An Identity and Livelihood

With deep family roots in the forest products industry, father and son team Dean and Tony Wood are continuing the legacy.
By Anna Simet | March 23, 2020

For most individuals among the minute percentage of people who happen to share a last name with their passion, it’s an improbable coincidence.

In the case of the Wood family, however, it’s in their blood.

Stemming back five generations, the Woods have deep roots in the forest products industry, having owned a sawmill and pallet mill for 130 years. The decision was made to close the operation amid poor market conditions in the early 2000s, and soon after, father and son Dean and Tony Wood began devising a plan to build a Maine wood pellet plant, with hopes of taking advantage of ripe opportunities in the fast-growing export market. “About 11 years ago, when there were big contract opportunities, we started out trying to build an industrial wood pellet plant,” says [Tony] Wood. “We got caught up in those early days. We had the sawmill, forestland and logging experience in New England, so we thought we might be able to pull all of the pieces together.”

Years later, it was proving very difficult. “For about six or seven years we kind of beat our heads on this idea and got wrapped up with others who wanted to do something like this,” Wood says. “All the while, we were hearing that those wood pellets could be used here, and it began to ring true. So we pivoted away from the industrial model, and toward one that would work in Maine.”

After some time, the Woods became familiar with Presque Isle, Maine-based Player Design. “They’re a great, local engineering resource, but also a pretty big equipment supplier for a bunch of other facilities and were becoming well-known in that sense,” Wood says. “We worked out a good partnership and arrangement to build the facility, to finance and put it together, basically from the ground up.”

The Woods had already spent a great deal of time putting together a site plan, and were rolling along, Wood says. Securing the plant’s exact location was next.

Fiber Sourcing, Supply
The fact that Wood & Sons sources 100 percent of its fiber supply entirely from sawmill residues is largely the result of its strategic location—right alongside Pleasant River Lumber Co., also a family-owned Maine business with many generations of experience in the forest products industry. “After initial talks with Pleasant River about supplying material for the new facility, they outright turned me down,” Wood says. “But soon after, they came back and suggested we locate at their facility. I had been working with a couple other mills for a long time, trying do something like it, but they were anxious about a big change, and having these things going on on-site. Now, we’re the only pellet mill in the state colocated at a sawmill.”

Maine is home to approximately 80 small, mid-sized and large-scale mills, all of which produce residue, markets for which have been dwindling over time. “There are a lot of pretty sizeable facilities in Maine—the one we’re at is relatively small—so there are many opportunities for this kind of thing,” Wood says. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to do the alternative, all kinds of development on a greenfield site, when there are so many mills that used to be a lot bigger and have downsized or gotten much more efficient in the space they need.”

The colocation strategy has reduced fiber transportation costs by about a third of what’s typical for a similar-sized pellet mill, and close proximity to its other suppliers—six other area sawmills—helps reduce costs further.

Player Design financed, engineered and constructed the plant, providing all the equipment with the exception of the pellet press and bagger. “This was the original plan, and it worked pretty well,” Wood says. “Commissioning is a big lift—there are a lot of things to optimize and get done right. After initial startup, we spent about five months with them on this, troubleshooting all kinds of things.”

After Wood & Sons acquired the facility from Player Design, the next six months were spent optimizing various plant components, according to Wood.  Gradually working up to the plant’s annual nameplate capacity of 35,000 tons is the current plan of action. “I was hoping we would hit the ground running, but now that we’re into it, a slower, more gradual ramping-up process is a smarter move, and an easier proposition,” Wood says.

While easing into pellet heat as its core market, Wood & Sons is diversifying its product line with additional wood-based offerings.

Markets, Moving Forward
Currently, all production from the plant is sent into the bagged market, though Wood says the company receives frequent inquiries for bulk product. While the business model and facility were designed to serve the domestic heating market, the concept of diversification has always been on the back burner, according to Wood. “Now that things are going well, we know it’s important to step back and look at the bigger landscape, so we’re spending the R&D money and doing the groundwork to determine what customers are looking for. We’re really trying to dial that in, and we have spent quite a bit of time over the past three or four months getting those details nailed down and working with our partners to get ready for the push into these other markets.”
Those markets include horse bedding and kitty litter.

While industry buzz about low inventory levels has been loud this year, New England has been experiencing unseasonably warm weather. Wood says his plant has inventory for the first time since beginning operations. “Stove shops and specialty retailers we work with are kind of holding their breath waiting for a cold snap to come. Everyone in the industry knows there will always be ups and downs, and everyone has to play the season. We’re going to keep producing inventory and be ready, because we know it will come. And we deal with many stove shops that have the customer service aspect, working directly with homeowners, so they give us really good feedback about how they make their buying decisions.”

Wood acknowledges the difficult nature of predicting demand and believes expansion of the bulk market could help. “Oil and propane have automatic refill systems, or subscription-based systems that require customers to pay a little bit every month to be locked in, and that way it provides a little more transparency about what the supplier has to be prepared for,” he says. “Our retailers look at how cold it was last year and maybe what oil prices were doing, and just decide based off that—maybe 20 percent more for the next season.”

Everyone has a different model when gauging expected demand, Wood adds. “If you look at the heating degree charts and try to predict off that, it seems like it’s been trending warmer this year, but then all of a sudden, we might get an epic cold front. We don’t know how cold, so it’s a big part of the reason for diversifying as well—you just never know. If you can find a way to make a little more money and be spread out a little bit, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine