- Associated Press - Thursday, March 20, 2014

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - The recent addition of three new kilns to increase capacity has Prime Lumber Co. in a growth mode both in the United States and overseas.

Prime Lumber is based in Thomasville. The company processes and sells hardwoods for use in furniture, architectural millwork, cabinetry, flooring, musical instruments and decorative items. It is owned by business partners Bill Graban and Jeffrey Neidert.

“Anywhere hardwoods are used, we’re involved in it,” Neidert said.

He didn’t give exact numbers but said Prime’s payroll is into the millions each year and that its sales increased 12.4 percent in 2013 compared with 2012.

Exports are 50 percent of Prime Lumber’s business so company officials were honored this month to be named the 2014 N.C. Exporter of the Year by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The award acknowledges businesses that have excelled in exporting agricultural products throughout the world.

“North Carolina exports $3.9 billion of agricultural products annually,” N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said when he presented Graban and Neidert with the award Feb. 6.

When you add forestry products, such as those exported by Prime Lumber, the numbers top the $5 billion mark. Prime Lumber is a great example of the growing number of North Carolina companies finding success on an international stage.’ In 2013, Prime shipped more than 8.5 million board feet overseas, which is more than 600 40-foot shipping containers.

Last year, Butterball Inc. won the award. The 2012 winner was T.W. Garner Food Co.

“We feel like we’re in good company,” Graban said.

Neibert said the competition was stiff as they competed against anybody that exports agricultural products, including softwood and other hardwood companies, and tobacco, pork and poultry companies.

“It’s something we’ll cherish because it’s probably something that happens once in a lifetime,” he said.

Graban and Neidert credited their wives, families, employees, and loyal customers and vendors for the company’s success.

“We have a very little rate of turnover,” Neidert said of the company’s employees.

“We put in just hellacious hours, and we come to work every day to make it happen.” Prime is a major supplier of lumber to Grayson Ferguson Woodworking Inc., based in Lynchburg, Va.

Grayson Ferguson, the company’s president and owner, said that Prime always has the products he needs whenever he calls for something.

“Their biggest asset is that they have just about every species that you could think of - every domestic wood as well as foreign woods and any thickness that you want,” Ferguson said.

A lot of the company’s export business is done in Asia and Northern Europe.

Graban said that when he first started making trips to Asia, he was primarily in Taiwan but business shifted to Hong Kong and is now predominately in China, accounting for Prime’s biggest overseas sales growth.

“It used to be when we shipped lumber to China, they made furniture and sent it back, but in the last five years, that’s changed,” Graban said. “About 75 percent of the lumber we ship stays in China for furniture that they use in products in China. As that population grows and their wealth grows, the middle class is growing exponentially.”

The business partners have known each other since they were students at West Virginia University, where they graduated with bachelor degrees in wood science and technology - Graban in 1980 and Neidert in 1982. After college, both men worked in the wood products industry before forming Prime in 1988 in an 8-by-10-foot office in Jamestown. In 1991, the company moved to Thomasville and leased some property downtown on National Highway.

In 1994, Prime moved to its current 58-acre site on U.S. Highway 64, where 40 full-time employees work. The company has its own trucks for deliveries in six states and ships to many other states. In 2013, the company shipped to 18 different countries. With the addition of its newest kilns, Prime now has a total of eight kilns.

The company has weathered several storms over the past 25 years, including the recent downturn in the housing market, some industry consolidation and the closing of lumber companies within the past five years.

Neidert said Prime was fortunate because it never had to lay off any employees during the recession.

He said that some of the company’s challenges have been government regulations and the fact that some people think that the hardwood-lumber business is just a commodity. He described the hardwood-lumber business as very detailed and capital intensive.

“So you have to sell a lot of volume because you’re working on low margin,” he said.

Prime’s owners said they are committed to achieving conformance to sustainable forestry practices, and that many of their woods are triple-certified through sustainability programs.

“It’s about responsible stewardship and not overcutting the forests,” Neidert said.

He did not give a time frame for the company’s growth plans but said, ‘We’re going to be looking for more steps to add value to our product.’ Graban said they eventually want to add other equipment and more kilns.

“We will be investing more,” Graban said. “It’s just a matter of spreading it over time, but we’re in growing mode.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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