DICKSON, Tennessee — Mike Lewis has grown his company quickly in recent years, from making moulding for the cabinet industry to building a new plant to add production lines for plank flooring and engineered wood flooring. The company’s drying operations, which rely on lumber kilns from Brunner Hildebrand, are growing to keep up, too.
Lewis Lumber and Milling, located about 40 miles west of Nashville in Dickson, Tenn., operates in a 96,000- square-foot plant and employs about 70 people. The company also has a 5,600- square-foot shed to store lumber.
The company has three main product lines: cabinet molding, solid flooring and engineered flooring. They are looking forward to increased production from a new rip saw that will allow them to process up to 70,000-80,000 bft in a shift.
The company’s website describes the business as “no whistles and buzzers.”
“We are a tight, cohesive group with lots of experience in the industry, and we stand behind our product. When you call Lewis Lumber and Milling, a person answers the phone, and you will get any of us promptly—even if we are travelling.”
Mike grew up in an Alabama family that had a sawmill business. He began working in the family business in high school and through college. He earned a degree in marketing from the University of Alabama and went to work as a salesman for Steel City Lumber, a lumber broker in Birmingham.
After about three years he and a coworker at Steel City Lumber left to form a partnership and buy and operate a lumber concentration yard in Tennessee. They purchased green hardwood lumber, dried it, and remanufactured it into mouldings for cabinets and the housing industry. They stayed together until Mike sold his interest in the company in 2010 and formed Lewis Lumber and Milling.
Mike used some of the proceeds from the sale of his business and also obtained financing to start Lewis Lumber and Milling. Two employees from his former business went with him when he started the new company.
“I grew up in the lumber business, and I guess I couldn’t leave,” he said. “I had to have something to do.”
Mike’s company launched initially to make moulding for the cabinet industry in 2011, working out of space he leased for three years. The first year the company did about $1.5 million in sales. As the business grew, he built a new plant that manufactures both solid and engineered plank flooring.
Brunner Hildebrand has been an important partner as the company has grown. When Mike started the business, he bought kiln-dried hardwood lumber. He invested in two Brunner Hildebrand track kilns with combined capacity of 150,000 board feet in 2015, then added two Brunner Hildebrand package kilns each with 100,000 board feet of capacity two years later. One of the original kilns featured power vents for drying hard maple, which the company uses a lot for making cabinet mouldings.
Lewis Lumber and Milling is in the process of adding two more Brunner Hildebrand kilns with another 180,000 board feet of capacity. The new kilns are expected to be operating in September of 2018.
“I did a lot of research,” said Mike, when it first came to investing into dry kilns in 2015, and his decision came down to Brunner Hildebrand and another supplier. “Companies using Brunner Hildebrand had a high level of satisfaction when I spoke with them.”
“They’ve had excellent experience so far,” said Brunner Hildebrand technician Matt Harnisch, which is why Mike’s company selected Brunner Hildebrand to add more drying capacity.
Besides the drying operations, Lewis Milling and Lumber is equipped with various machines for remanufacturing hardwood lumber and handling lumber and finished goods. The company’s equipment includes a Froedge stacker. A Lico rip saw is used for ripping to width. For making cabinet mouldings, it has two Weinig P1000 moulders and a Weinig Unimat 818 moulder. A Weinig P2400 planer-moulder and Hasko end matchers are used for making flooring. Engineered flooring production is accomplished with a Weinig P600 planer-moulder, thin-cutting Wintersteiger band resaws, a Powermax end matcher, and a Union Tool hot melt glue and press machine.
The company buys rough-sawn green lumber, normally 4/4 in random length and width, in species such as hard maple, red oak, white oak, hickory and cherry from mills in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. It buys about 1.2 million board feet per month. Everything is remanufactured into a finished product except for some FAS white oak that is exported to Europe.
Lineal mouldings for cabinets include face frames, door frames, and other components. Solid plank flooring and engineered flooring is sold in widths ranging from 4 inches to 11 inches. Lengths range from 1 foot to 10 feet with special orders going to 12 feet. The company offers three grades of flooring: select No. 1 common, character, and No. 2 common. All products are marketed and sold under the company’s own brand name.
Cabinet components are sold directly to large cabinet manufacturing businesses. Flooring is sold through distributors in the U.S. and Canada.
Engineered wood flooring is the most recent addition to the company’s product line. Mike added it “to have a full line of flooring for our customers.”
