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Company Expands Firewood Business: Metzler Forest Products Gears Up with Multitek, SII Dry Kilns
Company Expands Firewood Business; Metzler Forest Products Gears Up with Multitek, SII Dry Kilns
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 1/6/2017
REEDSVILLE, Pennsylvania -- Alan Metzler decided to go into logging when he was in early 20s. He had a small cabinet-making business but wanted to work outside and do something different. He began working as a subcontractor and slowly grew the business.
Alan learned a valuable lesson in the early 1990s, and he still is applying what he learned from the experience then. His company was supplying chips for Masonite at the rate of about 90 truckloads per week. When that market succumbed to recession, overnight his quota was reduced to 10 loads per week. He had just made an investment in a new track feller-buncher.
“The lesson out of that was to diversify in order to keep the company strong,” said his son, Nate. “He learned not to put all his eggs in one basket.”
“That’s been important to our business, to be diversified so we can weather market changes,” added Nate. His father has a saying emblazoned in his office in a piece of cut steel that reads: “Perhaps I cannot control the wind, but I can adjust my sails.”
Alan ventured into land-clearing, which developed into a significant business, and over time steered the company into new ventures. The latest is firewood and -- even more recently -- packaged firewood. The company is relying on a pair of Multitek firewood processors as it embarks on the wholesale firewood market. Another key supplier is SII Dry Kilns, which provided two dry kilns so the company could produce kiln-dried, packaged firewood for the wholesale market.
Nate, 24, is general manager of Metzler Forest Products, which was started by Alan in 1986. Alan, 52, has the title of CEO. Another son, Luke, 28, manages the company’s timber harvesting operations. Alan’s wife kept the company’s books until a year ago but has stepped back from that, although she still goes to the office now and then to do some administrative tasks.
Metzler Forest Products is based in Reedsville in central Pennsylvania, about 25 miles southeast of State College, a region that is home to dairy farms and sawmills. The company moved to its current location on 20 acres in 2007; it contains an office, shop, wood yard, mulch and firewood operations, and retail garden center.
The business currently employs 74 people. It has two logging crews, a crew for land-clearing operations, a wood yard, operations for producing mulch, a firewood business, and a trucking division with 14 vehicles on the road. (Trucking is organized as an affiliated business, mainly to haul the company’s wood products -- logs, chips, or mulch.) The company also operates a chip mill for a paper company.
Timber harvesting -- the company does mostly whole-tree chipping -- accounts for the majority of revenues and employs about 10 people.
Trucking, land clearing and mulch production, and firewood each generate about equal percentages of remaining revenues. Trucking employs 15 people, land clearing and mulch (including the retail garden center), 8-10; and firewood, 12. About 15 people work in the shop and office and 3 at the Domtar chip mill in Clearfield, about 65 miles northwest.
Alan’s role in the company now is strategic planning, guiding where the company is going and overseeing it. However, he can be very hands-on and frequently is involved in special projects. For example, he designed some of the shop-built equipment the company developed for its firewood operations.
Nate earned an accounting degree from Penn State and then oversaw the company’s finances and day-to-day operations for a few years. Last year the company hired a chief financial officer and handed off the finance duties to him so Nate could focus on day-to-day operations. His duties also include all hiring as well as managing relationships with major customers for wood products.
Metzler Forest Products entered the firewood business in 2008; it was Alan’s idea. The company invested in a Multitek firewood processor and sold all its production through the garden center.
“It made natural sense to add that on,” said Nate. The company had some extra space in its yard and it already had access to the wood it would need. The business move also was viewed as a way for the garden center to stay open year-round and generate revenues in its off-season, the winter months. “We figured we could keep the landscape center going year-round and use the resources we have as an established logging company,” said Nate.
The first couple of years the company sold less than 1,000 cords of firewood annually. Nearly all of it was sold retail out of the landscape center. A lot of customers would get a load of wood in their pickup truck although the company also provided delivery service.
The firewood business has grown, and now it is selling about 3,000 cords per year. “I think more than anything, people in our area like the convenience,” said Nate. “We’ll get you in and out in five minutes” for those customers who come in their pickup truck, “and usually have same-day delivery” for those who need it delivered.
“We pride ourselves on offering good quality, professional service, consistency. We’re not the cheapest supplier, but we want to be the best supplier.”
A Volvo front-end loader scoops up firewood and deposits it on an elevated, flat conveyor that empties it into the body of a waiting pickup truck. One scoop of the loader holds 1/10th of a cord, and 2-4 scoops fill a truck. Alan designed the conveyor loading station, and mechanics in the company’s shop built it.
The company first purchased a Multitek firewood processor with a bar saw for bucking but soon traded it in for another model -- diesel engine powered -- that used a circular saw for bucking. Later it added a second firewood processor -- electric powered -- by another manufacturer and set up in a new 60x60 building, running the Multitek only when it needed extra production.
However, when the decision was made to enter the market for packaged firewood, the company opted to go with two Multitek 2040 firewood processors. Both machines are electric with circular saw for bucking. “We found Multitek has been the best for us,” said Nate.
The two Multitek firewood processors operate side-by-side outside, and Metzler Forest Products customized the way the machines are set up. Company mechanics fabricated legs that are about 6 feet taller than the factory legs. The company also designed its own log decks and had them built. A single John Deere 435 log loader, removed from a trailer and placed on a concrete pad, feeds logs to each deck.
