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Firewood Business Reaches Nationwide
California-based company equips satellite wood yards with Multitek firewood processors
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 10/1/2003
SANTA ROSA, Calif — When Geoff Friedman bought a ranch along the Lost Coast of northern California in the 1980s, it didn’t take long to find himself on a new career path. He quickly set in motion a chain of events that resulted in starting a firewood business, Lost Coast Forest Products.
Since then, Geoff has developed Lost Coast into one of the country’s leading wholesale producers of packaged firewood that is sold to retailers. Headquartered in Santa Rosa, the company runs several satellite yards across the U.S. and Canada in order to offer convenient delivery.
The isolated northern coast of California came to be known as the Lost Coast because it was one of the last areas of the country to be fully mapped. With a rocky coast and hundreds of miles between deep water harbors, early mariners tended to stay well away from the hazardous shoreline. It was in this area that Geoff purchased his ranch, a 500-acre property located between Eureka and Fort Bragg, next to King’s Range National Conservation Area. Initially it was overgrown with hardwood trees.
"I started taking firewood off the place to clean the place up," Geoff recalled. The property was overgrown with oaks and tan oaks, and there were also a lot of Madrones. The conifers had been logged in the 1950s; when Geoff purchased the ranch, they were over 30 years old. Hardwood trees had to be removed to facilitate the transition to a mature conifer timber stand.
"We were able to take out a lot of the hardwoods to restore the conifer timber stand to its original state," he said. "In doing that, I’m taking firewood, and selling it to a guy who is putting it in boxes, who is selling it to another guy who is selling it to Safeway (a major grocery retailer.)" Geoff, who had been in the wholesale distribution business for many years at the time he bought the ranch, thought that there were too many middle men.
From there, Geoff began boxing firewood for sale directly to the retail chains. "I got a number of large chains interested, and we started shipping right away. I only wanted to take about 500 cords a year off of my place. I didn’t want to strip it, just clean it up." Very quickly he found he had to search for other sources of logs.
Along with the consolidation in the grocery industry, purchasing functions of supermarket chains have become increasingly centralized, too. Rather than having a separate buyer for each state or retail division, a single buyer might purchase goods for several divisions. "With the consolidation over the last several years, there has been a need to supply these larger chains," said Geoff. "They are not just in one state anymore, and they are trying to centralize their buying - doing things differently than they used to."
"Firewood is a product where supply is so fractured," Geoff commented. "They can buy it from two or three different suppliers in any market." Lost Coast makes it easy on purchasing agents by offering both corporate or division level service to retail chains.
One key to the successful expansion of Lost Coast Forest Products has been the development of a network of satellite yards. Another key has been the company’s six Multitek 2040XP-90 firewood processors.
"It is a very interesting process in how this machine is built," Geoff commented. "It takes into mind not only modern technology but ‘old day’ technology." Using mature technology and parts, Geoff finds that the units are easy to inexpensively "field fix."
"A lot of the more modern machines, in terms of using higher electronics such as a CPU onboard, are going to break down with the vibration, the rattle, the dust, the dirt, the heat — you name it," said Geoff. "The way Multitek has designed it is pretty much bullet-proof, and if there is a problem, it is usually fixed within a few minutes. It is very reliable."
Multitek is the oldest manufacturer of wood splitting equipment in the U.S. and possibly the world, according to Dale Heikkinen, Multitek’s president. It pioneered the development of hydraulics for firewood processors, according to the company, which has obtained several patents on its machinery. Multitek equipment is characterized by heavy-duty construction, and machines the company manufactured in the 1980s are still running. "For operations such as Lost Coast Forest Products, up-time is absolutely critical," Dale noted.
Improved features of the 2040XP-90 can include an air conditioned cab, stereo, as well as ergonomically designed operator controls and pilot-style joysticks. "It has been the work horse of the industry," said Dale. As an example, he cited another customer with three similar Multitek machines; each one produces about 25 pulpwood cords of firewood in a seven hour workday, according to Dale — cutting and splitting hardwood logs. "It is the only machine that comes with an overhead grapple for holding and safely moving logs to the saw," he added.
Lost Coast Forest Products typically runs Cat 950 loaders or larger. To unload logs, it usually uses a Cat 988, which can remove an entire load with one grab. Loaders are used to fill the live decks with logs. Not all Lost Coast yards are equipped the same; the company uses different equipment if it suits a yard better.
"We use a lot of chain saws," said Geoff, mostly Husqvarna. The chain saws are used to trim the log ends so they do not require additional handling when they get onto the processor. The split wood is ferried out on a Multitek conveyor, and then a loader with a bucket scoops it up and takes it away.
In some yards, Lost Coast Forest Products utilizes an elevated conveyor that runs wood out from the building. "It has automatic gates, depending on what size the wood is and what pile you want it in," Geoff explained. The wood is dropped onto piles up to 60 feet high. From there it is scooped into baskets by the loaders and placed into a kiln for drying.
The company does not have dry kilns at every yard, but Geoff sees it as an emerging trend. "People should appreciate it more because it for sure kills all the bugs" and helps reduce mold, he said.
Dried wood is dumped into a hopper that is conveyor-directed to a 40-foot long conveyor table. Workers pack firewood — in boxes or wrapped in plastic — as it is dumped onto the table.
As for the Multitek firewood processor, Geoff emphasized that the controls make it easy to operate. "We started with them in May of 1999," he said, "and we’ve never had a workmen’s compensation claim related to their equipment. It is very hard to have an operator-induced error. There are a lot of safety mechanisms built into them."
"The Multitek people are very good," Geoff added. "They tell you what parts you are going to need to stock for maintenance. If you have them and need to replace a part, you don’t have any down time." That is the kind of reliability that Lost Coast requires to come through for its customers.