By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The fire was so fierce, it literally tore sheets of steel off the walls and flung them around. Richard Keeso could see it happening through the melted polydoors even though he arrived on the scene mere minutes after an alarm revealed a heat sensor had been triggered.
It’s been just over one year since that image stunned him; a lasting image from the massive fire that destroyed the Keeso Sawmill on September 9, 2018.
The year since has been one of quiet contemplation, acceptance and searching as the fifth-generation family business faced the biggest challenge in its history.
Would they rebuild? Would they go out of business? Would they retire?
Those questions are largely answered says Richard Keeso, standing in the office that survived the fire. That being said, the final decision lies somewhere between rebuilding a life without ressurectiing the sawmill as he and his wife, Anne, cut a new path involving silviculture, grading, consultation and lumber marketing.
It happened at 10:30 on a Sunday night. Richard and Anne had been away. “It’s so odd because whenever I got back from anywhere, the business was the first place I would check, even if only to feed the cat,” says Richard. That night, he doesn’t know why, was the first time he did not go out to check the business.
At 10:32 p.m., a heat sensor went off and Richard was notified by the alarm company. At 10:38 he was driving out of his laneway. As he approached the sawmill yard just outside of Listowel, cars were already parked on the side of the road. Smoke was filling the sky.
His first thought was, “it’s over.”
“I knew with that much smoke, the fire had to be raging,” remembers Keeso.
Seven fire detachments came to the scene to fight the fire. There were so many ladders and lights that the sawmill looked like a midway. “They had to contain it and we were thankful the wind was out of the east, blowing all the ash and cinders into the field and not toward our neighbouring businesses. I can tell you the work they put in has left me with a profound respect for our volunteer firemen.”
The fire was so merciless, it left nothing. Not even a shovel. All the equipment ended up as twisted metal, including the saws and loaders.
It was a painful end to a fifth-generation family business that started back in 1872.
The J.H stands for Jack and Harold Keeso who built a permanent sawmill in Listowel sometime before 1921. Richard grew up working the sawmill with his dad, Harold, and joined full-time in 1977 after studying Resource Management and apprenticing as a car mechanic. He added to his education by learning to grade hardwoods through the National Hardwood Association in Tennessee. Visiting other sawmills to grade lumber, Richard saw how far behind the family business was in terms of technology. His dad was in his sixties at that time and Richard can understand why he didn’t want to jump into debt but by 1984, he was convinced. Ten acres were purchased on Highway 23 outside of Listowel. The location had good highway access, lots of room and existing buildings to expand on. A modern sawmill was created.
Interestingly, Richard’s Uncle Frank, who was the seventh son of the seventh son, cursed the move.
“The wind was howling, the leaves were blowing and when I went in his house, he was sitting at the table reading an article in the paper about the move. He lived next door to the mill in town, you see, and was worried that low-cost housing would replace the mill allowing the riff raff to move in,” recalls Richard. “When I left, he pointed his finger at me and said ‘You will have nothing but bad luck your whole life.’ It was like a curse.”
Nevertheless, the new sawmill was built and over the years, survived both bad and good times, just like any other business.
J.H Keeso and Sons was in the business of green, rough-sawn hardwood lumber.
Richard says the first bandmill they installed wasn’t properly aligned. “We had nothing but trouble with the equipment,” remembers Richard. It seemed that Uncle Frank’s curse was for real.
The hiring of Doug Mosely, however, was a brilliant move. He fixed the bandsaw and the company never looked back. His son, Gary Draker, would become the company’s saw filer.
“We’ve overcome a lot, largely because of the people that came to work for us,” says Richard. “When we burned, we had some of the best people in the business working with us.”
J.H. Keeso aligned itself with Jim Eccles of Eccles Forestry who marked the timber and Pete McGarrity of Midwest Timber who oversaw woodlands management.
“Our heads were screwed on the same way and we worked well together,” says Richard.
Of his staff, most were “older” people. “My mindset was that when you work for me, I hoped you would retire here.”
Also part of their mindset was a focus on the environment and practicing silviculture methods.
“I am an environmentalist,” says Richard. “The three of us always believed in silviculture.”
Silviculture is the practice of controlling the growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values.
To Richard, it means looking at the whole stand to protect the forest. by cutting the defective trees, trees with poor form and mature trees. “Our goal was to leave the woods with a faster growth rate and better genetics,” says Richard.
Total Quality Management
As the business progressed, the employees became a community and equipment was upgraded, Richard says his focus was on total quality management.
“I decided that we would be the best mill we could be,” said Richard.
To Richard, “best” meant having the respect of suppliers. It meant consistency of manufactured product with lumber being on, or exceeding, grade. It meant that J.H. Keeso would be known for reliability and promptness of del ivery. Presentation was also a factor in Richard’s version of best. That meant lumber piles were stacked in straight lines. “When we rolled into a customer’s yard, we wanted them to recognize our lumber.”
