Sawmill Manager J. Wilson Jones III.  Photo by Dan Sears.

Sawmill Manager J. Wilson Jones III. Photo by Dan Sears.

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Helping a Sawmill Manager See the Forest and the Trees

Their advice was both basic – send out invoices more to get money from customers – and strategic – consider marketing wood products in Asia. But best of all, when J. Wilson Jones III met with a team of Carolina MBA students for advice on running the sawmill business he manages in northeastern North Carolina, their advice was good and it was free.

“I received more from those seven MBA students than I have from some $2,000-a-day consultants,” Jones said.

The students were members of Student Teams Achieving Results or STAR, a project of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School launched in 2005 with funding support from the Golden LEAF Foundation, RBC Centura, the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, and UNC’s Center for International Business Education and Research. STAR projects are part of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Leadership Initiative. The goal of STAR is to help struggling North Carolina companies identify the path to sustainability and growth, keeping and growing jobs for North Carolina citizens, while at the same time helping students learn about real-world challenges from experienced business leaders.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Wood has been the Jones family business since 1939, when Johnny W. Jones started his first mill. Now J. Wilson Jones Jr. owns two sawmills, Mackeys Ferry and J.W. Jones Lumber Co. in Elizabeth City, plus a chip mill. The Joneses modernized both sawmills, using computer software programs to guide cuts of each log for maximum efficiency. But as the furniture industry in the state declined, the business struggled to find and capture other markets. Having heard about STAR through a professional organization he belongs to, J. Wilson Jones III turned to Carolina for help.

Jones took the STAR team on a tour of his Mackeys Ferry Sawmill site in Roper to educate them about the forest products industry. Then Jones turned over his financial information for the past few months to the students for analysis. What followed were a few “aha!” moments that led to changes in the way Jones does his business daily.

“What STAR was able to do for us was to refocus on the business side of business,” Jones said. “Working with STAR changed our conventional wisdom for the better.”

After spending the spring semester of 2006 working on the Mackeys Ferry project, the STAR team produced a pricing strategy for the company, showed Jones the value of offering customers unbundled services, encouraged him to expand his capacity to dry hardwoods and to explore international markets. Jones put much of the advice to work immediately, changing his invoicing procedure, reallocating products to achieve the best customer matches and best pricing and hopping on a plane to Ho Chi Minh City to learn more about the Vietnamese market for his hardwood and cypress products.

“I’ve spent about 20 years being a pretty decent mill operator, but in three short months, the people at the STAR program showed me I needed to learn a heck of a lot more,” Jones said. “It helps to have that perspective. I didn’t see the trees for the forest.”

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