Field Work: At Work Overcoming a Fire with Bob Moses

Field Work: At Work Overcoming a Fire with Bob Moses

Bob Moses, owner of Britton Lumber. Photo by Alice Allen.

Building a second career to follow a very successful first career is a challenge. When those two careers are as different as, say, being an accountant and operating a lumber company, well, that’s downright daunting. But that’s just the professional transition that Bob Moses has pulled off, while overcoming an additional catastrophe along the way.

Moses worked for three decades as a certified public accountant, including 27 years operating his own firm, Robert E. Moses Certified Public Accountants in Lebanon, New Hampshire. But in his mid-50s, he was ready for a change. In February 2013, he sold his accounting firm to Nathan Wechsler & Company of Concord, which retained Moses’ Lebanon office as well as the entire staff.

Coincidentally, around that same time, Moses’ client of 25 years, Doug Britton, was transitioning into retirement and looking to sell his business, Britton Lumber in Fairlee, Vermont. More than just Britton’s accountant, Moses had become good friends not only with the lumber company owner, but also a large number of the Britton work force. They shared many of the same interests, especially a love of the Red Sox and other New England teams. Instead of dreading visits from the accountant, Doug Britton and his staff looked forward to visits from Bob Moses.

The feeling was clearly mutual. Moses “took a risk” and called Britton to see if he would be interested in selling Britton Lumber Company to his family. Moses had always been interested in managing a larger business, especially one that manufactured a product. Britton Lumber seemed like a nice fit as the company not only manufactured eastern white pine boards, it also distributed the manufactured lumber and a whole array of building materials throughout northern New England, Massachusetts, and upstate New York.

On January 1, 2014, the sale was completed and Moses took ownership of Britton Lumber Company. “I was lucky that the timing worked out. I didn’t want to retire, I just wanted to be involved with a different business,” said Moses. As Moses stayed on through 2013 to help Nathan Wechsler, Doug Britton stayed on through 2014 to advise and assist Moses. “Doug Britton was very generous with his time and commitment to me and has been critical to the ongoing success of Britton Lumber. I had much to learn about the operations of the company and Doug was there to help and guide me all along the way in the first year of my ownership,” said Moses.

Field Work: At Work Overcoming a Fire with Bob Moses Image

The newly expanded planer mill building at the company’s Bath, New Hampshire, location. Photo courtesy of Britton Lumber.

While there was a steep learning curve to get up to speed in the lumber business, things were about to become even more challenging. Fifteen months into Moses’ ownership of the company, Britton Lumber lost its sawmill to a multi-alarm fire. The fire and the aftermath are what Moses calls “the biggest challenge of my lifetime.”

Directly after the fire, Britton Lumber was forced to lay off 12 employees, but the experience had a direct and dramatic effect on all of the company’s 60 employees at the time, according to Moses. “It was a very stressful time for the company,” he says. And for him personally. “I learned more about the intricacies of insurance then I ever imagined possible during the year following the fire,” said Moses, “and I did wonder, especially as time wore on, whether we could ever close the circle with the insurance company and continue to operate a sawmill.”

Fortunately, in the competitive but tightly knit forest products industry, there were those who stepped forward to offer a helping hand. Moses says he is indebted to Cersosimo Lumber for providing kiln-dried lumber from its Hartland, Vermont, facility. A team of Britton Lumber employees traveled to Hartland each day to sort and grade lumber as it came out of the Cersosimo kilns and Britton’s trucks arrived virtually every day to transport the lumber back to Fairlee. This allowed Britton to keep its planermill fully operational. While it was no longer able to do its own sawing, Britton Lumber hardly skipped a beat in terms of production.

Given the time that would be required and the complexities of rebuilding the sawmill on the same flood zone site near the Connecticut River, Moses began to look for other options. He was soon approached about acquiring H.G. Wood Industries, which operated a sawmill, planer mill, and kilns on roughly 38 acres in Bath, New Hampshire.

“We did work with architects and mill designers to see about rebuilding, but at the end of the day purchasing H.G. Wood was the better opportunity with a lower risk,” Moses concluded. “Rather than enduring a two-year-plus construction project, we could be back manufacturing within 16 months post-fire with a combined work force from both locations.”

Field Work: At Work Overcoming a Fire with Bob Moses Image

White pine. Photo by Alice Allen.

Britton Lumber purchases most of its logs – about $3 million worth annually – from the Connecticut River Valley region that encompasses parts of New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s the quality of the white pine in this area that helped establish the reputation for the Britton Lumber product, said Moses. Today, those logs are shipped to the newly purchased facility in Bath, New Hampshire, where they are processed. Britton’s wholesale distribution division in Fairlee, Vermont, then receives about 50 percent of the manufactured pine boards milled in Bath, and from there they are delivered to retail lumber yards throughout the Northeast. The remaining 50 percent is sold into various markets throughout the rest of the US, as well as internationally.

Every bit of every log is used, Moses emphasizes. From the bark to the sawdust to the shavings, nothing is wasted. The bark is sold to local landscapers. For the most part, the sawdust produced is used to heat the kilns. The shavings (as well as any excess sawdust) are sold primarily for agricultural purposes. The chips are sold to paper mills or into the biomass market.

These days, Britton Lumber has 30 employees in both New Hampshire and Vermont, and five more at a satellite wholesale distribution yard in Gray, Maine. Britton Lumber operates a total of 10 trucks among the three states, with two new leased Freightliners about to hit the road, as well.

“We’re all in it together,” says Moses of the company’s employees, explaining that he tries to get to know them all and takes a team approach to managing the business. Like his work as an accountant, he says that the lumber business is really a people business. “It’s all about maintaining relationships,” he emphasizes. “One of my main goals is to maintain the respect that Britton Lumber has earned over the past 71 years.”

Of course, he’s also working to build on that reputation. That has included using the insurance money from the fire to invest in efficiencies at the new location in Bath, most notably construction of a 15,000 square-foot storage building, the addition of a 7,500 square-foot addition to the front of the planermill, and renovation of the existing facility, including adding some employee-friendly amenities such as heat, automatic garage doors, and upgraded restroom facilities. The company has also been studying how to improve and upgrade its sawmill facilities – the first project in this regard, which came online in June, was a software upgrade at the head saw in order to optimize yield from each log.

The plan is to increase production at the mill from about 8.2 million board feet per year to 10.5-11 million board feet per year within the next two years.

At the same time, Moses does not want to understate the complexities or difficulties of the lumber business – whether wholesale distribution or manufacturing. “Both of our lines of business are highly competitive,” he says.

Britton’s manufacturing/sawmill division has been affected along with many in the forestry industry by the loss of paper mills and by low prices for many softwood products. “The price received for our sawmill chips has fallen by more than a third over the past year or so, which of course has had an impact on our manufacturing cash flow,” explains Moses. The wholesale distribution business success is driven by a high volume, low margin business model. Many products distributed by Britton are commodity based, and this year the softwood lumber dispute between the United States and Canada has added another degree of complexity. “We are fortunate to have experienced personnel working for Britton; that has allowed us to not only manage our own inventories, but to advise our customers on the never ending fluctuating markets,” says Moses.

For Moses, the transition to the lumber business has been a trial by fire, literally. “I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I’ve had my doubts about my new career during the last two and a half years after our sawmill fire,” he says. “It has been a challenging period to say the least. However, I believe we’re back on track and I couldn’t be more pleased that Britton now has operations and employees located in all three northern New England states.”

Retired dairy farmer Alice Allen maintains her avid interest in all forestry, agricultural, and environmental topics.

Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.

 
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