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Shuqualak Lumber still cutting successful trail

Shuqualak — Most entrepreneurs face the challenge of starting from nothing. The founders of Shuqualak Lumber, though, did not enjoy that luxury. Nearly 60 years ago when the company opened its doors, it was already in a financial hole. However, after a large amount of sweat equity and future vision by its founders and succeeding owners and management, Shuqualak Lumber now reserves its red ink to highlight all of its successes.

Perhaps the name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but any discussion of profitable, growing, privately-held companies in the Magnolia State must include Shuqualak Lumber. The Southern yellow pine lumber company produces in excess of 100 million board feet of lumber annually, and once again ranks as one of Mississippi’s biggest and best.

“The keys to Shuqualak’s growth have been a committed, hands-on management team, a loyal and dedicated workforce, a commitment to the production of a high-quality product and a continuing investment in technology in order to maximize the utilization of our raw material,” said company vice president Anderson Thomas, who is the grandson of one of the company’s founders.

Its roots go back to 1948 and three men — C.H. Thomas, Richard E. Prince and E.G. Flora. True entrepreneurs, the trio purchased a small planning mill in the tiny community of Shuqualak in Noxubee County that was operating at a loss. The original operation purchased the products of 35-40 independent sawmills located within a 60-mile radius of the plant in Noxubee County.

These entrepreneurs, their families and the employees showed they were both hard working and committed. They toiled to make the operation both more efficient and profitable, a task that was obviously accomplished. And many of the key personnel at Shuqualak Lumber today represent second- and even third-generations of those individuals and families that put the company on the map decades ago.

Familiar last names aside, Shuqualak Lumber bears little resemblance to the company of yore. Today’s company owns and operates three plants — the planer and sawmill operations occupy facilities in Shuqualak while the company’s chip mill is located in Dennis. The company, which has 150 employees working one shift, daily buys approximately 65 truckloads of pine saw logs from a geographic area that includes East Mississippi, South Tennessee and West Alabama. These logs, both cut-to-length and tree-length, are purchased from professional loggers, timber tracts and from private owners of timberland.

Shuqualak Lumber produces primarily two-inch lumber from 2”x4” to 2”x12” in four different grades in even-number lengths from eight to 20 feet. Most of its production is in wide-dimension lumber.

The company also manufactures some specialty products such as scaffold plank, stadium seating and export clears. Shuqualak’s product mix changes routinely based upon such factors as raw material availability and the needs of its customers, which can be found all over the nation and around the world.

As Thomas said, new technology is a linchpin in Shuqualak Lumber’s success. Its sawmill underwent machinery upgrades in 2003 and 2004 that yielded a 50% increase in per-hour production. The planer mill also underwent machinery and equipment facelifts following a fire in July 2004 that shut down operations there for three months.

“We were operating a modern and efficient mill prior to these upgrades, but now we have one of the most modern and efficient operations in the South,” Anderson Thomas said.

The fire is just one of the challenges Shuqualak Lumber has and continues to face. The company has been vocal and active in the debate over government-subsidized Canadian timber, which domestic producers see as unfair competition. Charles Thomas, Anderson Thomas’ uncle, has served on the Coalition for Fair Lumber for many years, including a stint as co-chairman.

Anderson Thomas said, “The U.S. lumber manufacturers have been challenging the Canadians through trade law actions that will soon culminate in a constitutional challenge to NAFTA’s Chapter 19 provision regarding trade dispute resolution. A failure of this challenge has the potential to impact timber prices in the United States by forcing those prices downward to a level where the U.S. industry can’t compete. U.S. producers will be forced to pay lower prices for the timber purchased by their mills or they will be forced out of business.

“The world is awash in cheap fiber, and while we contend with the Canadians today who have around 38% of the U.S. market, tomorrow we will be facing the Russians, the Chileans, the Brazilians, the New Zealanders, the Germans and the Scandinavians. Many of these regions have well-established lumber industries, while others, like the Russians, are still sleeping giants.”

Though located nearly 200 miles north of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina was still a category one storm when it passed through the area. Shuqualak Lumber was down for two days due to a power outage. But it is not only operating again, it is actively involved in the state’s recovery.

“Representatives from Shuqualak have participated with others from our industry in emergency meetings to plan for the salvage of some of the timber downed by Katrina,” Anderson Thomas said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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