The company went with the taller legs to make it easier to service the machines from below and also to remove bark and debris that collects under the processors. “We can drive our small wheel loaders under the decks to clean up,” explained Nate.
The two firewood processors were installed last June. The company recently added a Multitek tumbler that removes loose bark and debris from cut, split firewood and segregates by product. A conveyor carries the firewood from both processors into the tumbler, which is set up parallel to them. The first section of the tumbler removes the loose bark and debris. The second section removes firewood that will be packaged, and the last section is for larger firewood that will be sold bulk at retail. The entire system “gives us nice, beautiful pieces” of firewood for packaging, said Nate.
“Nothing hits the ground,” he added. Firewood is either on an asphalt or concrete pad.
He has been “absolutely” satisfied with Multitek’s firewood processors and the company’s service, said Nate. “They’re built well, they’re productive.”
“To us, Multitek’s the best brand,” he added. “They’re a step above the rest.”
He singled out Multitek sales manager Marcus Steigerwaldt as well as the company’s service technicians for their responsiveness and availability.
“It was a fairly easy decision for us when we looked at everything combined -- their quality and reputation.”
Although he had looked at other brands of firewood processing equipment at various forest products industry trade shows, “It was a ‘no-brainer’ for us,” said Nate. “I don’t think I had to spend a lot of time comparing.”
Multitek, based in Prentice, Wisconsin, was started in the early 1970s by by Leon Heikkinen, who already had established himself as the founder of Prentice brand knuckleboom loaders. The company offers seven models of firewood processors. The model 1610, for example, can buck and split logs up to 18 inches in diameter and 12 feet long; it is powered by a 35 hp gasoline engine and can process one to two cords per hour. The 3040 XP can process logs up to 34 inches in diameter and 40 feet long; a 125 hp John Deere diesel engine enables it to produce upwards of four and a half cords per hour. The company also makes electric-powered models. All are trailer-mounted units. The company offers a wide range of features and options, including bar saws or circular saws for bucking, live decks, choice of splitting wedges, and much more. The high-production models feature an overhead grapple system to securely grip and advance the log into the bucking station. Multitek also offers tumblers for removing debris from firewood and also conveyors. (For more information, visit the company’s website at www.muiltitek.com.)
Metzler Forest Products also invested in Wood Pakker bundling equipment that wraps packages of firewood in plastic shrink wrap. About six employees work in the packaging operations. Packaged firewood is being sold wholesale through a broker for eventual sale to consumers at convenience stores, hardware stores, and other retail outlets. The company hopes to double firewood sales in this first year of added packaged firewood.
Getting in the packaged firewood market, the company also decided to invest in drying equipment and selected a firewood dry kiln from SII Dry Kilns. “As we did our research, that seemed to be the thing to do,” said Nate.
The Metzlers were impressed with the quality of SII Dry Kilns and its personnel, including representative Brian Turlington. “We liked the way they were built,” said Nate. “And it seemed like a great company to work with.”
The Metzlers decided to kiln-dry firewood for packaging in order that it could be certified as properly heat-treated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, easing transport restrictions on firewood in areas with infestations of wood-eating insects. The company also wanted the firewood to be kiln-dried so it would burn well. “Our internal desire was, when someone gets a bundle, we want it to burn better than anyone else’s,” said Nate. “It was important to us for quality.”
Two kiln chambers each holds 20 cords of wood. Alan designed metal baskets that are used to load the kiln, and they were fabricated by a local welding shop. Each basket holds a half-cord of firewood, and they are filled with a bucket loader. Eighty baskets of firewood are loaded via forklift into the kiln at one time, and another 40 are filled and ready to be loaded for the next drying cycle, which takes about 48 hours. The company has been operating the propane-fired firewood kilns since September.
“It’s been good,” said Nate. “Were happy with the performance of it.” The kilns can be monitored and operated via remote control. “We’re keeping a lot of data,” said Nate. “Our next goal is to drill down as close we can on drying times.”
SII, which began supplying dry kilns for lumber in 1969, began offering kilns for drying firewood about 10 years ago. The kiln for Metzler Forest Products is actually two units. The kilns are the first produced by SII to operate at a higher temperature, a capability that now will be standard on the company’s kilns for the firewood industry. Heating to a higher temperature, the drying process is faster, and companies can cycle firewood through faster and produce more kiln-dried firewood, noted Brian.
Metzler Forest Products “did a really good job of doing their homework,” said Brian, and determining what they wanted and what would work best for them. The two units provide the company with flexibility, he noted; they can be operated on a staggered schedule so that some firewood is drying while dried wood already is available for the packaging operations.
For its other operations, Metzler Forest Products is equipped with three Peterson whole tree chippers, including two 5000 models with self-contained flail de-barker. The third unit is a model 5900 with stand-alone model 4800 flail. For grinding operations the company relies on three CBI 6800 grinders, including a new unit just purchased in the fall; they are used in grinding and land-clearing operations.
The timber harvesting operations are equipped with a pair of TimberPro 735 track feller bunchers and two similar older Timbco machines and also a Tigercat wheel feller buncher that can utilize a mowing head for land-clearing work. The company has a mixed fleet of John Deere, Cat, and Tigercat skidders, five trailer-mounted John Deere loaders and a Cat loader, and two track loaders, a John Deere and a Doosan. It relies on 11 Volvo wheel loaders for handling, moving, and loading chips and other material.
“A big factor in our success is our employees,” said Nate. “They’re very important to us...They’re very dedicated. A lot of people have been with us a long time...You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”