It’s Next Up For Many Independent Sawmills

Article by Rich Donnell, Editor-in-Chief, Timber Processing May 2021

The cover story for this issue, on Dempsey Wood Products in Orangeburg, SC, provides further evidence that I am aging quickly. But in a good way. What I mean is, is that the current patriarch of the company, Ronald Dempsey, who is roughly my age, has passed along leadership of the company to his son, Parker, who is roughly the age of our editor, Jessica Johnson, who recently visited the mill and wrote the article. I’m seeing this pattern with more and more stories that we do—the guy I knew back in the day is now in the background, while his son (or daughter) is taking charge; so why shouldn’t I send an editor who is the next generation as well, and they can communicate in the 30- something way that the next generation communicates. The important thing is, is that another great article on their company appears in our magazine.

The first time we visited them, in 1989, Ronald only several months previous had started up a combination chip mill/scragg mill mostly hardwood production operation near Orangeburg. He had left his employment at Stone Container late the previous year. He had stayed with Stone when Stone had purchased his family’s lumber business, Dean-Dempsey Lumber, in 1983 which included two grade hardwood mills, a pine sawmill and several satellite chip mills. Dempsey Wood Products, meanwhile, under Ronald and Parker’s guidance, has transformed into a high production, high technology southern pine sawmill, especially since Parker entered the picture.

Perhaps the bigger picture I want to get across is that the U.S. lumber industry is in the middle of a changing of the guard. I’m not referring to the dozens and dozens of former independent sawmill operations now owned by Canadian corporations. I’m referring to the existing independent, family owned sawmill operations whose leadership is transitioning from dads like Ronald Dempsey to sons like Parker Dempsey.

This has showed up in some of the articles we’ve done in recent years on Jordan Lumber, Burt Lumber, Vaagen Bros., Rex Lumber and the list goes on. Of course many of these independents have been through several “changing of the guards,” because they’re in their third or even fourth generation. And for some the “changing” happens sooner than for others. In a way they’re always preparing for this moment.

From the outside looking in, as one who has known most of the older guard, it’s pretty cool to observe when this transition kicks in. For sure, the new breed is experiencing two things their dads didn’t: the pandemic and unprecedented lumber prices. Mostly likely, both of those phenomena will go away.

I would imagine there was some regret for the independents who sold their businesses to Canadian corporations. Certainly each of them had their own set of circumstances that enticed them to sell. Perhaps the next generation wasn’t interested. But based on what we’ve read and heard, it was well worth it, financially; though I’m sure several are wondering what it would have been like to still be in business with these lumber prices.

Though we lost many independents to Canada, I’m not sure we’ve reached the point of calling those who remain a dying breed. There seems to be a healthy number of them still going strong, under the leadership of younger and, let’s face it, smarter men and women than their elders were. Our industry is better for it.

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