BURGAW, North Carolina — Kiln-Direct.com, a supplier of pallet heat-treating systems, lumber and firewood kilns, will mark its 25th year in business in 2019.
Owner Niels Jorgensen, a transplant from Europe, continues to focus on strategically positioning the company to prosper going into the future by innovations — improvements that can be retrofitted to the company’s existing products to enhance performance and developing new products for the forest products industry.
Based in the little town of Burgaw in Southeast North Carolina, less than 30 miles north of Wilmington, Kiln-Direct now has 1,200 units in operation — pallet heat-treating kilns, lumber kilns, and firewood kilns. It has grown to about 50 employees and annual sales of about $7-8 million.
In recent years, about 35-40 percent of the company’s business has been heat-treaters for the pallet industry and 35-40 percent kilns for firewood producers. The remaining 20-30 percent has been split between lumber kilns and dip tanks.
Niels, 49, grew up in Denmark. His father, Valde Jorgensen, owned a sawmill that he had acquired from Valde’s father, and Niels began working in the sawmill when he was a boy. Valde decided to expand the business to include kiln-dried lumber and designed his own lumber kilns.
Valde sold the sawmill in the 1980s and worked briefly for the new owner in the transition. A few years later he launched Wooddryer System lumber kilns, which helped sawmills build their own kilns by supplying them with plans, equipment and controls. Manufacturing of components was outsourced to other European companies. Niels continued to work for his father in the kiln business.
Niels explained his father’s decision to exit the sawmill business and launch a business providing dry kiln technology. “He was at a crossroads,” he recalled. Valde was faced with the prospect of going into debt to expand and grow the sawmill business or pursuing another avenue. He worked briefly for the new owner when he sold the sawmill, but “working for someone else wasn’t in his nature,” said Niels.
Niels came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student as part of a program sponsored by a Rotary Club in Easley, South Carolina. He attended high school there from 1987-88, living with four families, several of whom he still considers his “American parents.”
After graduating from high school in the U.S., he returned to Denmark and resumed working for his father at Wooddryer System while also attending business school and learning the equivalent of an associate degree in business administration and computer science. However, it wasn’t long after returning to Denmark that he knew he eventually wanted to live in the U.S. Before returning to the U.S., though, he volunteered for military duty, serving in the Danish Royal Guard, in a motorized infantry unit, and ending with palace duty.
“I like the people who live here,” observed Niels. He had a very conservative upbringing as a Christian, and the American culture of the South agreed with that. “Denmark is very liberal,” he noted. “Some people love it there. I’m not one of those.” The U.S. was where he wanted to live and work, he decided.
Within a few months of returning to the U.S. he landed a job working at a sawmill near Wilmington, North Carolina, and within a few years he obtained his permanent green card.
Niels launched Kiln-Direct in 1994, trying to emulate the business model of his father. Like Wooddryer System, Kiln-Direct sought to supply kiln components and controls. However, the business model did not thrive in the U.S. Lumber businesses were interested in turnkey, ready-to-run dry kilns. Even his father’s business in Europe saw this shift to customers preferring prefabricated dry kilns. Niels met with a small measure of success, but not enough to grow and develop his company.
In the mid-1990s, Niels built the first lumber dip tank for a company near New Bern, N.C. Niels worked through some initial flaws, and the dip tank was well received. “Slowly but surely we just grew into that market,” he recalled, a market with only one other significant competitor.
His affiliated business, Eagle Dip Tanks, continues to manufacture and supply the tanks, which are used to treat lumber with anti-mold products prior to drying. The company went on to develop specialty dip tanks for pallets and pallet cut stock. Sales of dip tanks helped the company to flourish until the pallet industry was required to heat-treat pallets and containers for export, and Niels began manufacturing specialty kilns to heat-treat pallets.
With the advent of ISPM-15 and the heat-treating requirement for wood pallets and containers used in export shipment, Niels made a strategic decision to focus heavily on this new business opportunity and to manufacture systems that would meet the needs of the pallet industry.
As this market segment grew quickly, Niels and his father decided to combine their efforts. His father and mother relocated to the U.S. to join their son, and together they focused on pallet heat-treating while still servicing Valde’s European customers. The pallet kiln business grew quickly, and Kiln-Direct became the primary supplier to the pallet industry.
Other lumber kiln companies also quickly ventured into pallet heat-treating systems. Some companies designed pallet kilns around used shipping containers, adding a heating system and fan and other equipment, for a low-cost system. A few companies developed similar systems, delivering completely assembled units that just required hook-ups to power and fuel to begin operating.
Different ideas, approaches and technologies quickly emerged. Some experts advocated steaming pallets in order to heattreat them. Other companies promised to dry pallets like they would lumber for fine furniture. Within a few short years, 10-15 approaches emerged to heat treat pallets. Just as quickly, however, the market winnowed them down to only a few. “We all tried to fill a niche, and it really represents a great example of how the free market works,” said Niels.
Kiln-Direct positioned itself between companies that offered a low-cost, container- based system, and the larger sitebuilt systems offered by other dry kiln manufacturers.
“We fit right in the middle,” said Niels. “It turned out to be the sweet spot” in the market.
Initially Kiln-Direct contracted with another company to build the chamber structure, and then Kiln-Direct finished the inside and equipped it. The first system was sold to Granville Pallet in Oxford, N.C.
“Then it started taking off,” recalled Niels. “It was the right product at the right time,” he said, for the pallet industry. It was a pre-assembled unit, capable of heat-treating a full truck-load of standard pallets. Set up on a concrete pad, the only thing that was required was connecting it to electricity and a supply of gas.
