July 21, 2013

Maine company reclaims sunken logs

Maine Heritage Timber Co. retrieves the logs from a 1,000-acre lake in Millinocket for wood flooring, wainscoting and furniture.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

MILLINOCKET - Quakish Lake is far from the trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange. And Tom Shafer, co-founder of Maine Heritage Timber Co., couldn't be happier with his new job site.

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Tom Shafer’s company, Maine Heritage Timber Co. in Millinocket, dredges timber from lakes and rivers like the raw tree trunks pictured above and uses the wood for flooring and furniture, pictured below.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

"Where I come from, there were just bulls, bears and pigs," said Shafer, 48. "Now, I've got bald eagles soaring overhead."

Instead of shouting trades and watching the ticker tape on Wall Street, Shafer now reclaims forgotten logs from the bottom of a 1,000-acre lake in Millinocket. The wood hails back to Maine's great logging era, when up to 1 million cords of wood sank to the bottom of the lake during drives to Great Northern Paper's mill.

The cold water and protection from sunlight, oxygen and pests have preserved the wood and created great color variations and patinas. Shafer and his team are reclaiming the logs to turn the wood into flooring, wainscoting and furniture.

Shafer and his business partner, Steve Sanders, are at a critical point in the company's growth. They aim to reach cash-flow break-even this month and start making money. Up to now, they've sunk $3.5 million in investments to buy equipment to haul the waterlogged wood out of the lake, shake off the bark, sort and cut it. Some of the wood is milled for wainscoting by Maine Heritage Timber and kiln-dried offsite, while the flooring is milled in West Virginia.

Maine Heritage Timber aims to generate $1.2 million in annual revenues this year, about double last year's results. It's an ambitious amount of growth, but Shafer expects the company's new wainscoting product to be a strong driver of results.

"We respect the heritage of this project, for this town, for the people who toiled in the woods for years and years," Shafer said. "We owe it to the people who cut this wood to make something special out of their hard work."

Shafer's move to Millinocket came after he left Wall Street in January 2008 with a buyout package from his employer, Van der Moolen. He took some time off, going fishing in Alaska.

Then the financial markets imploded in the fall of 2008. Getting another job on Wall Street wasn't an option.

Shafer got a chance to work as the general contractor on a renovation project in Maine on a commission by his uncle. He lived in a Millinocket hotel for nine months and ate in the same restaurant every day -- Scootic. Now he rents a house in Millinocket.

"I used to be the guy who calls the guy to fix stuff. Now, I have to figure it out," Shafer said. "I'm a single guy in Millinocket. I eat, sleep and work. It's a great place to start a business because there's no distractions. What attracted me to the project is the romance. Driving down the street, I know everyone. Everyone wants that in life -- to be connected."

Although he may be "from away," he's not unfamiliar with Maine. His family has had a camp in the Millinocket area since the early 1800s, Shafer said.

He said he's made an eclectic mix of friends in town, but part of him is still connected to New York. He reads The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the New York Post every day, in addition to Maine newspapers.

"Business is business. You may pay attention to different things in business -- lumber prices are going through the roof right now -- but it's all business," Shafer said.

Shafer and Sanders hatched the idea for their company in 2010. But the original concept -- retrieving logs from the riverbed and delivering them to the East Millinocket pulp mill -- collapsed when the mill shut down in 2011. That forced the team to come up with a new vision for the wood they retrieve, from May through Thanksgiving, from the cold waters.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Todd Bernier operates a long reach excavator at Quakish Lake near Millinocket as the company harvests its raw materials.

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Todd Bernier uses a long reach excavator to grab a load of sunken logs at Quakish Lake near Millinocket.

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Kris Willard and Joe Arsenault select and pack wainscoting.

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