At age 12, Paul Reed plunked down $275 for a new Jonsered, his first chainsaw. The boy’s father ran a small sideline firewood business, and while dad had spare chainsaws, of course, Paul wanted his own. “I clearly remember that my mother was not at all happy that I was buying one at the age of 12.”
Fast forward six years to 1985 when Paul was 18. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew he needed to make a living. So, he fell back on the familiar and started Reed’s Firewood with a chainsaw, a 1974 Ford truck, a splitting maul, and a strong back.
“I borrowed money from the credit union to buy the first three loads of wood, and I never looked back,” he said.
Reed quickly realized that to build a healthy business he was going to have to do two things: get mechanized and get help. A year later he convinced his dad to come work for him, and he got a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan to buy his first firewood processor. “It was the most paperwork I ever filled out in my life,” he remembers. “But I knew I wasn’t going to make any money unless I got machinery that was reliable.” He also got a newer, bigger truck.
Today, Reed’s is a family business in the truest sense of the word.
Paul does deliveries. His wife, Tracy, manages the office, takes orders and maintains the website. His dad, Paul Reed Sr., operates the processor. Even Paul’s uncle, Rodney Proctor, who’s nearly 80, works part-time bagging camp wood. In June, Paul and Tracy’s youngest son, Joe, graduated from high school and came into the business full-time. Their older son, Spencer, a diesel mechanic, may one day as well. Both boys worked with the family during summers growing up.
On a fine day in early June, Paul is at the controls of a Prentice crane loader, plucking logs from the bed of a truck, stacking some and loading others onto the rails of a Multitek firewood processor. A huge chop saw trims the logs to firewood length, they go through a splitter, then the sticks of firewood travel up a conveyor and tip into a truck. It’s a process any backyard producer would envy. Look, ma, no hands. On the firewood at least.
Reed’s owns two firewood processors, two Prentice crane loaders, three cage-bodied dump trucks for deliveries, and a drying kiln. The company produces about 3,500 cords of firewood a year – green, seasoned, or kiln-dried. The Reeds have a roster of about 1,000 regular customers living in 25 towns around Durham, Maine. A growing part of the business is bagged firewood for campgrounds. During July and August, one KOA campground sells 500 bags a week, he said.
There have been several factors in the growth and success of Reed’s Firewood.
One is location: Durham is a small town, located between the Maine Turnpike and I-295, which makes delivery to the Lewiston-Auburn area, the Portland metropolitan area, and the trendy midcoast, feasible. There are a lot of potential customers within easy driving distance.
Another is the emphasis on scheduled deliveries. Paul said he realized early on that the mistake many part-timers made was trying to work firewood production and delivery in around everything else they were doing. The next thing they knew they were behind and customers were waiting impatiently for their wood. “I said, we’re going to put down a schedule for deliveries. That caught on, that with Reed’s you can book your wood,” Paul said. Now the company books deliveries weeks, even months, ahead. Customers like the fact that their wood arrives on the date they want it.
That requires maintaining a large inventory. The company’s log yard is stacked with hundreds of cords of tree-length hardwood logs – maple, oak, cherry, beech, ash – the piles 20 or more feet high. Reed stores logs for a year or more before splitting and selling them as seasoned wood. “Without inventory in this business you won’t make it,” says Paul. A bad mud season or extended rainy season that shuts down logging operations can throw off production, and the next thing you know you’re having to refer customers to a competitor, he said.
Paul said delivering when you say you will is crucial, but it’s only part of it. “People really want to know you’re a professional, that the equipment looks good, that the delivery driver is pleasant and nice,” he said.
An hour or so after Paul Sr. finished splitting the wood, Paul pulls into the driveway of Brewster and Judy Staples’ home in Pownal with the first two cords of the family’s six-cord order. Staples is waiting outside. He sticks his hand out as Paul jumps down from the cab. “Right on time!” Staples says as they shake. The Staples have been loyal Reed’s customers for over 20 years. “He’s been a wonderful dealer,” Staples said, watching as Paul backs the truck up to dump the load in front of the garage. “I appreciate the quality and the fact that he’s here when he says he’s going to be here. That’s very, very important.”
Firewood was mankind’s first fuel – and the only one for thousands of years. Today, of course, it competes with electricity, oil, natural gas, and propane. A graph of firewood use resembles a roller coaster. As recently as 1940, 53 percent of Maine households heated with wood, according to U.S. Census data. It dropped to two percent by 1970 and rose to 15 percent in 1980, only to head back down to 6.4 percent in 2000. As of 2009, it was at 8.7 percent.
The Ice Storm of 1998 “was one of the best things for firewood that ever happened,” said Paul. The storm left hundreds of thousands of Mainers without power in the dead of winter. People whose wood stoves hadn’t seen flames in years fired them up again as they waited out the long days until the lights flickered back on and the furnace roared to life. People borrowed wood from neighbors. Cars and trucks were bumper to bumper down Paul and Tracy Reed’s driveway. “We had people lined up even to get a few armloads. It gave firewood sales a huge boost,” Paul said.
In 2008, came a series of oil price shocks that pushed home heating oil prices to more than $4.50 a gallon, said Paul. That was a brutal and stressful reminder of the volatility of fossil fuel prices, and it convinced many homeowners to take another look at firewood, if only as a supplement to their oil furnace, said Paul.
Firewood may be an old fuel, but it has been helped by new technology. The latest generation of wood stoves is much more efficient and cleaner burning, he notes. He and Tracy heat their house with a big Regency and find the flues need almost no cleaning. And many people like the fact that firewood is locally sourced, undergoes little processing, and is renewable.
The Reeds haven’t seen any impact on their business from the growth of wood pellet stoves, said Paul.
Over the years they have added products that boosted sales. Camp wood, for one. Kiln-dried firewood for another. The Reeds’ drying kiln looks like a shipping container. Propane fired, it can dry five cords in 24 hours. Kilning not only turns green wood stove-ready, but also kills insects, Paul said. Reed’s sells about 300 cords of kiln-dried wood a year. “Even at $330 a cord (compared to $275 for seasoned) it’s way cheaper than oil,” he said. (Editor’s Note: If #2 fuel oil is $4.00 a gallon, the equivalent price of seasoned firewood would be $532 a cord, according to the US Forest Service.)
Some customers like the fact that they can order, say, a cord of green, a cord of seasoned, and a cord of kiln-dried. Paul will even dump them in different places.
Paul said Reed’s has grown naturally over the past 28 years, and will likely grow some more with the addition of the couple’s sons. The question is whether to try to grow sales beyond that. It would mean adding outside employees, he said. “I don’t want to get into a situation where, if it drops off 15 to 20 percent we suffer because of the growth that we’ve lost,” he said.
Then again, he asks, how big does Reed’s Firewood need to be? If the business can support three generations of the family at once, “I could be happy with that,” he muses. “I don’t have to grow any bigger. I don’t have to have 10 employees or 15 employees. I’m sure we’ll grow more. That’s fine. If it grows outside the family it’ll be because we want it to, not because we have to.”
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd. is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands' series on people working in the northeastern forest.
Joe Rankin is a forestry and natural history writer, beekeeper, market gardener, and orchardist. He lives in central Maine.