Townsend Lumber’s Next Generation
Laura Townsend has worked in her family’s lumber business for as long as she can remember. As a kid, she swept sawdust and cleaned washrooms. When she got older, she worked in the office, and attended business meetings. This past January, Laura took on her biggest challenge yet. At 34 years of age, she became owner of Townsend Lumber. Her husband, 36-year-old Mike Penner, is co-owner.
“Few businesses make it to the third generation,” says Laura. “When my dad (David Townsend) started talking about retirement a few years ago, Mike and I started to give serious thought to succeeding him. In the end, we realized that moving into an ownership role likely wouldn’t be too different from what we’d been doing.”
In the role of controller since 2010, Laura was already overseeing the finance, human resources and information technology needs of the Townsend companies; Mike, meanwhile, had been working on the operations side since 2013.
“I’m a chartered accountant, and Mike is a former general contractor superintendent,” says Laura. “So we complement each other.”
While the transition in leadership has been a smooth one so far, Mike and Laura know there’s a lot at stake in their new venture. Not only is their own financial future on the line, they also have 150 employees and their families to consider.
“At any given time we can have 10 million dollars of product in the pipeline and three million dollars of inventory sitting in the yard,” says Mike. “There’s a lot of pressure to make good decisions.”
Pressure, indeed. Townsend Lumber Inc., is not only one of the largest employers in the area, it’s the largest hardwood sawmill and kiln- drying facility in the province, producing more than 24 million board feet of lumber per year. Another mill, Kitchener Forest Products, is also part of the family holdings.
“The lumber industry can be unpredictable at the best of times,” explains Mike. “The timeframe between sourcing timber and producing a saleable product is a long one, so there’s not a lot of room for error. Finding ways to minimize financial risk is a big part of the job.”
“When my dad invented the Breeze Dried Stick in 1994, it was a huge leap forward,” says Laura proudly. “Airflow is important when lumber is stacked to avoid staining and product damage. Dad’s patented design used diagonal ridges to maximize airflow and cut kiln- drying costs by up to 50 percent. It revolutionized not only our business, but the entire industry.”
Today, the manufacture and sale of Breeze Dried sticks has become a profitable business in its own right.
The BreezeWood Floors division, created in 1999, has become a leading manufacturer of solid hardwood flooring.
“We offer a 100 percent Canadian product,” says Mike. “People in Tillsonburg can buy a floor that may have literally come from 20 km away, making for an extremely low carbon footprint.”
“We used to send our flooring to a facility in Toronto for finishing,” adds Laura. “But then we invested in our own finishing line. It means we now have complete control over the quality of our product.”
Today, you can buy the Breeze- Wood product in retail stores in Tillsonburg, Kitchener and Orillia, and at www.breezewoodfloors.ca.
“A big part of the Townsend Lumber story is its commitment to environmental stewardship,” says Karen Keller, Sales and Marketing Manager. “We are certified by the Forest Steward Council and the Rainforest Alliance, and only buy logs from local woodlots that have been responsibly harvested. ”
“I’d say ninety-five percent of our timber is bought from private landowners within a 250 km radius. The rest is bought from area conservation authorities as part of their forest management programs,” says Mike.
Over the years, the Townsend family has diversified its operations to ensure that all byproducts from the facility are used in some way.
“In addition to kiln-dried lumber and flooring, we also produce precut pallet and packaging components, deck and stall materials, fencing, trim, moldings, mulch, woodchips, wood shavings and sawdust,” says Mike. “Our ParkMat product is a used as a ground cover in playgrounds.”
The company also offers a host of value-added remanufacturing services, such as beveling, notching, drilling and contour sawing.
All in all, the business is a far cry from what it was back in 1959, when Laura’s grandfather Robert, and his friend, Bert Abbott invested in a travelling sawmill.
In the beginning, the two tobacco farmers had no aspirations beyond making a bit of money during the winter months. Over time, however, they began to see the potential of the business. Soon, Abbott and Townsend’s lumber was being used in everything from furniture manufacturing to the new Toronto Subway system.
In 1970, they built a stationary sawmill near Glen Meyer. After a devastating fire in 1984 razed the facility, Robert and Bert’s sons, David and Murray, made the decision to rebuild at a new location. Less than a year later, Abbott and Townsend Lumber opened on Jackson Side Road and Highway 3, just east of Tillsonburg.
By the late 1980s, the Abbott family had moved on to other ventures, and Laura’s father, David, was in sole control of the enterprise, now known as simply Townsend Lumber. The next 25 years were a time of steady growth and expansion.
“My dad’s entrepreneurial vision definitely made the business what it is today,” says Laura.
As for the future, Mike and Laura are optimistic.
“We want to be here for many years to come,” says Mike. “It’s important to us personally, but it’s also important for the community around us.”
“My dad still likes to come in and see how we’re doing,” says Laura with a smile, “but overall, I think he knows the business is in good hands.”