Market Research Pays Off for Alabama Couple Who Launched Firewood Business

B&B Manufacturing Wood-Paker Produces Bundled Firewood; Multitek, Kiln-Direct Other Key Suppliers

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Mobile Bay Firewood has a new Multitek 2040XP2 firewood processor.
It is an electric-powered model with a 16-inch splitting wedge.

PRICHARD, Alabama – Colleen Smith earned a degree in kinesiology, the study of the body’s movement. Kinesiology specialists help patients recover mobility and improve their lives through exercise. Her husband, Jason Smith, earned a degree in communications.

Today, Colleen and Jason own and operate a firewood business, Mobile Bay Firewood. They formed the company in 2018.

“We do kiln-dried firewood for residential delivery and customer pick-up,” said Colleen. The company also produces bundled firewood for sale under its own label and private labels.

Neither Jason nor Colleen had a background in wood products. Jason began experimenting with processing and selling firewood in 2009.

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Jason and Colleen Smith

“My husband is a firefighter,” explained Colleen. “He had 30 acres of land and would cut and split it, then season it for a year and deliver it with a pickup truck.”

The splitting was done manually or with “a tiny log splitter – very labor intensive,” said Colleen. Jason also built an oak log house for the family during the years after 2009, while he continued to gain experience with firewood.

As Jason produced more firewood, he became increasingly interested in the possibility of starting a business dedicated to it. They did some research. It included talking with other firewood producers and with vendors of firewood processors and dry kilns. “Talking to other guys in the industry” was important, explained Colleen.

“Jason talked with Maury (Wilkinson in sales) at Kiln-Direct” while still formulating ideas about the business the husband-and-wife team would launch, said Colleen. Those conversations were very helpful.

Today, Mobile Bay Firewood owns two Kiln-Direct MiniQuick six-cord kilns. The kilns are heated with natural gas from the grid. The purchase of a third MiniQuick is slated for 2023. Kiln-Direct is based in Burgaw, North Carolina. Niels Jorgenson Company, Inc. owns Kiln-Direct, specifically Niels is president of the firm.

Firewood is loaded into one of the company’s two Kiln-Direct MiniQuick kilns.
Each MiniQuick kiln can hold six cords of firewood, which is loaded in metal baskets. Mobile Bay Firewood plans to add a third kiln this year.

All firewood produced by Mobile Bay is kiln-dried. There are no specific insect pests threatening trees in the region where raw material is sourced. However, kiln-drying eliminates nuisance cockroaches and their egg cases (ootheca), thus improving aesthetics. Kiln-dried firewood also lights faster and burns better, and it reduces the amount of creosote in wood, which makes it safer to burn in fireplaces.”

Mobile Bay sells firewood in many configurations. Palletized loads go to homeowners who burn it primarily for ambiance either in fireplaces or outdoor fire pits. The company also sells longer firewood to accommodate some customers with larger fireplaces. Many restaurants (and some homeowners) purchase pallets of species-specific firewood for flavoring barbecue: cherry, pecan, and hickory.

The Smiths moved their business to a two-acre site in Prichard, Alabama, about 18 months ago. Prichard is five miles north of Mobile and Mobile Bay. It has a population of 19,300 and is part of Mobile County.

The company has three buildings on the property, a combined 40,000 square feet under roof. The Smiths buy firewood logs from logging contractors who deliver it to Mobile Bay Firewood.

The Smiths have just added a new Multitek firewood processor. It is an electric-powered Multitek 2040XP2 with a 16-inch splitting wedge that replaced another Multitek, which is based in Prentice, Wisconsin.

The Multitek 2040XP2 is designed for processing a high volume of firewood. The machine can deftly handle the crankiest sort of craggily wood – that is, random diameter and length, up to 23 inches in diameter and 40 feet long.

When Mobile Bay Firewood moved to its current location in 2021, it added a machine to its lineup that has increased speed in bundling and packaging firewood to match the processing speed of a Multitek. That machine is a Wood-Paker G400.

Workers place sheets of shrink-wrap into the bays of the Wood-Paker
and then fill them with firewood. They automatically advance into an oven to
heat and shrink the plastic, then exit as a finished bundle.

The Wood-Paker G400 is one of many packaging models offered by B&B Manufacturing, which is located in Olean, New York. It bundles the firewood in a shrink-wrap package.