Being the best also meant having a clean facility and a culture that employees were proud of.
“We never had a foreman or a salesman,” says Richard. “Sales were the least of our worries. Customers would become friends of mine and we felt that was a good way of doing business.”
At its peak, J.H. Keeso was producing 16,500 feet of lumber per day. That’s a lot of lumber for a small mill.
In March 2018, six months before the fire, the company invested $500,000 in an upgrade to the mill which added a resaw machine to the floor. This machine could target custom widths of lumber for customer optimization.
Before the Fire
As he was continually investing back into the business, Richard’s mindset was on working full-steam ahead.
“I felt good, I felt fit, I had no intention of retiring,” says the 61-year-old fitness coach. He had worked long hours his whole life, arriving at work at 5:45 a.m. to get 15 minutes of time on the equipment before the shift started.
However, Anne, who worked in the company office, was encouraging him to consider slowing down. There are other things to life besides work, she suggested.
Plus, their three children had all found fulfilling and successful careers of their own. Without a new generation to take over, did the business have to change anyway?
“When you are younger, the horizon is a long way off. But that horizon was getting closer,” says Richard. He felt it was at least time to ask: Is it time? If so, how do I proceed? When the sawmill burned down, it answered a lot of those questions.
First, the Processing
When the fire demolished the sawmill, Richard did not feel guilt. He knew he kept a clean mill.
Running a four-day, 10-hour work week, Richard used Fridays for maintenance and clean-up. Eight students came in on Fridays specifically for extra clean-up.
“Everyone knew our mill was clean so I have no regrets that I caused the fire,” says Richard. “If we could burn, anyone could burn.”
The cause of the fire was never determined. The Fire Marshall was not called in by the fire chiefs on the scene because the fire was so extensive, there was nothing left to examine.
The result of the fire was complete devastation.
“My son said he had never seen me more calm (at the fire) but I was at the point of resignation,” remembers Richard. Once he knew nobody was hurt, he could only watch the fire burn itself out.
Still...it was upsetting.
He spent the night watching sawmill videos on YouTube, wondering how he would rebuild.
After that, he wanted to be alone to think and process.
For nine months, the idea of rebuilding was still on the table. Finally, he made a list. “When the kids had a decision to make, we always told them to make a plus and minus chart. So I did the same.”
For plusses, rebuilding would mean a fifth-generation business would continue to run. The business had been at the top of its game, believed Richard. “It was established and I had the respect of my customers.”
Plus, Richard liked to work and the business was comfortable though not highly profitable. “We were never production-oriented,” says Richard.
On the other side of the chart, the minuses were significant. A rebuild would take two years meaning his employees would be out of work for three years. Of the ones who had found new jobs, there was a risk they would not return.
Government regulations were becoming increasingly restrictive. Liability was a nightmare and business costs such as hydro ($14,000 per month) were rising rapidly. When the list was done, the cons outweighed the pros. That decided it. Richard would not rebuild the sawmill.
“It hurt. It will always hurt. A farmer friend of mine sold his cattle herd and said he misses his cows. Well, I miss the staff,” says Richard.
About the Staff
During this interview while being asked to examine the past year, Richard mentions his staff a lot.
He talks about the worker who is “a little off side of centre’ of which there have been a few at the mill to keep everyone laughing. “They make the world interesting and we’ve had different people over the years who fit the role perfectly. They were always loved and respected.”
He worked with a lot of tough men who knew how to put in a day’s work.
“My life has been so rich, partly because of the opportunity to work with big, strong, hard-working men who seemed to never complain.”
Losing his staff and sense of work community is a loss. Richard hopes to replace that feeling of community with the committees he sits on. Many, like the Carbon Footprint Initiative, are environmentally-focused.
As to his future in the hardwood industry, Richard is using his contacts and skill set to focus on log exports.
“We don’t have a sawmill. In its absence, that’s all that’s left for us to do,” says Richard.
For variety, he has done a number of consulting jobs troubleshooting sawmills for inefficiencies. “I haven’t made money at it but I like doing it!” he says.
He can also grade lumber. The demand for graders is great and should he wish, he could have a full-time job doing that alone.
“But I have enough to do here,” he says from his office, in the little building, on the corner of a large lot, with small stacks of lumber way at the back. A local Mennonite has set up a tiny, outdoor sawmill for his purposes.
So, technically, there is still a sawmill business at the Listowel location. But it’s not a Keeso sawmill and won’t be again.
“This was my life and my passion,” says Richard of trees, woodlots and the sawmill business. “I was happy with our work environment and have no regrets: we invested in the operation and the people and left at the top of our game.”
After the fire, he needed to be alone to think. What he realized was that he could keep the good memories. One of those good memories is that his wife has been with him in life and business for 46 years.
In his office, the portraits of his dad, uncle and grandfather hang on the walls. They would be proud, he thinks, to see how far he took the business.
Good memories and pride of place are things that fire cannot destroy . ◊