“The WA200s give us the best lifting power, fuel efficiency, pricing, service and dependability”
Tim Bills likes to make things happen. When he was 20, he bought a semi-truck and started a trucking company. Soon, the company expanded to more than 30 trucks, had four divisions and transported building materials, lumber, logs, chips and wood fiber. Among his customers were Fortune 500 companies, such as Home Depot, Georgia-Pacific and Weyerhaeuser. After 20 successful years, Bills decided it was time for another challenge. So, in 2008, after selling the majority of his trucking company, he bought an existing sawmill that was closed in Comins, MI, and opened Michigan Lumber & Wood Fiber, Inc. in 2009.
“When I bought the sawmill, it was in the middle of the recession,” recalled Bills, who is President of the company. “Mills were closing, and people thought I was crazy, but I believed there was an opportunity for me here.”
One area in which he wanted to focus was railroad-tie production. He decided to cold call two of the largest railroad-tie procurers in the industry. After careful consideration and research, Bills decided that Stella-Jones was the preferred company to build a strong relationship with to bring his railroad-tie idea to fruition.
He met with Stella-Jones and told them that he would have product for them. There was just one problem, he promised it prior to opening his mill and before he had any material. To get the supplies, he would have to convince the logging industry to cut 104-inch logs rather than 100-inch pieces – this was another challenge for Bills.
“Michigan was not known for producing railroad ties,” he said. “The ties require 104-inch-long pieces of wood. Michigan is a 100-inch state, meaning all the logging companies were set up to efficiently cut, haul and produce 100-inch pieces. Four inches may not sound like a lot, but no one was set up to do that here, and no one really wanted to change.
“I’m an inquisitive person, so when I was driving a truck, I would always talk to people in different industries,” he explained. “It gave me a lot of insight into various markets and what could be valuable. This helped me get the idea for producing large quantities of railroad ties. It wasn’t easy, but to succeed you have to be determined to get your ideas and plans in front of people.”
Bills’ strategy paid off for him. With lumber sales plummeting, logging companies began cutting 104-inch logs because he was willing to buy them. Normally, shipping the ties would have been a logistical nightmare, but Bills’ 20 years in the trucking industry eliminated that challenge. He was able to ship the railroad ties to Stella-Jones with his flatbed-trucking division, and the help of other flatbed carriers with whom he had built strong relationships during his time in the trucking industry.
“I think one of the biggest problems people have is becoming complacent,” Bills observed. “That’s not an issue for me. I’m always looking for ways to grow. I had an idea that it would work, but it was still a huge risk. I went at it with everything, and it worked out.”
That success helped Bills turn the sawmill, which started with four employees in 2009, into a 44-employee, 24-hour operation that produces approximately 100,000 railroad ties and cuts more than 25 million board feet annually.
Selling to China
Another one of Bills’ greatest undertakings was attempting to sell wood chips to paper plants in China. Again, the idea came from his trucking experience. He knew that transporting empty containers was a financial loss. He also understood that China shipped millions of containers to the United States to drop off goods, so Bills saw an opportunity to fill those empty containers with his wood chips. True to his nature, Bills attacked the idea with everything he had.
“China is one of the largest markets in the world, and it has the biggest paper plants. You need wood to make paper, and Michigan had a lot of it,” he said. “I had no idea how to get started; I didn’t even know that China was 13 hours ahead of us. I started making calls, doing research and asking around to see if anyone had shipped wood chips to China. The most common responses I heard were either no or that I was a dreamer and it was not going to happen.”
If Bills thought he was starting from zero, it’s because that was true. There was no blueprint for his idea. Through hard work, Bills developed contacts and finally made his way to China with several containers of his wood chips and a full slate of meetings with officials at Chinese paper plants. When he returned home, Bills had several agreements to ship his product. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to complete the deals, but it did pave the way for other U.S. companies to ship similar materials to China.
“While it didn’t work out financially for me, I’m still proud of what I accomplished,” Bills stated. “I couldn’t get over the last hurdle to make the deal work, but I completed the groundwork. There are companies today that are benefitting from my effort. The industry is in a better place because of a chance that I took.”
Komatsu and CEC
To keep his operation running smoothly, Bills trusts Komatsu wheel loaders, which he purchased from Continental Equipment Company (CEC) and Sales Rep Mike Swope. Michigan Lumber & Wood Fiber uses five Komatsu WA200 wheel loaders for a variety of jobs in its yard, including servicing the mill, feeding the operation and loading chips and lumber onto trucks.
“The WA200s give us the best lifting power, fuel efficiency, pricing, service and dependability,” said Bills. “We’re putting 16-18 hours a day on the machines, and they handle that with no problem. Plus, CEC performs routine maintenance through Komatsu CARE for the first three years or 2,000 hours, so it really was a no-brainer for us to buy Komatsu.
“I don’t think any brand has a machine comparable to the WA200,” he continued. “For its size, power, vision and comfort, it’s the perfect machine for us.”
Bills is not the type of person to just sit around and let things happen, so when he looks to the future, he anticipates growth.
“Certainly, we want to grow, but it has to make sense,” he noted. “I like the size we are at, but I think we’ll keep looking for additional ways to diversify, explore new markets and reach out to new customers. It all goes back to being complacent; if that happens, it’s over. We want to keep moving, and we’ll continue to do that.”