By Alex Cummings
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree for C.S. Fitzgerald II of Buena Vista.
Fitzgerald, 43, is a third-generation sawmill operator of his family’s lumber and logging business, Fitzgerald Lumber and Log Company Inc., with locations in both Buena Vista and Fairfield.
He claims not much has changed when it comes to harvesting timber in the Appalachian area.
“You still make lumber pretty much the same way you did 50 or 60 years ago,” Fitzgerald said. “To me, it’s just an honor to carry on a tradition that my grandfather picked up on in the 1950s.”
The family’s ability of the Fitzgeralds to keep with tradition while keeping up with changing technology is a formula that helps them not only withstand tough economic times, but also stand out among competitors.
“Big sawmills don’t take the time to do big custom orders for small companies like mine,” says local agricultural contractor Mike Fauber. “Fitzgerald does. He’s always willing to help the local businesses and people.”
Yet this kind of service comes at a cost for Fitzgerald, whose business has been rocked by the housing market collapse in 2008. Because of lower demand, the overall value of lumber dropped.
“A few years ago I could buy a clear, 20-inch red oak log and pay $1 per foot,” Fitzgerald said. “Today that same log is only worth 60 cents per foot.”
His solution? Work harder and cut more logs. Fitzgerald says 50-hour workweeks are not uncommon, even with the mill’s most up-to-date technology.
For example, the company recently upgraded from bulky circle circular saws to thinner band saws, which run about $800 each and require yearly replacement.
“You get more yield out of a log with a thinner saw blade,” says saw mechanic David Liptrap. “Plus there’s less sawdust, or waste product, to deal with.”
According to Fitzgerald’s father and company co-founder, the original 1950s hand-mill could process up to 15,000 board feet (the standard unit of measurement based on the wood’s width, length and thickness) per day. By 1974, that number jumped to roughly 24,000 with his purchased the sawmill he bought. Today, the modern blade saws can churn out 55,000 board feet daily at the Buena Vista location alone. The younger Fitzgerald estimates the company’s annual gross revenue is $17 million.
“We’re very fortunate that we can get by with less people because of our modernized equipment,” Fitzgerald said. However, rising maintenance costs prevent the company, which employs 80 workers, from seeing much profit.
“Four years ago our electricity bill was $4,500 per month,” says Log Procurer Paul Evans, who specializes in assessing and buying logs for the mills. “Now our average bill runs us about $10,000 per month. Add $15,000 on top of that for natural gas.”
Transportation costs are also high. Fitzgerald’s 11-truck fleet sets him back about $16,000 per week.
“Are we making money? No,” Fitzgerald said “Are we breaking even? Probably.”
One way the company has countered the weak U.S. housing market is by seeking out new markets.
“The domestic market is almost nonexistent now for the lumber we produce,” Evans said. “Reaching out to the oversees market has helped us quite a bit.”
In the past seven years, the company added six dry kiln machines to the Buena Vista mill to boost overseas sales. A kiln is an oven that uses controlled temperatures to dry the wood.
“The kilns have really helped us find more places to sell our lumber,” Fitzgerald said. “Before the kilns, we had to ship the wood while it was still wet,” which required more work for the client.
“We can eliminate that extra step for the customer and sell the wood at a [higher] price, which gives us more revenue,” he added.
About 70 percent of the company’s lumber is now exported to Italy, Great Britain and Asia, thanks to the kilns.
“We rarely have a huge inventory of lumber,” Evans said. “We sometimes have to even purchase lumber from other mills to keep up with our demands.”
Even so, Fitzgerald is uncertain about the future of his family’s company, given the current transportation and manufacturing costs.
“We’re surviving,” he said. “But right now, nothing makes me happier than seeing the Fitzgerald logo on the lumber when it’s getting ready to be shipped. That logo stands for 40 years of hard work and dedication by Fitzgerald Lumber.”