THERE IS NO RUSH AT GENERAL TIMBER
In Clement Williams’ world of treating wood for high-quality fencing for the equine and agriculture interests, if the process isn’t broken, there is no sense in fixing it. His company, General Timber, which he co-owns with his brother, Art, has been producing fencing since the early 1970’s.
“We don’t change they way we do things,” stated Clement. “You got to do it the same way every time to make it work.”
Located on 31 acres in Sanford, North Carolina, General Timber was first started in the late 1970’s by Joe Dowdy. Clement delivered wood to Dowdy for years while working for his dad, Arthur Williams, who owned and operated a sawmill located in Moore County dating back to the 1940’s.
And then, in a matter of a phone call – Clement went from supplier to operator.
“Out of the blue one day, Joe called me up and told me he was selling out,” stated Clement. “He wanted us to have the first opportunity. It sort of blew me away because I didn’t know anything about the treating world.”
Clement decided that if he was going to make this plunge, he was going to get his feet wet a bit before he would make such a commitment. He spent a month overseeing the operations to see what exactly went into the business.
Clement and Art agreed to purchase General Timber in 1988.
“When they decided to go in together to buy this place 22 years ago, it was a pretty daunting proposition,” reflected Greg Williams, who works at General Timber and is Clement’s oldest son. “I am not really sure they knew what they were getting into.”
In a nutshell, General Timber produces treated fence posts and rails for the non-residential marketplace. The company treats its fencing with two chemicals – CCA and creosote. The fencing ranges from six to 30 feet in length. While their customer base is fairly specialized, the company’s range is far reaching, spanning from Louisiana to New York.
General Timber sells directly to customers as well as fulfilling corporate orders for large agriculture supply companies such as Southern States. The company recorded over four million dollars in sales last year, which is an impressive figure considering the company does not employ a true outside salesman.
“The product kind of sells itself,” noted Greg Williams. “It’s a unique product in that when the fences start going up, people start asking, ‘Where did that come from?’ And it kind of snowballs from there.”
How unique is the product? Well, General Timber is one of the few facilities left in North Carolina that is approved to manufacture creosote fencing, which is a testimony not only to the uniqueness of the product but also to the diligence Art and Greg have put into their pro-active compliance efforts with state and federal environmental agencies.
“We have complied with them every step of the way,” stated Clement. “We have a good relationship with EPA folks from Raleigh to Atlanta.”
In the initial stages, General Timber is like many small sawmills. The company purchases tree length timber from various sources. Clement acknowledges that their demand is not going to put them at the top of any one supplier’s list, but they maintain several longtime relationships that generate enough wood.
“We have longtime relationships with people that we have been buying from,” stated Clement. “When times get tight, we keep buying. And then when everyone is trying to bring it in, we try to stay competitive.”
Once timber arrives, it is merchandised and then debarked.
“We don’t waste anything here,” stated Greg who has been at General Timber since 1988. “We sell the bark to landscapers. We burn the chips for fuel. The area chicken farmers use the shavings.”
Once the timber has been debarked and cut for sizing, it is sent to the next stage in production. The fence poles are then produced to the customer’s needs. Some will be cut in half for a split-face fence pole while other poles will be drilled with holes.
The split-face pole allows the consumer to attach flat boards securely on the flat portion of the fence pole, saving costs on the amount of pole that need to be purchased.
General Timber features a one-of-a-kind three-hole post machine that was custom built in New York nearly five years ago based on the feedback from a customer who was tired of piecing square ends of wooden fencing into round holes on the fence post. Couldn’t someone create a fence post with square holes?
Basically, the pole is clamped into the machine and three chainsaws bore rectangles into the pole as opposed to the rounded holes that are created by circular boring drills. The rectangle shape makes it easy to lodge the ends of fencing poles into the posts.
“It is a very labor intensive product, but the horse people absolutely just eat it up with a spoon because nobody else makes it but us,” stated Greg as he points to the unique machine.
Fencing is dried both naturally out in the wood yard or via a dry-kiln on the property. In some unique cases of high demand or special orders, the fencing may skip the drying process and head directly into the treating process.
At General Timber, there are two treatment cylinders. Each cylinder resembles a submarine with an entry hatch on one end. The CCA cylinder is 120 feet long and six feet in diameter while the creosote container is 80 feet long and six foot in diameter.
To treat the wood, “charges” are built which means a series of trolley cars are matched together to equal the length of the respective cylinders with wood bundled into a cylindrical shape. The charge is then rolled into the cylinder.