For making engineered wood flooring, Mike buys birch plywood from Russia because of the quality and consistency. The 4/4 lumber is resawn by a thin-cut resaw to produce four pieces called lamella. Hot melt glue is applied to one surface of the plywood, and a piece of lamella goes on top. The components go through a press to ensure they bond. The material then is sanded, moulded, and end-matched. Depending on the product, the finished engineered flooring has a thickness of 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch. Some winds up in ‘big box’ home improvement stores like Home Depot.
Wood shavings are used to fire the company’s boiler for steam for the dry kilns. Surplus shavings are supplied to farmers or a company that manufactures wood fuel pellets.
Asked to describe his day-to-day role in the business, Mike replied, “I just make sure everything’s running properly, In addition to that I do all the cabinet product sales. That keeps me fairly busy.” He spends about one-third of his work day in the plant, checking on operations and quality.
Mike is married with two adult children, Lee and Libby, who work in sales in the business. He has a brother, Joe, who is a business partner, and Joe’s son, Forrest, oversees production of engineered flooring. Joe and chief operations officer Tom Edwards buy the green lumber the company requires.
The four existing dry kilns include two track type kilns, with the green lumber loaded onto carts on tracks that are pushed into the kiln; they were equipped with a more powerful venting capacity in order to dry hard maple and have the standard Brunner Hildebrand control system. The other two are package kilns. The new kilns that are being added are front-loading package kilns.
Drying schedules are completely computer controlled, and one computer system operates all the kilns. The control program allows combining inputs of sample weights and wireless probes that measure moisture content.
Brunner Hildebrand Lumber Dry Kiln Co., based in Nashville, Tenn., has been serving American lumber producers for more than 50 years. The company manufactures a complete line of pre-dryers, track and package kilns, continuous kilns, vacuum kilns, steamers, heat-treating kilns, and various types of kiln control systems with on-line service.
Brunner Hildebrand kilns feature allaluminum alloy, corrosion-proof construction — the frame, roof, walls, and doors — and high density mineral insulation (4 inches thick) in the walls, roof and doors. The all-aluminum fan deck covers the full load of lumber with an airfoil at each edge; variable speed drives on the kiln fans provide flexibility for drying various species and thicknesses and lumber and also provide significant energy savings. Heating coils go the full width of the kiln and are constructed of stainless steel tubes with aluminum fins that are supplied with steam from the wood waste-fired boiler.
(For more information about Brunner Hildebrand and its products, visit www.bhl-drykilns.com, call toll-free (877) 852-6299, or email sales@bhldrykilns. com.)
Early next year Mike plans to add the capability to make cut-to-length materials and more components for the cabinet industry. Lewis manufactures “everything you see in a cabinet,” Mike explained. “We don’t make the boxes, but we make the parts to make the boxes.” Adding cut-tolength capability would enable the company to supply precise components that only need to be assembled and finished.
He sees a growing market for engineered flooring. Within two or three years he would like to add operations to manufacture pre-finished solid wood flooring and engineered wood flooring. “That is a big step,” said Mike.
The company offers a group health insurance plan for employees as well as a 401(k) retirement plan, paid holidays and paid vacation.
Lewis Lumber and Milling is a member of several trade associations, including the National Wood Flooring Association, the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association, the Kentucky Forest Industries Association, and the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association. Mike usually attends the NWFA annual convention, and Tom and Joe are active in the KFIA and IHLA.
Since he launched his company in 2011, during the Great Recession, Mike’s experience likely is different from other companies that were in business prior to the economic downturn and saw sales fall. “I guess I kind of missed a lot of it,” he remarked.
However, the cabinet industry, like other segments of the homebuilding industry, felt the impact, Mike acknowledged. “Yes, it was pretty rough,” he said.
The cabinet industry survived because of an uptick in home remodeling, he added. “01A lot of people remodeled their houses,” said Mike, spending money on new kitchen cabinets or bathroom vanities and other improvements if they could not sell their home during the down market. “That’s how the cabinet industry survived the recession.”
Mike is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Nashville. He enjoys hunting ducks and deer. “We make sure we take some time to do some hunting and fishing and play golf,” he said. He’s also been to Africa a number of times to hunt.
Mike was self-effacing when asked to pinpoint the reasons for his company’s success. “We just want to produce a highquality product at a fair price for our customers so our customers and homeowners will be happy with that products that we make.”
“We just put out the best product we can and service our customers,” said Mike. “We’ve got good people…We all know what has to be done, and we just make it happen.”