BY: SCOTT AUSTIN, CIC, F. A. PEABODY INSURANCE
In the 1950s and into the 60s, Ralph Lowell worked as a jack-of-all-trades while living in Buckfield, Maine, with his wife and eight children. He often labored in the woods and had an old sawmill that he used for small sawing jobs in the evenings and weekends. As the years passed, he continued to pick up more sawing jobs until running a mill became his sole source of income. The family would pitch in to help with the mill work and whatever other tasks were required. Ralph’s eldest son, Elwood, would haul a truckload of wood in the morning prior to attending high school. Mrs. Lowell would take payments at the house, which then adjoined the mill yard, and her daughter Rebecca would handle the paperwork. As the business grew, more family members joined the enterprise.
The Lowells’ growing lumber company continued to look for affordable opportunities to expand. In the early 1970s, they purchased a used planer from a business that had recently closed its doors, and in 1978, the old sawmill was replaced with a more efficient system. Rebecca set up a small camper in the mill yard in the mid-1980s to serve as the first official office of the lumber company. Her sister, Edith, returned to the family business, becoming a licensed log scaler and working in the planing mill. As the business continued to thrive, the Lowells saw a local need and decided to open a retail hardware store close to the mill yard. Also around that same time, Lowell Lumber expanded into wholesaling pine.
Today, the family members make decisions as a group and continue to look for affordable opportunities to grow. In 2014, R. E. Lowell Lumber purchased a former log home operation in Turner, Maine. This provided a high visibility location for a second retail operation. Also, the Turner mill housed the same type of planer as the Buckfield mill, allowing Lowell Lumber to divide its planing jobs between the two mills — Turner is used for the smaller custom jobs while Buckfield handles standard-sized jobs. The Lowells now have a secondary business as well — milling log homes.
One key to the success of R. E. Lowell Lumber has been its continuing strategy to walk the fine line between productivity and affordability. Realizing the excessive costs of purchasing new state-of-the-art equipment, Lowell searches for opportunities to purchase more affordable, slightly used equipment that still permits high productivity. This allows for lower overhead, quality products, and competitive pricing.
The sawmill operation remains at the heart of R. E. Lowell Lumber and is now run by Elwood’s son, Tom. The mill is still able to purchase quality high-grade pine logs for milling due to long-term relationships with many suppliers. The sawmill operates at full capacity, cutting four million board feet of pine annually. The double-edged band saw used for the past 20 years is half the width of a circular saw. This quarter-inch reduction in the saw blade width results in an additional 350,000 board feet of lumber annually. It’s the difference of being in or out of business.
In an economic environment that has resulted in several sawmill closings of late, R. E. Lowell Lumber has survived through hard work, good decisions, and a commitment to quality and productivity. Family members multi-task, covering for one another as needed in various positions. Strict lumber grading standards are preserved, resulting in demand for 100 percent of Lowell’s wholesale products with buyers from as far away as Tennessee and Indiana. The greatest danger to any business is standing still, and if history is any guide, that’s not in R. E. Lowell Lumber’s plans.