent years as the economy and the industry has picked up, the company’s business has picked up, too. Today it employs 210-plus people, and Jim C. Hamer Co. is on target to produce 45-50 million board of lumber this year from its three sawmills.

One of the company’s three sawmills operates in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and the other two in West Virginia, in Curtin and Madison. A third West Virginia sawmill, in Marlinton, is currently idle although Steve plans to reopen it in the future. The company also has drying operations (1 million board of kiln capacity) and lumber yards at Curtin, Marlinton, and also Elkins, W. Va., although those operations at Elkins are currently idle. The company¬ís hardwood pellet fuel manufacturing operations are located at Elkins, too. Headquarters is in Kenova, W.Va., where it formerly operated a lumber yard and dry kilns.

The company’s dominant species are red oak and white oak, which account for about 45% of sales. Poplar is next at about 25%.

The company’s primary product is 4/4-8/4 thickness lumber, rough-sawn in random width and random length, as well as other thicknesses. “We offer the full complement of thicknesses up to 16/4,” said Steve. The company offers ripping and S2S surfacing for customers that require those services.

Steve recalled when he used to make trips to make sales calls to furniture manufacturers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, calling on companies in Virginia and North Carolina. He might drive 400 miles in one trip. “Back then the furniture sector represented 40% of our sales,” he said.

Today, the U.S. furniture industry, much of which has since relocated offshore, represents only a minor segment of business for the Jim C. Hamer Co.

Now, exports are a vital part of the company’s sales, representing about 30 percent of revenues. “Today, we travel some 8,000 miles one-way to cater to the Asian market, which is the largest market we serve,” said Steve. The company’s customers in Asia include the complete spectrum, from trading companies to distributors, and end users.

Jim C. Hamer Co. does considerable business exporting lumber to customers in China, and that business suffered somewhat last year as China’s economy slowed. However, that business rebounded by the fourth quarter of 2015 and has been more consistent this year, reported Steve.

In the U.S., the company supplies green and/or kiln-dried lumber to the flooring, cabinet industries, distribution yards, and other markets.

The sawmill at Curtin is representative of the company’s close ties to Cleereman Industries. It runs three Cleereman carriages, two for head saws and one for a resaw. One head rig pairs a Cleereman carriage with a McDonough 6-foot band mill, and the other combines a Cleereman carriage with a Walker-Wheland 6-foot band mill. The third Cleereman carriage is matched with another McDonough 6-foot band mill for resawing.

The two head rigs either can remove two sides of the log or square it up and kick it to the resaw, or they can saw the log all the way down to a pallet cant. The head rigs have 3-D scanning with optimization.

“It’s very efficient in the sense that we have the ability to cut pretty well whatever we need for our sales,” said Jimmy Stout, mill manager of the Curtin, W.Va. sawmill, who noted the mill does not have gang saw. “We’re very versatile.”

The operations at the Curtin mill employ about 85 people. The mill cuts oak, poplar, maple, cherry, walnut, and other species. The dominant species are red oak, which accounts for about 30 percent of production, and poplar, 20 percent.

The mill operates two shifts. Following the collapse of the housing industry, the company cut back to one shift in 2010, but it resumed two shifts two years ago. Production (mostly rough-sawn lumber) averages about 6,000 board feet per hour, according to Jimmy.

The Curtin operations also have 400,000 board feet capacity of dry kilns. Some production is kiln-dried and some is shipped green, depending on orders.

The Curtin mill buys logs ranging from 8 to 16 feet in length. In the log yard, two self-propelled knuckleboom loaders unload and stack incoming logs. Each log is tagged, and the company collects and inputs data on each one. Logs are debarked and then enter the mill.

Flitches and boards from the two head rigs and resaw are scanned before going through the edger. Boards are then processed by the trimmer before moving to the green chain for grading, sorting, and packaging. The company also has a shop-built timber sorter to handle cants.

Some bark is sold raw for mulch. Some is processed for mulch or boiler fuel that is used in-house for the company’s wood-fired boiler, which can be fueled by bark, sawdust, or a combination. Heat is drawn from the exhaust stack of the boiler – which provides heat for the dry kilns – to partially dry boiler fuel; the dried boiler fuel goes into a storage silo.

Excess sawdust is hauled to the company’s wood pellet manufacturing operations in Elkins.

The plant is equipped with a variety of dry kilns from leading industry suppliers, such as Irvington-Moore, Nardi, Brunner-Hildebrand, and Better Built.

The Curtin mill employed its own logging crew in the past, but now there are enough logging contractors to keep the mill supplied. The company buys standing timber and contracts for timber harvesting and also buys gatewood logs.

The cause of the 2015 fire was an electrical malfunction. “An electrical box failed,” said Jimmy. The box was located near some compressed air and hydraulic system lines. “It got bad very quickly.”

Remarkably, however, the fire was contained. “Our fire department was very experienced and competent and was able to contain it,” said Jimmy, although the mill still suffered major damages. The fire destroyed the area of the mill where the main electric controls were located and also one of the company’s two filing rooms. Within a few days, it was able to run at about half of normal production and continue at that level until the mill was fully operational about three months later.

Jimmy was equally appreciative of the way Cleereman Industries responded to the company’s disaster. The blaze damaged two Cleereman log carriages, and the supplier was able to rebuild one of them, along with the carriage that was in storage. “Cleereman absolutely did a fantastic job for us getting the equipment ready,” recalled Jimmy, and making the job a high priority. “They were absolutely fantastic to work with.”

The most recent major upgrade to the plant was the addition of the third mill and the optimized edger in 2000, a project that revamped the entire operations and entailed a “major, major reconstruction,” said Jimmy.

The Montgomery hog was added about four or five years ago to process bark. “We were not generating enough fuel for the boiler at times,” said Jimmy. The grinder was added to process bark as a supplement to sawdust for fueling the boiler. “That worked out very well.”

The company’s founder, Jim Hamer, now deceased, was a pioneer in the hardwood pellet fuel industry in West Virginia, noted Jimmy. The company had a surplus of sawdust, and it was a challenge to use it or find markets for it. Jim saw an opportunity to use the sawdust for raw material in wood fuel pellet manufacturing and built the first mill in West Virginia. “Now, it’s a commodity,” said Jimmy. “We’re very proud of our company for that.”

Besides being an innovator, Steve’s father, who enjoyed a business relationship with Fran that extended to a friendship, was a leader in the hardwood lumber industry. Jim served multiple terms as president and board Member of the National Hardwood Lumber Association and served as president of the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Association. He also was active in local and state business organizations and was named to the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame and the Marshall University Business Hall of Fame.

Jim devoted himself to helping his son and the company to the end of his life, even while battling cancer for several years. Steve recalled, “After being diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma and given a short time to live, dad maintained his unwavering faith in God and never complained once. He kept his focus on family, including the over 450 families dependent on Hamer companies. He was always concerned for the well-being of others and not himself.”

Though Jim C. Hamer did not live long enough to see his companies rebound to their current production of an expected 45-50 million board feet this year, Steve said, “Somehow I believe he knows and has seen the results of all his hard work and prayers.”