“The materials go in and are put in under vacuum,” explained Greg. “The wood becomes thirsty. Then it is completely submerged and put under pressure and pounded in there.”
The process time for each charge takes six hours.
“This is not a rapid process, here,” stated Greg with a smile and pointing to the two cylinders.
In both cases, the treating chemicals in each of these tubes are potentially dangerous and are strictly scrutinized and regulated by the EPA.
With CCA, General Timber is permitted to sell its products for non-residential purposes ONLY based on report a few years back that cast a shadow of doubt on the use of CCA in playground materials despite the 30-plus year record of CCA use in both commercial and residential uses with no documented negative consequences.
The ban did not really impact General Timber in terms of customers, but they now must get some of their smaller fencing treated at another facility. Any wood product with dimensions less than four inches, such as a one by six, cannot be treated with CCA.
“We have to haul all of our fencing boards to another company in Mt. Gilead to get treated with the ACQ treating, which is the new acceptable treating,” explained Clement. “That’s been sort of a burden, but it’s nothing you cannot overcome. It just costs more money to haul it over there and then go back get it, but you got to do what you got to do.”
While the fence posts and poles treated with CCA have a familiar green hue to them, the materials soaked in creosote are covered in the black, oil-based material that has been a staple on the American railroad for generations. Creosote, while difficult to work with, is revered for its longevity among horse enthusiast and farmers.
“People who know creosote, want it,” stated Greg, noting the different perspectives on they types of treated wood. “In most cases, their daddy used it, and his daddy used it.”
Creosote is phototoxic, meaning it will react with the sun and produce third degree burns if were to end up on flesh. Fence installers that specialize in working with creosote cover themselves from head to toe in clothing, protective gloves and boots, and even Vaseline on the face to maintain a line of defense while installing the fencing.
The tracks where the creosote charges are assembled are cleaned once a week and a special metal liner was installed underneath the tracks several years ago in compliance with an EPA requirement so no creosote would end up in the soil.
This caustic attribute may be a hindrance to the fence installer or a deterrent to a farmer, but it is one of the redeeming qualities in the eyes of the horse breeder. By nature, horses like to rub their top teeth on wood fencing – wood fencing that is not treated with creosote, that is.
“The horse people have kept us afloat,” stated Greg. “There’s no question about it, that’s a strong industry.”
Once the fencing has been treated, it is ready to be shipped to its final destination.
“The Amish really love our stuff that kind of tells you a little something about what we’re about,” stated Greg.
While the Amish may admire the products leaving General Timber, most folks would respect the work ethic that permeates the company, starting with its leader, Clement Williams.
Clement, who is 68, enjoys coming to work each day and has no plans for retiring.
“No, I need another job, I have four children and 12 grandchildren,” joked Clement, who has been married to wife, Barbara, since 1963.
The company currently employs 22 people and has never had a workforce higher than 25. Last year, General Timber was recognized by Forestry Mutual Insurance Company for its outstanding safety record with an E.K. Pitman Safety Award for the Manufacturing Company of the Year.
Clement credits his company’s safety record to a common sense approach to business on a daily basis, and he strives not micro-manage the operations of his company.
“A man knows his job and what he’s got to do,” explained Clement. “Everybody has been here for a while. We inherited some people that were here before I was here. We have really great employees. They like to come to work here.”
One employee who enjoys coming to work each day is Greg Williams.
“Family business is always tricky, but I am blessed to be able to work with my dad every day,” explained Greg when asked about working for his dad. “I have so many friends that I went to school with that lost their fathers while they were in college. To be able to ride with him every day, have coffee, and talk about our business. It’s gratifying.”
“There are days like you feel like a son,” continued Greg. “Sort of like in the coach’s son syndrome: There is a lot more expected out of you when you are family member, but I guess that’s what it will always be.”
For the Williams family, the forest products industry has always been the vehicle that has put food on the table. The effort and pride they put into their product has been the secret to their success over many years.
“We have been fortunate,” explained Clement. “Business wise and health wise.”
When asked what the most satisfying aspect of his operations is, Clement looked no further than the fencing that surrounds and marks the entrance to General Timber.
“Putting up a fence and it stays there,” stated Clement. “It’s not like going somewhere and buying something cheap and you are going to have to go back replace it in four or five years. When you put it up, it’s going to be there. A car may run through it, and you might have to patch it back up, but as far as it falling down, it’s not going to happen. Both CCA and creosote have a good reputation.”
And thanks to a patient, calculated, common sense approach to its business, so does General Timber.