CAMDEN, Tennessee —
Richard Gunthert went looking for a business to own, saw an opportunity in the firewood industry, and started his own company, Blaze It Firewood Products.
“I’m a person who prefers to be outdoors,” explained Rich, 55, who just upgraded his business with a new Multitek firewood processing machine. “I always have been. It also wasn’t a big stretch for me to find something that wasn’t a mainstream kind of business.”
Rich has been around the corporate and business world for more than 30 years. Originally from mid-state New York, he transferred and relocated numerous times as he was moving up the corporate ladder, mainly focusing on sales and sales management. In 2007, he left that behind and invested in a parking management company and helped run it for 10 years before eventually selling his portion back to the original owner. He and his family have called Franklin, Tenn., home since 2000.
After selling his interest in the parking management company, “I bounced around, looking for something else to do,” he recalled. Having had a taste of working for himself, “I knew I didn’t want to return to a corporate job,” said Rich. He decided he would either buy another business or start one from scratch. He explored several businesses and industries, then he hit on the idea of starting a firewood company, a business that “intrigued” him.”
Rich’s background also includes business finance. “I put together a business plan and after some market research decided there was enough demand to support the idea,” he said. The concept of the business crystalized in early 2018, and he started the company in the middle of the same year.
The business has been growing steadily. The company now sells “well in excess of 1,000 cords a year,” said Rich, who has a half-dozen employees, mainly full-time. He works “full time and then some” in his business.
From the beginning, Rich knew his principal market would not be like the Northeast and other regions where people burn wood for heat in the winter or as a supplemental source of heat. Tennessee is too far south.
Instead, he mixes retail and wholesale business; he sells bulk firewood retail and packaged or bundled firewood wholesale. Customers for wholesale business include campgrounds and other businesses that will resell the firewood to campers or homeowners. The company also sells fuel wood to restaurants that use it for cooking. Another thing that distinguishes his business: all the company’s firewood is kiln-dried.
Rich bought about six acres of land in Camden, about 80 miles west of Nashville; the location enables the company to serve customers in east Tennessee as well as portions of Kentucky and Alabama. He had a 3,000 square-foot metal building constructed for an office and storing finished firewood inside. Firewood production is done outside near the wood yard.
Rich invested in a Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor that his company received last month, upgrading from a previous brand that he used to launch the company. He was attracted to Multitek because of its reputation. “It’s almost like an industry standard,” he said. Multitek firewood processors are designed and built for high volume production and are known for their longevity, he added.
Rich saw Multitek exhibit its firewood processors at a couple of trade shows, although he did not make the trips specifically to search out Multitek. He attended the Northeast Expo in Bangor, Maine, and the East Coast Sawmill and Logging Equipment Exposition in Richmond, Virginia, also known as the Richmond Expo.
In the process of making a buying decision, he also talked to other people in the firewood business. “They were all running Multiteks,” said Rich, who gave little or no consideration to other brands.
The Multitek Model 2040XP2 is engineered and built for large volume firewood producers. Multitek reports that it has hundreds of customers around the world that rely on this particular model.
The Multitek 2040XP2 is powered by a John Deere 125 hp diesel engine. Equipped with an operator’s cab, it can process logs up to 23 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. According to Multitek, the 2040XP2 can produce 4.5 to 7 cords of firewood per hour.
The processor is available with a 60-inch carbide-tipped circular saw for a faster cut cycle and reduced maintenance costs compared to bar saws; the circular saw can cut up to 1,500 cords of firewood before the carbide teeth need to be changed, according to Multitek.
Multitek introduced the model in the early 1980s and has made a number of updates and improvements to it since then. Features include V-style log infeed trough with Multitek’s exclusive shuttle grapple carriage for feeding logs, electric operator joystick controls and ergonomic operator seat, and high volume hydraulic oil reservoir with oil cooling. The most recent upgrades include laser guided measuring system, a variable displacement hydraulic pump for improved hydraulics and fuel economy, and improved ergonomics for the operator cab. All hydraulics are located outside the cab, which allows more room and keeps the cab cool; the hydraulics are turned off automatically if the operator gets out of the seat.
