OKATIE, South Carolina — Brandon Thiess is still guiding his firewood company along an upward trajectory. Carolina Morning Firewood has grown steadily since the company was featured in an article in TimberLine two years ago.
One of the notable changes has been in kiln capacity. The company is equipped with specialty dry kilns from Kiln-Direct to dry firewood. Two years ago it had two kilns, each with a capacity for drying 6 cords of firewood. Now it has four with another unit from Kiln-Direct to be installed soon.
Carolina Morning Firewood operates in Okatie in southernmost South Carolina. It is located less than 10 miles east of I-95 along U.S. 278, which leads to Hilton Head Island.
Brandon, 33, grew up in California and Connecticut. He attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., where he studied geology and played lacrosse for the Red Devils. After two years of college, he moved to South Carolina to pursue a career as a charter boat captain. He provided fishing charters out of ports in South Carolina and in the winter months chartered out of Islamorada Key in Florida.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008-09, however, business fell off. To fill in, Brandon worked for a friend who owned a tree service business. After a day’s work, they brought firewood with them to a party that evening. Several people who attended the party asked about buying firewood — the spark for Brandon to start his business.
He launched a firewood company in 2010, obtaining wood from his friend with the tree service business. His business grew so much that in late 2012 he invested in a firewood processor from Wisconsin-based Multitek. The same year he also purchased a six-cord, MiniQuick firewood dry kiln from Kiln-Direct and soon after, he added a second of the same model. Both kilns were heated using wood waste generated through his firewood tumbler, which tumbles the newly split firewood to remove loose bark and wood debris.
Brandon moved the company to a bigger facility in 2014. It has an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and a 6,000-square-foot pavilion on 8 acres. Firewood production is done under roof. At the new location he doubled his drying capacity, adding another Kiln-Direct firewood kiln with a 12-cord capacity.
Brandon is exploring ways to automate his operations to make them faster and more efficient by moving the firewood from the processor into the kiln with a minimum amount of handling.
Carolina Morning Firewood is humming along with 13 employees (including 7 women) and annual production now up to about 2,300 cords of firewood. The company makes about 600 deliveries per month.
CMF serves the region from Charleston, which is about 75 miles northeast, to Savannah, Ga., only about 20 or so miles south, and into the interior of Georgia. When asked about expanding into different markets, Brandon replies that he “has some interest”.
About 50% of the company’s firewood sales are to commercial customers — mainly restaurants — and 30%, homeowners. Another 20% is sold wholesale to distributors. The company supplies packaged firewood wholesale to a distributor who resells it, and it also sells packaged bundles of firewood direct to retailers.
Restaurants burn the company’s firewood both for cooking and for ambiance in fireplaces. Chefs with wood grills use hickory, oak and some cherry for cooking. Brandon’s company also is selling some chunk kiln-dried firewood for cooking, including apple tree, peach tree, and other species. The company’s commercial customers include a number of restaurants, including such well-known chains as Bonefish Grill and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
The company promotes its ‘premium’ kiln-dried firewood on its website along with its benefits. It is free of insects and mold, lights faster, and burns hotter and cleaner.
In addition to the fifth kiln, Brandon will also purchase metal baskets from Kiln Direct which are used to stage the firewood prior to going into the kilns. These baskets are loaded and stacked two high via forklift into the kilns. The kiln drying process heats the chamber by natural gas to 255 degrees, and the wood is heated for about 30-45 hours. Brandon transitioned to natural gas for fuel for several reasons. “They’re pretty efficient,” he said, and more economical to operate. With the convenience of gas, there is no need to reload wood waste fuel midway through the drying process.
The finished firewood is dried consistently to the same moisture content. The computer controls measure the internal temperature of the wood to ensure compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements. Firewood left to slowly air-dry or ‘season’ has a much higher moisture content, about 30%. Seasoning firewood to the most desirable moisture content means leaving it out in the open for six to 12 months. Rain and humidity can spur mold and insect infestation in the wood.
The company has a Volvo front-end loader for unloading log trucks and a Prentice knuckleboom loader for handling lots and putting them on the live deck of the firewood processor. A couple of Bobcat skid-steers, two forklifts, four delivery trucks, and conveyors round out the company’s equipment. Brandon replaced his Multitek firewood processor about 18 months ago with a new model, a Multitek 2040SS.
The company buys wood from logging contractors and specifies tree-length logs 8-22 inches on the butt and a 5-inch top.
Sawdust generated by the process of cutting logs to length is sold to some local farmers. Brandon also supplies the scrap wood material from the process of producing firewood to local loggers who use it as a material to make temporary deck or landing areas for their operations. He is looking into other markets or uses for the residual wood material.
He has had Kiln-Direct upgrade three of his kilns, putting variable frequency drives on the fan motors and adding converters to allow three-phase motors to run from a single-phase electrical system. The idea, which came from Kiln-Direct owner Niels Jorgensen, will improve the reliability and performance of the fan motors. “Three-phase motors last longer in a warmer environment,” explained Niels.
In addition, the new kiln being built by Kiln-Direct will feature the same electrical improvements. The new kiln also will have a larger fan motor. “Air flow is keen,” said Brandon. Besides heating the kiln to the correct temperature, “You need the air flow, too.”
