Gas-fired kiln anchors new venture focused on custom industrial lumber.
By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/1/2016
KNOXVILLE, Arkansas – Diverse and vertically integrated, Arkansas Wood Solutions, Inc. produces pallets and parts, lumber, and round chips. It also provides special services, such as meeting virtually any type of need for a wooden shipping device.
Southerland Custom Lumber, Inc., a new entity, was launched in 2015 to provide value added products. “It’s a dedicated custom-lumber producer for the industrial wood-use industry,” explained Wesley Southerland, owner at both companies.
The equipment foundational to Southerland Custom Lumber (SCL) is a 29x33-ft. gas-fired kiln from Nyle Systems in Brewer, Maine. The diverse Nyle Systems product line includes gas-fired kilns in sizes made to customer’s need; kilns that can be loaded with a forklift or configured with tracks. SCL loads with a forklift.
“We ordered the kiln in March 2015,” said Wesley. It was installed by September 2015. The natural gas source for the Nyle kiln is the grid.
The choice of kiln for SCL was made with both performance and logistics in mind. Research led Wesley to a short-list of good options.
“We looked at used kilns that were still standing and new kilns,” said Wesley. “The field narrowed down by estimated delivery time.”
The kiln from Nyle Systems is used to dry large pine timbers that will be used for railroad bridges and structural supports. The timbers range from 4x6 to 10x16 in 12-ft. to 24-ft. lengths. Depending on the requirements set by end user, the timbers are dried to between 20 and 30 percent moisture content.
“We did a lot of research on what Nyle said [the kiln] would do,” said Wesley. “And we purchased a system from Delmhorst [Instrument Co.] to control.”
In essence, Delmhorst control provided independent verification. “It showed us that the kiln is doing exactly what Nyle said it would,” said Wesley.
With a background in accounting and a career path that includes controller positions in fortune 500 corporations and financial officer roles with smaller concerns, Wesley’s professional interest in corroboration is deep and antedates his immersion in the wood products industry. Moreover, his background also means that he carefully evaluates cost and benefit of any choice.
For instance, consider the natural gas heat source for the Nyle Systems kiln. “Natural gas would be very high to dry lumber,” says Wesley of the cost. And AWSI does dry lumber and has heat-treatment systems for insects, so he is very familiar with a range of drying chambers.
Yet natural gas works for industrial timbers. “We’re able to be efficient with large timbers,” said Wesley. “In the long run, it’s probably less expensive than a wood burner that would require blowers, additional permitting…There were a lot of benefits to the Nyle natural gas system.”
As SCL expands, the company will likely be adding more drying capacity. “We plan to add kilns,” said Wesley. “We will definitely look at Nyle. We are just in startup [now] – an extension of our current business.”
For future kiln installations, SCL may consider using its own employees. Self-installation looks straightforward thanks to “details from Nyle,” Wesley said. “Nyle sent a detailed book-[right down to] where fasteners need to be.” Nyle Systems is also working to provide its own factory installation crews at competitive rates, for customers that might want that option, explained Jeremy Howard of Nyle.
Wesley has a particularly keen knowledge of the vagaries of the economy and how to cope with them. His first position after earning a degree in accounting at Arkansas Tech University was as an accountant for Tyson Foods. His next position was at Cargill. At the two companies he was heavily engaged in cost accounting.
When Wesley moved to a position in the waste industry, his focus became more operations accounting. The experience has been important to AWSI. “It’s all helped me to be able to drive [the company] – be versatile, meet the customers’ needs.”
It was Nulyne, Inc., a pallet company now part of AWSI, which first hooked Wesley on wood products. He and his family saw an opportunity to move back to their home state of Arkansas (from Oklahoma) if Wesley took the CFO position with Nulyne. That was in 2006. He soon became president of Nulyne, which by then had become a subsidiary of CFG Industries.
Prior to work at Nulyne, Wesley had no experience in wood products, except informally. “I grew up in rural Arkansas,” he said. “Probably the biggest industry in our area is logging and saw mills – next to poultry.”
