Good 'Ole Rockytop
Tennessee Company Offers Customers S4S Boards and Unique Woodgrain Patterns
by Samantha Carpenter
Just 30 miles west of Nashville in Burns, Tenn., stands Middle Tennessee Lumber (MTL) Co.
The company began operations in the 1920s under the name of Tennessee Lumber Co. of Nashville. “It was a pretty large company; it owned quite a bit of land and saw mills,” said Bill Joyce, president of MTL.
“When I came around, there were two guys involved with the company, they were both in their 70s, and they were trying to divest the timberlands and the sawmills, which they sold off to different parties. Then they were left with this one concentration yard [the MTL site] which was moved here in 1967. And then we bought it in 1985. We operated it the same way for a few years, and as we made a little money, we just put it back in and added some dry kilns,” said Joyce.
The MTL facility is located on 30 acres, and the company employs approximately 100 employees. The company runs one shift, Monday through Friday, and employees typically work 40 hours a week.
MTL’s primary customers are the two-step distributors who sell to retail yards. The company’s biggest customers are softwood distributors.
MTL offers distributors a variety of millwork products, such as S4S boards, 80 percent of which are made from Appalachian lumber from the middle-Tennessee area. “The oak has rich, tight grain that is demanded in many markets. The consistent, even color makes it easier to match staves in panels for demanding consumers. Poplar products generally are white to light green in color. As a result of our poplar colors, many customers stain it to resemble other woods, such as cherry or maple,” said Tim Ellrich, national sales manager for machined products.
But MTL doesn’t just work with lumber from the local area. “We bring in exotics too from overseas. We offer a wide range of species, anywhere from mahogany to Brazilian cherry to teak,” said Mike Lewis, vice president.
In addition to S4S boards, the company manufactures cabinet grilles, cabinet crowns and architectural mouldings. For the future, MTL is considering orchestrating a short-board program. “Basically, S4S boards but 3 feet through 6 feet,” said Lewis.
“We have some customers who have a unique pattern that they buy from us, which we don’t sell to everybody,” said Ellrich.
He continued, “Some of our distributors buy moulding patterns from us that are indigenous to their area. It’s not a real big business with us. There are other companies who just focus on that.”
Most of MTL’s millwork products are shipped east of the Mississippi. “The company is pretty well spread out in the Northeast, the Midwest and the South. It does a little bit of business in the West,” said Lewis.
Mike Lewis and Ron Riggs work with the company's digital scanner.
In an effort to maintain quality, the company has a strict process for quality control and even has a process for making sure employees are anxious to adhere to it.
“The process is we get it from a sawmill—green. Then it is graded out there one time to National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) standards and then it is placed on sticks and it is put in the kiln. When it comes out of the kiln, it gets graded again to look for kiln defects … by the time it gets to the millwork, it’s pretty much ready to go, and we have a group of people who grade each individual piece of millwork based on the particular standards for that run,” said Ellrich.
“The bonuses the employees receive are linked to the quality. So if a customer isn’t happy with it, and we have to credit them with something, that comes right out of their [the employees’] bonuses.
We’ve tried a number of things, and that seems to work the best.We have written standards for each product that we manufacture, and it’s the same people grading it all the time,” said Lewis.
MTL uses a variety of machinery. The company has a Group 7 Rip Optimization, which grades both sides of the boards; two arbor saws; two Weinig molders; a Western Pneumatic finger jointer; and a Taylor Clamp carrier.
Asked when the company has problems with its machinery, what does it do to solve those problems, Lewis said, “We have three on-site maintenance employees, and they work really hard. We have a preventive maintenance program, which lets us know what has to be done. There are always going to be breakdowns, but they get right on it and do what needs to be done.”
Left: Employees put on protective packaging for S4S boards. Right: Molder-ready blanks come off new gang-grip
What does MTL do to better serve its customers?
“There’s a number of things. First of all, some of our jobbers want a specific type of packaging, and we accommodate them on that,” said Ellrich.
“I’ve gone up to the jobber’s place of business, and have ridden with representatives. Or I’ll go to an independent’s place and go on a trouble call. I’ll visit a particular customer with them, and I’ll help try to get the problem resolved,” said Ellrich.
Asked if the company has ever gone beyond the call of duty for a jobber, Ellrich said, “We probably do on a weekly basis.”
“A daily basis,” laughed Lewis.
To give you an example of how MTL might go “beyond” for a jobber, Ellrich gave the following scenario: Sometimes a truck is too heavy and the company has to take off a pack. If it’s after hours, the company will go ahead and send the truck up to the customer minus the package. The customer might come back and say, “Hey you took off this one pack, and I need it right away.”
“You can bet that it is going to be sent to him the next day at our expense,” said Ellrich.
MTL has been an associate member of the National Sash and Door Jobbers Association (NSDJA) for four years.
“It has been a tremendous benefit to be a member. The first thing you notice is you get a lot more exposure in the marketplace. You get inquiries from people you never heard from before. The other benefit is that at the conventions you can socialize with the other members and find out what is going on in the market.” said Ellrich.
MTL believes in not only taking care of its products and customers but the company also believes in taking care of its employees. The company offers its employees healthcare benefits, bonuses, 401 K, profit sharing and $25 each year on an employee’s anniversary.
If you have more questions for MTL, visit the company at the upcoming NSDJA convention in San Antonio at booth #1316.
Samantha Carpenter is the editor of SHELTER magazine.
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