The Smiths have a good working relationship with B&B Manufacturing, said Colleen. They rely on B&B for repeat purchases of shrink-wrap. “They have been awesome,” said Colleen. “The customer service is wonderful.”

The Wood-Paker is easy to use. “It has definitely speeded up” bundling of packaged firewood, said Colleen.

With the Wood-Paker G400, Mobile Bay Firewood can produce 12 pallets per day of bundled firewood – with 65 bundles per pallet. One of the distributors that buys packaged firewood from Mobile Bay is based in New Jersey and sells private-labeled bundled firewood across the Southeast.

Together with the Multitek 2040XP2, the Kiln-Direct MiniQuick firewood drying kilns, and the Wood-Paker, Mobile Bay produces about 36 cords per week of firewood.

Mobile Bay delivers within a 20-mile radius of Prichard. For an extra fee, the delivery team members will travel a greater distance. A few buyers want loose cords, which they pick up themselves.

The Smiths buy pallet bases for deliveries, and Mobile Bay employees attach a 2×4 post to each corner of the pallet.

Mobile Bay operates with 13 full-time and three to four part-time employees. Most team members are deployed to specific tasks, such as bundling or processing, or managing. Three drivers take care of deliveries in the region.

In addition to firewood, Mobile Bay sells kindling and fire starters. The company also sells some ancillary products, such as hats and cocktail glasses. The latter fit well with the social gatherings supported by much of the mood- and warmth-generating firewood.

Most of the logs supplied by contractors are oak. The oak firewood is dried to 20 percent moisture content. Colleen said that moisture level provides customers with optimal results when wood is burned. The cherry, pecan and hickory wood that is used for seasoning or flavoring is not kiln-dried.

The focus on good machinery that couples speed and efficiency dates to the time when Jason was thinking about starting a firewood company. Research gave him many ideas about the best equipment to buy. “[Then] he went to Michigan and saw a large firewood operation – all mechanized, all dried wood,” said Colleen.

Jason became very enthusiastic about the possibilities, said Colleen, especially after doing market research in the vicinity of Mobile.

“He discovered a huge market,” said Colleen. In fact, the market was largely open, and that’s how the Smiths made the decision to start their business.

The trajectory from experimenting with processing firewood in 2009 to the inception of Mobile Bay Firewood in 2018 was paused for a few years around 2015, explained Colleen. That’s when the couple had the first of their two children. Throughout, Jason, who is 40, has continued to work full-time as a firefighter.

Colleen, 36, emphasized the potential of the firewood market. Being able to meet the needs of customers is what keeps customers coming back, she explained. “Being that reliable source” for customers is a must, said Colleen. “We’re here for the long-haul.” And she wants customers to know that. The reliability of their equipment mirrors their commitment to customers.

The Wood-Paker from B&B Manufacturing, a division of Burlingame, Inc., aims to add profitability to their firewood businesses. It can package 400 bundles of firewood per hour. The bundles are neat and uniform, and customers don’t have to worry about debris or scraps of wood falling out.

At one end of the conveyor-configured Wood-Paker, an employee puts firewood on a piece of shrink wrap, then folds it over. Packet after packet then advances to a heat chamber that warms the shrink wrap and tightens it. When each packet emerges from the heat chamber, it is a tidy bundle of firewood.

The Wood-Paker operates on 110 volts. The gas oven can be heated with propane or natural gas. Options for certain models include wheels, axle, and fenders to facilitate moving.

Colleen said that the philosophy of Mobile Bay Firewood is embodied in the words on its website: “Ignite friendships, spark memories and add warmth to your life.”

Gathering around a fireplace or a fire pit on a patio can bring people together. It encourages everyone to “put the phone down,” said Colleen.

Colleen is happy with the decision she made to become a business owner with Jason. “Getting to work with my husband” each day is a big plus, she said.

“Getting to provide jobs locally” and the “flexibility of owning our own business,” are gratifying, said Colleen.

Yes, there are challenges, yet the challenges are tied to something positive. “We’ve seen rapid growth,” said Colleen. “Managing it” is a challenge.

When Colleen and Jason take time away from their business, they like to travel with their children. It leaves them refreshed and rested, and ready to explore the next opportunity in their growing business.