The Kiln-Direct solution was a unit that could be quickly installed and operating and offered fast throughput. “That became the winner. Almost no one copied it. We seemed to outgrow our competition. No one seemed to realize it until it was too late.”
“We were seen as the little guy,” added Niels. “We had to defend ourselves all the time.” Competitors were bigger businesses, but Kiln-Direct became the leader in the niche market. As reported by Pallet Enterprise magazine, Kiln-Direct soon found itself with two-thirds of the market share for supplying pallet heat-treaters.
“It is really amazing, how someone from a foreign country can come and achieve this,” said Niels. “I am thankful and blessed to be part of this. To me it shows how welcoming America is.”
The increase in sales from the company’s successful pallet kiln allowed Kiln-Direct to transition from a small company, led by Niels and his father, into a corporate structure ready to continue to grow into the future. “Some amazing people joined our organization and helped it grow into what we have today,” said Niels.
Kiln-Direct wasn’t content to rest on its laurels. The company and its leadership have continued to innovate and improve product lines. Kiln-Direct realized that it was benefitting from a sales boom for pallet kilns that eventually would tail off, so it set out to improve existing products and develop new ones. First Kiln-Direct expanded into offering six models of pallet heat treaters. Then Kiln-Direct diversified further by launching its small industrial lumber kiln with all the specifications of large lumber kilns, but delivered in one unit. Next the company developed a firewood kiln with capacity to dry six cords of firewood using either gas or scrap wood for fuel. The firewood kilns met with similar success as the pallet kilns, and that portion of the business grew fast. Today the company’s firewood kilns come in multiple sizes, and the latest model can dry about 3,500 cords per year with a 24-hour cycle.
Some of the latest improvements to Kiln-Direct’s line of pallet heat-treaters include a significant upgrade in 2017 in order to achieve much faster cycle times; most of the improvements can be retrofitted to existing pallet heat-treaters. The company has also transitioned to touchscreen computer controls. This year Kiln- Direct began manufacturing pallet heattreaters in 100 percent stainless steel structures, including the inside and outside sheeting in stainless steel.
Niels and his father lead the business together, and his mother manages the accounting. Brian Hawk and Valde manage the manufacturing of three production teams. Maury Wilkinson and Niels are the sales team. Jonathan O’Dell leads the service team technicians, who provide installations, on-site services, technical support via telephone, and fill orders for parts.
Although Kiln-Direct primarily sells new equipment, they believe that helping customers keep existing kilns running is the most important things they do every day. “Providing sustainable service and everything this encompasses is the biggest challenge facing Kiln-Direct on a daily basis,” said Niels.
Sustainable support focuses on: – servicing older kilns through technical support provided via phone and on-site visits. – updating software to keep up with new PLC technology and preventing kilns from becoming obsolete. – developing upgrades for older kilns to improve performance. – and maintaining spare parts availability and continuity for older kilns.
“Basically, even if we do not sell another kiln, we must have a system in place to provide and pay for the service to the existing customers,” said Niels. “This is what our sustainable service model is all about.”
“You have to come with a service attitude,” said Niels, “instead of chasing the quick buck of new sales.”
Kiln-Direct is busy developing the company’s next generation of products and upgrades. “We’re currently working on biomass fuel systems specifically designed for pallet heat-treaters and firewood kilns,” he said, “so they will be ready one day when the need arises.” If gas fuel cost should increase due to markets or taxation, then we will have a lower cost solution ready.
Upgrades enable kilns and heat-treaters to perform faster and more efficiently. “So far, 90 percent of improvements can be retrofitted to older kilns,” said Niels. In fact, just a year ago Kiln-Direct upgraded the first kiln it supplied — to Granville Pallet, enabling it to increase production by 50 percent.
Kiln-Direct is a family-owned business with a great team, noted Niels. Recently Kiln-Direct started a tradition of hosting a Christmas Leadership Retreat Weekend for key team members and their families. Last year they went to Williamsburg, Virginia, and this year they will be visiting Asheville, North Carolina and seeing the Biltmore estate. “We get to have fun, review the past year, and talk about how we can do better in the future.” said Niels, “We invite the whole family as they bear the burden when extra time is needed to get the job done.”
As a Christian, Niels is guided by his faith in operating his business, dealing with customers and team members.
It is important to continue to work hard, even when times are good and sales come easy, in order to prepare the company for the future, said Niels. He cited Proverbs 6:10-11 from the Bible as his inspiration: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.
“We see working hard in manufacturing, servicing customers, and research and development as a way to prepare us for slow times and economic recessions,” he said. “The result has been continued growth in good times, but the focus is and must remain on preparing the company and our team to weather hard times.”
Team members and their families are important, and Kiln-Direct realizes they depend on good leadership at all levels of the business for their jobs and livelihoods. When customers are served well, it serves the best interest of the business, its team members and their families.
Kiln-Direct was briefly impacted by Hurricane Florence when it swept ashore into North Carolina in September. The town of Burgaw was isolated by flooding for a few weeks, and Kiln-Direct’s facilities suffered some damage and was out of full production for about three weeks. During that spell the company dispatched a fully stocked service van to another location in order to be able to continue to fill orders for parts and the service team continued to field calls.
Niels became a U.S. citizen in 2007, and both his parents followed in 2016. Niels married his wife, Betsy, in 2004 and they have two children, Peter and Mary Kate. “I’m very fortunate to be where I am at,” he said. “I’m living the American dream, and it’s by God’s grace in so many ways.”
“We have been given a resource to manage,” said Niels. “That’s how we view this business.”
(For information about Kiln-Direct and its products, visit the company’s website at www.kiln-direct.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (910) 259- 9794.)