Story by Rich Donnell,
We returned from the machinery show in Atlanta in a good mood. Despite the current housing quagmire, most exhibitors we talked to were pleased with the event and especially at the presence of the many sawmill owners and managers who seemed to be looking to make improvements to their mills. After all, there’s only so much you can do to improve the efficiencies in a mill before the time comes when you have to upgrade the iron, or at least improve some of the controls and optimization.
As I walked the show floor, I had to ask myself what this event would be like if housing starts were at 2 million, like they were in 2005, as opposed to the 550,000 annual we’re seeing now. Okay, just 1 million. It would still feel like we had “died and gone to heaven.”
There was a kind of survival-of-the-fittest spirit that encompassed the exhibit floor. Everybody there was a survivor. Some are probably barely hanging on, but hanging on nonetheless. No small accomplishment in these times.
Unfortunately, just after we returned to the office and told our friends about the good atmosphere in Atlanta, we heard about Coastal Lumber Co.
The situation may have already changed since I’ve written this, but Coastal Lumber Co., as of mid-August, had ceased operations. CEO and owner Victor Barringer pointed to the economic downturn and a failed effort to gain a new financing plan as the reasons. Barringer left the door ajar for another financing plan.
The Charlottesville, Va.-based company shut down its hardwood sawmills in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina and laid off 350 employees, including executive positions at the Virginia office. On its web site, Coastal Lumber stated it produced more than 90MMBF of hardwood lumber each year and operated more than 25 dry kilns. Our magazine has published articles on many of its sawmills. Personally I visited the sawmills in Weldon, NC and Hopwood, Pa. many years ago.
Coastal Lumber was started by Victor C. Barringer, the grandfather of the present owner. Barringer was a forester for Sumter Hardwood Co. in Sumter, SC before going out on his own and starting Coastal Lumber in 1937 in Lake City, SC. In the late 1940s the Lake City mill was sold and a new mill was started in Weldon, which was a railroad center located on the main line of the Atlantic Coast and Seaboard Air Line railroads. Construction of the Weldon mill was completed in 1949. Barringer brought in Steve Conger as sales manager.
In 1959, Victor Barringer’s son, Paul, with R.G. Bell and Conger bought the Weldon mill from Victor. This became the springboard for acquisition and construction that grew into the modern era Coastal Lumber Co. Fast forward to 2004, following years of sawmill growth, the creation of subsidiaries to distinguish between the various businesses was completed and Coastal Lumber Co. became an independent entity under the leadership of the third generation of the family to guide it.
Such depressing news has really rocked our industry and we can only hope that Coastal Lumber regains its pulse, whether supported by the existing ownership or an influx of new ownership.