For the firewood packaging business, an optional 16-way splitter head is available. It features a unique, patented assembly that utilizes a series of hydraulic cylinders to split round wood to the proper size while eliminating jamming. The 16-way wedge produces wood that is 4×4 from the center of the block and smaller, triangular-shaped pieces from the edges of the log round; the pieces produce a tight bundle when packaging the firewood.
Options include interchangeable wedges for splitting wood up to 23 inches in diameter into four pieces, six, eight, 10 and 12 pieces of firewood. The 16-way box wedge is limited to wood that is 16 inches in diameter. The machine also is available in a 3-phase electric version. Other options include an air-conditioned cab, High Visibility System, anti-vandalism kit, cab radio with MP3 player, and the secondary tip pan (ejector pan).
(For more information about Multitek firewood processors, visit www.multitek.com or call (715) 428-2000.)
The Multitek 2040XP2 has met Rich’s expectations so far, and he would recommend Multitek to others in the firewood business. Asked what he liked about the machine, Rich said, “We had the machine built specifically for us, so we got to select the options. Our 2040XP2 produces high volume, high quality firewood, which is exactly what we need and why I choose Multitek over the previous processor.”
The operator’s cab with air conditioning and heat is essential, according to Rich. “I wouldn’t get one without it,” he said. “We produce all year long. It’s not uncommon for 100-degrees-plus temperatures in the summer or single digits during the winter.”
The finished firewood conveys directly into a Multitek tumbler to clean the wood of loose debris and then inline to a conveyor that empties the wood into metal baskets that are used to load the firewood into the kiln. The kiln-drying cycle usually lasts a couple of days, according to Rich.
Blaze It has a Kiln-Direct firewood kiln which is fuled by biomass, and is considering adding a second unit from the same supplier. Kiln-Direct also offers models that can be heated with gas or wood waste.
In planning his business, Rich decided that he would produce kiln-dried firewood since his market was restaurants needing cooking wood, not people who burn wood for fuel. In the Northeast, he noted, firewood businesses can sell a steady stream of wood that is seasoned, cut and split.
All finished firewood is stored indoors to keep it clean and dry. Bulk firewood is available by the cord, half-cord, and third-cord. Blaze It Firewood developed its own equipment for bundling finished firewood.
Like firewood, cooking wood is kiln dried to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, reaching a core temperature of 160 degrees for at least 75 minutes. The process ensures the elimination of any insects and produces fire-ready wood. As noted on the company’s website, kiln-dried firewood lights faster, burns hotter, and produces less smoke.
Cooking wood is more of a custom business, Rich explained. Restaurants or other businesses may require a certain species, and they may want a particular size wood. “Every customer usually has unique needs that we can take care of,” said Rich. Examples of types of customers would include a steak restaurant that buys wood for grilling, a pizzeria that bakes pizzas in a wood-fired oven, and a restaurant specializing in barbecue. “And each one usually has a specific requirement as far as the type of wood, moisture content, and other considerations,” said Rich.
Rich’s business has pretty much gone according to plan, he said — no huge surprises. “If anything else it’s a little more complicated than you think on the front end,” said Rich, who had no previous connection to the forest products industry before deciding to start his firewood business.
Rich has enjoyed a steady supply of logs, although he knows his supply can be dependent on the weather. “It’s got the potential to disrupt things, for sure,” he noted. His log inventory fluctuates, but generally he strives to keep at least a couple of weeks worth of logs on the yard. Species include maple, red oak, white oak, cherry, walnut, hickory, elm, and ash.
Rich has used his experience in sales and marketing to develop customers for the business. He relies mainly on phone calls to prospective customers as well as visits to their place of business. Although the business has a website, he does not rely on it for marketing nor does he do any advertising.
Rich is very hands-on in the business at this point. He may be on the yard supervising firewood production or in the office, making sales calls. His wife, Marcy, is a partner and active with Rich in managing the business. He plans to produce and store finished firewood year-round although operations could be potentially scaled back in the summer.
Rich has one hobby that he is zealous about: fishing. “If I’m not processing wood, I’m probably on my bass boat,” he said, and takes Marcy and their two daughters, both in their 20s, “if I can get them to go with me.”