Nulyne was established in 1978 and it represents the longest root of AWSI. During the interval that CFG owned Nulyne there was a broadening of focus, including a new mill completed in 2008. There were also 27,000 tons of wood on the yard when the recession hit, explained Wesley. When the owners starting looking for an exit strategy, many options were weighed. Ultimately, AWSI was sold to Wesley and it became family-owned in 2013.
It was a challenge, but a good one, said Wesley. “We have to improve every day. We have to do that to stay competitive.”
AWSI is headquartered in Knoxville, AR, a town with approximately 211 residents. Knoxville, which is part of Johnson County, is located in the northwest portion of the state.
AWSI has three mills, which handle mixed hardwood and softwood species. “We basically do everything except cedar,” said Wesley. “We have a large circle mill, a Meadows, a Big Jake scragg mill, and we cut cants into pallet components on a Brewco bandsaw line. We have three pallet machines — Rayco.”
As for procurement, it’s also versatile. “We have contract logging crews,” said Wesley. We buy gatewood. We partner with mills.”
There are often four to six changeovers per day on a mill. “It depends on the items. We have the ability to change our setup quickly. Our production mix is so varied.”
Incoming raw material gives some indication of how busy the 45 employees at AWSI are. “We have the capacity to process 3500 to 4000 tons of timber per week,” said Wesley. “We basically use 100 percent of the wood that comes off trucks.”
For example, AWSI produces round-wood chips, “a higher-quality chip,” explained Wesley. All wood is debarked with a Nicholson A5 debarker. A 72-inch L&M cutoff saw is used for merchandising stems that go to round chips. Grinders from Precision yield the chips. “It gives us the ability to take a stem that cannot be milled [and make a valuable product].”
AWSI does some 80 percent of its own freight hauling. “Our customers on the pallet side are large concerns with just-in-time needs,” said Wesley. “Delivery times are a huge factor.” Promised times must be met. Almost all pallets are custom.
“Our reputation, since Nulyne started is we take care of the customer,” said Wesley. “We take care in selecting the customers. When you take on a big customer, you have to take in more on the procurement side, that increases cost, [changes the] product mix.”
It’s always necessary to evaluate whether a new customer can be served, explained Wesley.
“We want to be able to deliver. We want to create value for everyone. Our history and our commitment to our customers is something we don’t take lightly.”
The family members at AWSI include Wesley’s three children. His son is the sawyer on the Meadows. His older daughter is the saw filer. And his younger daughter works in the office.
Retention at AWSI is very good. “We’re very much a family here,” said Wesley. “Eighty percent of our employees have been here an average of 10 years or longer.”
Fitting all the pieces of AWSI together is something that Wesley clearly enjoys. And the kiln from Nyle Systems serving the new ACL entity is part of that. “It’s another piece in our evolution,” he said.
“We haven’t used it to capacity yet,” said Wesley of the Nyle Systems kiln. “It’s awfully nice to take a system like [the Nyle] and use it as represented.”
Nyle has been designing kilns for almost 40 years. Its patented technology pioneered the introduction of dehumidification systems in kilns to reduce energy use and operating costs. Nyle Systems builds systems for drying of every from options for firewood to sterilizing and pre-dryers.
AWSI is a member of the NWPCA. Wesley expects to be involved in more professional groups as time goes on.
Wesley likes everything about his profession, even the challenges. “I like the family environment that we have,” he said. “We partner with smaller mills. And when you pick up the phone and talk, [it’s a good experience].” There are wonderful “hard-working people” who “don’t give up” in the industry, despite the “difficult environment” and the hard work required.
When Wesley’s son was young he got involved with Pee Wee football and Wesley continues to volunteer in youth sports. “I’m chairman and treasurer for Arkansas River Valley Football Association.”
Free time for recreation includes canoeing and other outdoor activities with family.
Timberline Magazine July 2016