“I’m a major believer in tech support,” said Brandon, choosing suppliers who can support their product and provide technical assistance when it’s needed. He recalled being on the phone with Niels at 10 p.m. one Friday a year ago for troubleshooting assistance. “There’s something to be said about that,” he said. The Kiln-Direct staff has played an important role in helping the company through the continuing service that it provides.
“They have the technology, too,” added Brandon. The kiln controls are linked to the computer in the office and even his smart phone. When he is away from the office, he can monitor the kilns and will be notified of any performance issues.
Kiln-direct believes that ongoing quality service is key to their success. Niels explains that they call it Sustainable Service. This service philosophy has three parts to it: first, Kiln-direct will continue to develop improvements and try to make these available on existing kilns. Second, they must make maintenance and troubleshooting easier through pictorial step-by-step troubleshooting guides and training/maintenance videos, which they are starting to send directly to mobile phones. Third, they must maintain sufficient staff to provide phone and onsite service regardless of future sales volume. Any computerized equipment without reliable tech support will eventually become useless, Niels explains: “We do not want to be that kind of company.”
(For more information on Kiln-Direct, which is based in North Carolina, visit the company’s website at www.kiln-direct.com, call (910) 259-9794, or email email@example.com.)
The Multitek model 2040 series firewood processors are designed for logs up to 40 feet long and 24 inches in diameter. Powered by a John Deere 125 hp diesel engine, it will produce 4.5-7 cords of finished firewood per hour, according to the manufacturer. It features the Multitek overhead grapple and shuttle carriage system to hold the log securely and advance it for each cut, a high-volume hydraulic reservoir capacity with hydraulic oil cooling, and a cab with ergonomic operator seat and electric joystick controls. It also comes with a live deck and is trailer-mounted for portability.
Brandon’s company also is equipped with several firewood splitters from SuperSplit, a Massachusetts company that designed its machines to use kinetic energy — not hydraulic force — to split rounds or blocks of wood. The mechanical design, which incorporates two revolving flywheels, generates 12-24 tons of force for splitting, and the flywheel recovery time is only a half-second.
Brandon’s wife, Chelsea, has been a valuable addition to the business. Business volume has more than doubled since she began working with the company. “She’s been amazing,” said Brandon, with her skills in marketing and reaching out to potential customers. Chelsea and her assistant can be found in the office coordinating the business, communicating with customers and dispatching drivers on deliveries. Brandon is hands-on with managing employees in the production operations and maintaining equipment.
“Being able to keep our product consistent in terms of size, moisture content, and reliable deliveries,” have been important factors in winning business from restaurants, he said. Carolina Morning has provided quick turnaround time on orders and made the process more convenient, delivering firewood on pallets, in metal racks or large canvas bags, depending on the product and order size. The company also provides services to restaurants that require the firewood to be re-stacked on their property.
Brandon has few competitors in the firewood business that kiln-dry their product. However, he also has an advantage over other businesses that do kiln-drying: capacity. “Our capacity is very helpful for us,” he said. With the new kiln he has ordered from Kiln-Direct, he will have five kilns for a combined capacity of 30 cords of firewood.
Product quality also gives him an edge, he indicated. “Our wood will never go on the ground,” said Brandon. It is clean, free of dirt and debris, and of consistent size, dimension and most importantly moisture levels.
“A good product and customer service has always given us the edge,” he added.
He has hired a software developer to create an app for the business. Customers will be able to download the app to their smart phone and use it to order firewood, pay for it, and track their order. “It’ll be a better customer experience,” said Brandon. It will streamline the ordering process and make it more efficient — and make life a lot easier for Chelsea and her office assistant because it provides instant information without having to call and check in with the office for customer status updates.
In their spare time, Brandon and Chelsea enjoy boating and fishing. They have two dogs, five goats, and 28 chickens.
Succeeding in a business does not depend solely on producing a good product, the couple has learned. It’s also about developing a business relationship with people, and maintaining it. “You can have a fancy product,” said Chelsea, “but if you’re not answering your phone, having face to face contact with your customers or doing what you promise, a competitor can lure your customers away.”
Brandon, a member of the South Carolina Forestry Association and the National Firewood Association, and Chelsea recently tapped the expertise of a business consultant to help fine tune the operation.
“When you grow and have a good product, you also have to constantly keep an eye and ear out for the management side,” noted Chelsea, as well as staying abreast on changing government regulations. Another point they brought up: “If you don’t have any kind of mechanical knowledge, you won’t make it,” said Chelsea. Brandon can maintain almost all of the in-house repairs allowing CMF to keep repair costs to a minimum.
As a result of the consulting service, they implemented daily staff meetings. With employees working in distinct areas and locations of the business, “We’ve just found that…having morning meetings has been critical for us,” she said, even for only 10 minutes. The sessions help ensure that everyone is “on the same page” for the day’s deliveries and other tasks that need to be done.
Another thing they have instituted is company lunches on Fridays when the weather is agreeable, particularly in the summer when the business is at a slower pace. “We love to cook on our own wood on Friday and get all the employees together,” said Chelsea. CMF considers this “product testing” as it allows an opportunity to gather co-workers around a fire and experience the product that everyone is working hard to produce.
A consistent firewood product supported with evolving technologies as well as the willingness to learn, evaluate and implement new ideas will ensure Carolina Morning will be serving firewood to customers for many more years to come.