Columbus closing affects suppliers

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More than 100 people lost their jobs in an instant Thursdayafter Columbus Lumber Co. was ordered to cease operations, but thefallout from the sawmill’s closure could have even greaterconsequences for dozens and dozens more workers in related forestryprofessions. Meanwhile there is a small glimmer of hope for thecompany as owners continue negotiation with their creditors toreopen the mill.

Columbus Lumber acted as the center of the local forestry wagonwheel, and all the wheel’s spokes – from loggers to retailers andeven other sawmills – are now scrambling to find a new center onwhich to base themselves. Loggers could be facing increased coststo haul timber to distant mills, retailers are scrambling to findreplacement lumber products at higher shipping prices and at leastone local sawmill owner is worried Columbus Lumber’s absence couldaffect the number of suppliers servicing his operation.

“It’s got a bunch of us probably going to end up in a bind,”said John Norman, owner of Brookhaven’s Norman Logging. “(ColumbusLumber) is one of our main places we go.”

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Without the centrally located Columbus Lumber, Norman said hisloggers might be facing hauls to mills anywhere from 50 to 100miles away, receiving the same, record-low price per load at vastlyincreased fuel costs. Furthermore, with one less sawmill on whichloggers can depend, the remaining mills will be free to name theirprice per load.

“Without Columbus, it’s kind of like playing Monopoly,” Normansaid. “You shut down one mill, then another will have the power topay you what they want to pay you. With Columbus, they pay you whatyou got and there ain’t no beating around the bush. They’re goodpeople.”

Norman also pointed out that few other area sawmills have beenas steady as Columbus Lumber.

“Other mills, they full up and tell you to go to the house,” hesaid. “Columbus Lumber has always worked with you and tried to keepyou working. Columbus Lumber is for the working man.”

Jeff Lea, owner of Jeff Lea Logging, said other area mills havelittle room to take on more timber when the lumber they’reproducing really isn’t moving in the historically wretched market.With fewer places to viably deliver timber, Lea’s wondering justhow much work he’ll try to take on in the coming months.

“I had two or three tracts of land I was going to bid on, but Idon’t know if I’m gonna bid or not,” he said. “There’s not thatmany outlets anymore. You just have to haul it to whoever’s open,and we don’t know from one day to the next – especially after lastThursday.”

Gordon Redd Lumber Co. is still open and operating its sawmill,but owner Gordon Redd said his custom cutting operation is quitedifferent from Columbus Lumber’s mass output. Columbus Lumber is adimension mill, cutting thousands of board feet of pre-sizedlumber, while Redd’s sawmill handles specialty cuts. The specialtymarket, he said, has much lower production, and accordingly takesin far less timber.

“We can’t take on the extra amount of logs (loggers) need toproduce to keep up their obligations,” Redd said. “(ColumbusLumber’s closure) is going to put a lot of loggers out of business.The more loggers that go out, the less people who can producetimber for the mills that are left. It’s a bad deal. I hate it forthe mill, the loggers, the whole town.”

A forestry business doesn’t have to be on the cutting end oftimber and lumber to feel the waves caused by Columbus Lumber’sclosing. Phillips Bark Processing Co. – which makes mulches andpotting soil from woodchips – bought supplies from the sawmill bythe carload, and now owner David Phillips said his company is”scrambling” to find a replacement supplier. Around 15 percent ofthe company’s total intake of woodchips came from the closed mill,he said.

“We’re going to lose about 500 loads per year of raw material,”Phillips said. “There’s an operation in East Mississippi willing tosell us some material, and we’re looking at some other sources inCopiah County … but with the timber industry in such disarray,we’re afraid the material may not even be available to completelyreplace 500 loads. The production is not out there to coverthis.”

Naturally, with one less lumber producer and the threat of afurther reduction in suppliers, local lumber sales stand to take ahit as well. Home Hardware Center’s Gary Richardson said ColumbusLumber supplied all his store’s 15 locations in Louisiana andMississippi with product.

“We bought solely from them, and we’re having to do somescrambling, buddy, trying to find new sources,” he said. “It wasnever an issue until the other day when we got the bomb dropped onus.”

Richardson said company officials are working to locate a newsupplier, but even if one is found, the stores’ tried-and-truelumber selling method will be wrecked. He pointed out that,previously, if a customer needed lumber the store did not have instock, he could drive over to Columbus Lumber, pick up the neededpiece and be back in no time to make the sale. Now, he said theBrookhaven location will have to purchase more inventory and facelonger waiting times for special products.

“As it was, I could order an 18-wheeler load and just about haveit the next day,” Richardson said. “The timeframe of getting stuffin here is going to be a whole different ball game. Columbus Lumberhas been good to us, and we hope something gets worked out se wecan continue to do business with them.”

The future of Columbus Lumber is still up in the air, butsawmill co-owners Jeff Grierson and Doug Boykin said they arenegotiating “feverishly” with their prime lender, the Bank ofAmerica, trying to find a solution to reopen the mill.

Grierson cautioned Monday that it was far too early to tell, buthe believes there is hope for the discussion.

“I sense that the bank thinks it’s in the best interest of allparties to get Columbus Lumber up and running again, and I couldn’tagree more,” he said. “Doug and I will do everything we can toassist the bank in getting Columbus Lumber back on its feet.”