LAONA, Wisconsin – Best management practices and a commitment to sustainable forestry have guided logging on the 20,000 acres of company owned timberland at the heart of Nicolet Hardwoods Corporation since the 1800s. Today, Nicolet Hardwoods, which has a root dating to 1872, is one of the largest hardwood sawmills in the Great Lakes states region.
Peter Connor, the great great-grandson of Robert Connor, the man who established Nicolet, is the vice president of Nicolet Hardwoods. He is also the president of WD Flooring, LLC, a related company established 20 years ago.
Optimizing Wood Utilization Led to Launching WD Flooring
“In 1998, having been at Nicolet for just about three years, I could see all of these wonderful alternative species we were sawing that really had no home,” said Peter. He looked at the lower grades of cherry and yellow birch, for example, and saw “unique elements” and “grading opportunities” that “would make fantastic flooring” and WD Flooring began.
Putting four-inch and five-inch plank products in cherry, maple, birch and walnut into the flooring market was a truly novel approach. “At the time…80% of the market was red and white oak, 90% of that market was ‘strip products’ and 80% of the market was controlled by one company,” explained Peter.
Capturing fiber from more species and lower grades for flooring bolsters the focus on sustainability that began with Nicolet Hardwoods. Lumber from the Nicolet mill goes into kitchen cabinets and furniture, hardwood flooring and pallets.
Raw material arrives at the Nicolet mill along several paths. Hand-cutting crews with short skidders harvest on Nicolet timberland. And the mill buys at public and private timber sales and purchases gatewood. Private landowners can also get expert land management help from Nicolet.
There are 64 employees at Nicolet and 70 employees at WD Flooring. “Like most companies in rural American today, we are always looking for more [employees],” said Peter.
The boundary that Peter pushed by seeing the value in varied species and grades for flooring parallels the forward-looking approach of his great great-grandfather. In 1898, Robert began the construction of what he envisioned as the world’s largest hardwood sawmill, a project that was completed in 1902. A replica of the mill is housed at the Chicago Field Museum.
Innovation & Relationship with Cleereman Drives Success
“Today, we are still pushing [boundaries] and innovating,” said Peter. “We were the first company in North America to be finishing our flooring with European handwax oils. Now we produce floors that are 12-inch wide – some are of fantastically interesting cuts of wood. And we have developed probably the most innovative engineered flooring line in the country.”
Appreciation for expertly engineered products runs through Nicolet and WD Flooring in several ways. Nicolet Hardwoods purchased its first linear positioning carriage from Cleereman Industries more than 25 years ago, and it still runs the carriage every day. “The carriage is as solid as they come,” said Peter. “I think we are on our sixth or seventh generation of controls. We have had great luck with the Cleereman carriages and with the Lewis controls,” he continued.
Cleereman Industries, Inc. is located in Newald, Wis., eight miles from the Laona, Wisconsin site of Nicolet and WD. Laona is part of Forest County in the northeastern part of the Badger State. It has a population of 1200.
“Our relationship with Cleereman goes back generations,” said Peter. “The thing about the Cleereman company is that it combines not just great products but also fantastic customer service.”
Inside the Nicolet Mill Process
The Nicolet Hardwoo
ds mill has two sides. “One side is built for larger, highgrade sawlogs and the second is for smaller logs and bolt wood material,” explained Peter. The second side aims at faster but still accurate processing.
“The logs are separated in the mill yard, then loaded onto their respective decks,” said Peter. After moving through a Nicholson ring debarker and metal detector, the logs are sorted again to larger grade side or smaller short side.
After the second sort, all logs are canted to the secondary breakdown, which is accomplished with a Crosby thin-kerf gang saw. All boards are edged and trimmed with a Corley optimized edger and a USNR optimized trimmer, respectively.
Both head rigs are fully optimized. The board edger and trimmer are also optimized. Nicolet began optimizing in 1995. Peter points to the optimized board edger installed in 1997 as the step in optimizing equipment that made a big difference immediately. “It allowed not just for phenomenal yield recovery but grade recovery as well,” he said.
