Even before John Armstrong and Bosie Morris bought the Pooler-based timber company SA Allen Inc., they were on the lookout for a new home – somewhere closer to pines and the people who grow them.
“We felt we needed to be in this area somewhere between Blitchton and Groveland on the 280 corridor in Bryan County,” Morris said. “We had been talking about that for over a year.”
That led to moving away from fast-growing Pooler and into Pembroke, a place where life tends to come at a more leisurely pace.
Morris called the relocation to the approximately 130-year-old Smith-Waters House at the corner of Railroad and Lanier streets a pleasure, noting the two felt welcome from the outset. His partner said much the same.
“I love Pembroke,” Armstrong said. “We think this is the perfect spot.”
The reason is a combination of Pembroke’s laid back atmosphere and its location, they say. In Pembroke they can be where they need to be, from the Lowcountry of South Carolina down south to Brunswick or out west to Soperton. It is closer to the people who own the trees and the loggers who cut and deliver them to area mills, and more “centrally located,” as Morris put it.
As for what they do, here’s a history and then primer of sorts.
SA Allen was founded in 1936 in Savannah by Samuel Andrew Allen, who delivered the first load of wood to what was then known as Union Bag and what is now International Paper. The company’s reputation became such that Armstrong said when he and Morris bought SA Allen, they kept the name and “neither one of us is named Allen.”
The company was family owned and under second- and then third-generation ownership before Armstrong and Morris took over, and relationships and reputation, they said, mean a lot in the competitive world in which they operate.
In SA Allen Timber’s case, that includes relationships with roughly a dozen end users, ranging from paper mills to saw mills and pole mills and lumber yards, as well as working relationships with a number of landowners and their consultants, and 16 logging crews. In an average year, they’re responsible for perhaps a million tons of timber being delivered somewhere.
Morris calls it a three-legged stool.
“You’ve got the mill, the landowner and the logger,” he said. “And then us. We’re the point of contact for all three, the thing that ties all three legs together.”
In essence, a mill – whether it’s DS Smith in Riceboro or Interfor in Meldrim – will contact a company such as SA Allen and order an amount of wood. SA Allen then finds the wood and assigns logging crews to cut and deliver it.
Morris and Armstrong, both foresters, also have a staff of foresters who work for them. They contract logging crews and deal at any given time with as many as 70 tracts of land and timber growers ranging from smaller, family-based operations to giants such as Weyerhaeuser and Rayonier.
The rule of thumb is a tract of timber should occupy a logging crew at least a week to be feasible, because it’s not cheap to cut timber.
“That equipment costs too much for them to move around,” Armstrong said.
Like any industry, the timber business has its own challenges and its own rewards and its own set of rules. Some timber, for example, is cut for pulp to make paper and cardboard – and business is booming thanks to Amazon and other online retailers. Other timber is used for lumber, or telephone poles. It depends on how trees are graded, first by foresters and then when a stand is cut by the loggers.
Most of what SA Allen deals with is pine. Georgia is big on pine. It’s big on timber, period, and added up in 2019 to nearly $4 billion in forestry-related economic production in Georgia, according to the GFA, which has reams of statistics available.
In addition to the economic benefits of employing loggers and drivers and foresters, the two men say they also help maximize the return on timber for landowners. And timber, as Morris put it, is as liquid an asset as a stock on the market and part of many landowners portfolio.
“A lot of Georgians’ wealth is tied up in timber, so in a sense we process wealth for people,” he said. “Timber is a fairly liquid asset. So, essentially, if you have 70 percent of your wealth in large cap stocks and you call your broker, he’ll help you transfer that asset to cash. If you have 70 percent in timber and you call your timber dealer, he’ll help you convert that into cash. That’s why you want a timber dealer that’s going to maximize it for you.”
If that’s one side to SA Allen’s business its owners believe tends to get lost in the woods, there are others.
“We don’t do a very good job in the timber business of telling our story,” Armstrong said. “Particularly in terms of how environmentally responsible forestry is.”
“Georgia now has more trees now per acre than it did in 1970,” Morris said. “That resource needs to be sustainable for our longevity and for our business. We follow state regulations and best practices for sustainability, and we take it very seriously.”
For example, loggers have to take spill kits to minimize the damage to the environment.
“And carbon sequestration,” Morris added. “People don’t talk about it, but there’s a lot of carbon stored in this table and that chair and that wall. That’s stored carbon that’s not going anywhere. And every time you cut a tree, you plant another one, and as it grows it’s steadily storing carbon.”
Like most industries, there are the things that make the job hard. Heavy rain is perhaps a forester’s main headache, and fire and other natural disasters obviously can impact a timber dealer’s business.
But now, thanks to the increasingly heavy cost of insuring logging trucks and other big vehicles, finding loggers is becoming tougher.
“Industry wide, logistics is becoming a big problem,” Morris said. “Insurance carriers hate log trucks, which are extremely expensive to insure and expensive to maintain, so a lot of independent contractors have gotten out of the log hauling business. They’re hauling containers for the port, or over the road for Walmart or something like that. The industry as a whole is battling the trucking issue and foreseeing a shortage down the line.”
But like with any business, problems come with the territory. A strong economy, on the other hand, helps make life better for the more than 150 people who depend on SA Allen Timber to pay the bills. And both Armstrong and Morris say they wouldn’t be doing anything else.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” said Armstrong, who has a forestry degree from Auburn and has been in timber for 35 years. “My great grandfather logged, both my grandfathers worked at a sawmill and my father was in the timber business. I also love the outdoors. I love this kind of business.”
Morris said he considers it “a pleasure,” to “look at that natural resource and maximize the value people get off their timberland.”
But he considers himself an environmentalist, too.
“A lot of us like wildlife, and we want the land looked after for that,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I do it. Foresters really have a good story to tell, if we could tell it. We’re a sustainable industry.”