Saunders Mill's new owners plan greater economic and energy efficiency
Steve LaFreniere pulled into the Saunders Brothers parking lot in Locke Mills a little after 7 Monday evening -- 15 hours and 300 miles after leaving home in Howland. Along the way he had stopped for business meetings in Rockland, Portland, Alfred, Sanford, Fryeburg.
“I love to work,” the new co-owner of the local turning mill said.
Good thing, because he had plenty of that waiting for him here Monday, where he spent his next three hours buried in the ongoing effort to unscramble the mill's chaotic records.
The mess was neither deliberate nor the work of the mill's former owners, he said, but of the foreclosure agent used by the bank that shut down the mill.
“It was unreal,” he said. “All the important documents you need to run a business were put in boxes, sealed up, stashed away under other boxes, and put on pallets.”
And, he added, “the computers were swept.”
Among the missing were customer lists and the tracking numbers needed to coordinate customers with completed job lots and jobs in progress.
“It's amazing how much work was in process,” LaFreniere said, “but I guess when they shut these mills down they don't think of opening them up again.”
Re-tooled product line
When Saunders Brothers does get up and running again, LaFreniere said, he and his partner, Louise Jonaitis, want its product line to be more economically efficient, and its physical plant to be more energy efficient.
The mill's product line had been broad. In addition to dowels and rolling pins, Jonaitis said, it included: “handles for tools, thousands of paint-brush handles, duck calls, parts for novelty items, the wood parts for little weaving looms, toy parts, honey-dip sticks.”
And it was sold, she said, by merchants ranging from Wal-Mart to the more upscale J.K. Adams and William Sonoma.
But not all of those products made much profit, her partner said, and that's a problem only growing worse as competition increases from low-cost producers in Asia and elsewhere.
That competition is especially keen in labor-intensive industries such as woodworking.
“They can produce products at a lot lower cost per unit than we can,” he said, so the company's product line needs to be culled to items that be manufactured at a competitive cost.
And it always helps to eliminate layers of middle men, he said.
“We're looking to develop a core group of product we can market direct to wholesalers or to the companies that actually market those products: the big catalogs and such,” LaFreniere said.
The overall plan and marketing strategy is still a work in progress, he said, but “it will go beyond rolling pins.”
For example, the company is looking at bundling some products, so customers can make gift packages, he said.
And, whenever possible, selling direct to end users.
On the energy front, LaFreniere said that in a woodworking mill, dust collection is “a very expensive system to operate,” and the plant's current centralized system is far from energy efficient.
An energy consultant hired by the new owners is studying the feasibility of replacing it with an individual bagging station for each workstation.
Also under study is the possibility of replacing the mill boiler, which must run (and be attended) 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a more modern boiler that could operate in eight-hour shifts, five days a week.
Monday night, after completing his own three-hour shift in Locke Mills (good progress is being made on the records front, he reports), LaFreniere got back in his truck and drove the 165 miles home to Howland.