Twenty-five percent of the lumber Nicolet produces is kiln dried. “We use SII track kilns and we also have a small number of older generation Irvington Moore [USNR] kilns that have all been updated with high efficiency fans [and] motors, power vents and controls from SII,” said Peter.
Nicolet Company Basics, Strong Family Tradition
Nicolet produces 12 million board feet of lumber each year. WD Flooring purchases 25 million board feet of lumber each year.
The many customers of Nicolet include secondary manufacturers, some end users, distribution brokers and wholesalers. Transportation is done by truck.
Pine River Trucking is one of the related, family-owned companies that fit together with Nicolet Hardwoods and WD Flooring. Connor Timber Management and Connor Management Corp. are also in the group. Gordon P. Connor, Peter’s father, has a leadership role at the companies, too.
Peter got involved in with Nicolet in 1995 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He returned to Laona to help his father with a project.
“At the time, the industry was going through some very dramatic changes,” said Peter. He saw the changes as an opportunity and he got drawn in to the business.
“Actually, much of the draw came from our involvement with the Hardwood Manufacturers Association(HMA),” explained Peter. “At the time, we were really the first ‘northern’ mill to become members and it proved to be invaluable as we traveled to some of the biggest and best manufacturing facilities and we were really learning from each other. I always reflect fondly on those years.”
Nicolet Hardwoods is a member of the HMA, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), Lake States Lumber Association and the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA). In the 1970s, Gordon R.P. Connor, Peter’s grandfather, was president of the NHLA.
Collaboration of Two Companies Looks to Better Flooring Innovation
Although Nicolet and WD are “quite different” in their emphasis, the companies often work together to find solutions, said Peter. “A great example of this is our new core for engineered flooring.”
Baltic birch from Russia was first tried for the core. It did not work well, explained Peter. “So, we took what we knew from Nicolet Hardwoods to develop a basswood core that is extraordinary in its construction and enables us to unflinchingly manufacture floors seven-inch and wider.”
The seven-inch planks and wider planks derive from a dedication to innovation that characterizes the companies. “[Wood science], raw material availability and our kiln drying knowledge” all informed the collaboration and achieved the end result, explained Peter.
The process improvement that drives changes at Nicolet Hardwoods has a parallel at Cleereman Industries. And Peter said he values the continuous improvements Cleereman has made in its products.
Working with the Cleereman team has been a good experience, too. “Team Cleereman are always terrific to deal with,” said Peter. The team members combine an “honest” approach with a desire to do the best for their customers. “This combination makes for a wonderful team to trust and grow with.”
Peter knows Fran Cleereman, the president of Cleereman Industries well. “Almost all our ideas get hashed out with Fran and we work [with] Rod Chitko as well,” said Peter. “They are both just wonderful to work with.”
Rod has a family connection to Nicolet. “[He] practically grew up in our mill as his father was probably one of the best pure sawmill men I have ever known and had the pleasure of working with.”
People are important. “What we enjoy most about operating Nicolet Hardwoods are the people,” said Peter. “The people of our company and of the industry.”
Yes, there are daily struggles, said Peter. But they are all made easier to navigate thanks to being in “such a great industry with so many fun and interesting people,” he said.
There’s much to enjoy about his role at Nicolet Hardwoods and his role at WD Flooring, said Peter. Planning the next project is something he particularly relishes. “[It’s] there that you really begin to analyze your business and find that next thing that may increase efficiency or boost your yield.”
Change and development must be embraced in order for a business to survive, said Peter. As a corollary, he observes that sustainability benefits from innovation.
When Peter takes time away from work, he has many interests. “I’m an avid mountain climber,” he said. “I also love skiing the backcountry and slopes of the Maroon Bells. Most of all I enjoy time I get to spend with my children engaged in their hobbies and interests – when they will let me.”