Robbins Lumber Company: Celebrating Over 130 Years of Responsible Resource Management

Robbins Lumber Company (RLC) numbers amongst Maine’s oldest family-owned and -operated companies, embracing a legacy that stretches back five generations to its founding in 1881. Frank and Otis Robbins initially established the business as a modest mill on the St. George River to produce the staves needed to make barrels. If only Frank and Otis could see what became of RLC’s humble beginning.

The original RLC team began with lantern light and water power, eventually upgrading to a 1.2-megawatt cogeneration plant and a portfolio of state-of-the-art equipment that produces over 27 million board feet of products every year. Today Alden, Jimmy and Catherine Robbins lead the team. The current generation of Robbins operate a state-of-the-art sawmill located on 40 acres in Searsmont, Maine, where roughly 115 staff members takes pride in delivering a quality product to each RLC customer.

One thing remains constant, though. RLC is a proud family-oriented mill known for its Eastern White Pine products, outstanding customer service and a deeply entrenched commitment to the community.

“We’re not in the business of producing as much products as we can, as fast as we can,” says Alden Robbins, vice president and sales manager for RLC. “Basically, we’re willing to go the extra mile for our customers, because we don’t believe they should have to go anywhere else to get what they need.”

Investing in Quality

The sawmill first upgraded to diesel power in 1947 along with the second generation of Robbins family members. The switch enabled the mill to operate year round. The family then switched again from all-diesel power in the 1970s to electricity and a boiler system fueled by wood waste, which heated and partially powered the mill.

Additional energy efficiency upgrades followed, including variable speed drives and water recycling systems to keep the plant operating as cost- and resource-effectively as possible. Gradual, yet continual upgrades ensure the quality of each RLC product remains consistent as well.

The Robbins family also boasts a 70,000-square foot warehouse to ensure products are stored in optimal conditions until sold. Maine-produced lumber can be taken as far away as the U.K. and Pakistan and, by Alden’s estimates, RLC maintains a balance of roughly 80-percent domestic sales and 20-percent international sales.

The company’s production facility almost exclusively handles Eastern White Pine and is equipped with kilns capable of drying up to 675,000 board feet of wood when run at full capacity, as well as a fully computerized saw mill. RLC produces a wide selection of pine lumber products, including siding, flooring and pine boards. The team also produces timber and board products in grades ranging from Northeastern Lumber Manufacturer’s Association’s (NEMLA) knot-inclusive Standard Grade to the fine-woodworking Grade D & Better Select.

“We’re probably one of the only lumber mills and most likely the only Eastern Pine Lumber company to be certified under the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO9002 program,” says Alden. “Certification is not an inexpensive road to go down by any means and it was very labor intensive, but we feel it made us a better company.”

The ISO9002 certification underscores RLC’s continued commitment to uphold the quality of its products. Such detailed record keeping also allows RLC to carefully monitor the company’s safety ratings, ensuring employee safety is never comprised.

Growing a Business

RLC did not only expand physically, the team also grew in a social capacity while expanding its product offerings through developing partnerships. The company is now able to produce ice-cream buckets, cow shoes and laundry drying racks through the affiliated company Robbins Home Goods, as well as pre-coated lumber products produced by subsidiary Penobscot Bay Coatings.

The Robbins family diversified RLC’s product line without abandoning the company’s focus on Eastern White Pine. “My grandfather started out producing staves for old-fashioned ice cream buckets and eventually we began producing the whole bucket,” chuckles Alden.

RLC also collects and sells its manufacturing by-products. These include wood shavings, bark, chips and sawdust, which RLC sells as mulch, animal bedding and green sawdust used to make wood pellets, paper and pulp products, or as biomass fuel.

The Robbins family tends to look long term when making investments, taking into consideration the continued success of both the company and the environment. For example, the family started growing Christmas trees in the 1950s and harvested the first round for sale in 1968. The Robbins family currently manages over 30,000 acres of land and sells close to 15,000 Christmas trees to customers in Maine and out-of-state annually.

Nevertheless, the Robbins family understands the importance of a well-managed forest in the long-term and helps manage an additional 5,000 acres on behalf of other local landowners. “It doesn’t really come close to supplying us with the amount of pine that we need, but we’re very active with the Georges River Land Trust,” says Alden. “The trust helps us ensure our lands remain safe and open for the public to enjoy as they remain working forests.” The Georges River Land Trust works as a nonprofit organization to conserve and protect the resources of the St. George River watershed, while balancing the land use goals of the landowner.

The State of Maine’s Department of Conservation and the Maine Timber Research & Environmental Education (TREE) Foundation joined Maine’s Governor Paul LePage in awarding RLC with the 2011 Austin H. Wilkes Forest Stewardship Award. The award recognizes Maine’s individuals and landowners who serve as examples of outstanding forest management and stewardship practices.

Succeeding Together

The Robbins also remains active in the community through RLC’s work with industry trade organizations like the North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA), of which the company has been a member for at least two decades. “NAWLA helps our business tremendously through networking initiatives, and my father is the first manufacturer to join the organization’s board of directors,” remarks Alden.

Alden himself remains active in NAWLA’s annual Traders Market leadership conference and GenNext program, which provides members with networking, marketing and educational programming geared toward younger generations. The association strives to find ways to make wholesale lumber and distribution as efficient as possible, in part by providing a wealth of networking opportunities for members to strategize across entire supply channels.

Alden also joined the Softwood Lumber Board, which was only launched in 2011 by the softwood lumber industry to promote softwoods and grow softwoods market share. “We’re really focused on getting the message out to architects, builders and consumers that wood is the right choice in terms of versatility, sustainability and for being an American-produced material in many cases,” expands Alden.

In the next few years the Robbins family will continue its efforts to see that the lumber industry continues to grow with responsible forestry management programs. In the meantime, the RLC team will take pride in knowing each product represents the expertise gained over the course of 130 years. Above all, the Robbins family will steer the Robbins Lumber Company to remain a family-owned, -operated and -oriented business where safety and quality come first.