Each year Koppers Utility & Industrial Products harvests hundreds of thousands of trees helping make us the largest American-owned provider
of utility poles and piling. Maintaining a steady supply of quality product starts with how we manage our operations in the forest.
Byron Altman, Director of Procurement and Purchasing recently
discussed how KUIP balances proper forest management with our customers need to receive the product they need on-time.
What are your group’s primary responsibilities at KUIP?
  • Our team of purchasing agents is responsible for both pricing and maintaining a steady wood flow for all 15 of our KUIP manufacturing locations as well as working with contract peelers. This includes procuring barked wood which is marked by our 25 foresters in the field, and maintaining a steady supply of white poles, crossarms, lumber and timbers.
Geographically, can you describe where KUIP works to procure different species of wood?
  • The vast majority of timber we use is Southern Yellow Pine (SYP), and as a result our procurement zone spans the entire Southeast from Virginia southward through the Gulf States and westward to Texas. We like to refer to this area as the “Saudi Arabia” of SYP for the plentiful number of trees available to us in this region.
  • It’s also why many of our manufacturing facilities are located here, to be closer to the wood supply itself. In addition to SYP, we also harvest Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Lodge Pole Pine from the west coast and Canada.

That’s certainly a large territory to work within. Is that typical compared to most wood treaters?
  • No. Because of the relatively large volume of timber we harvest annually, it’s critical that we have operations across a wide swath of this country’s timber-growing region. For logistics and cost reasons many smaller manufacturers can only afford to operate in growing regions that are nearby their plant. However, because we have a relatively large manufacturing footprint, we must equally have a large timber basket to draw from.

Are there any other advantages to having such a broad area to procure timber from?
  • Yes. One of the biggest nemesis to our logging operations is weather. When rain inundates a region, it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to access timber plots in a safe and environmentally sound way. This year has been very difficult for most treaters due to the excessive rainfall that we have had throughout the entire Southeast. However, because of the geographic breadth of our timber program we often can procure wood at times when other treaters are unable to because of weather and forest conditions. I’ll have to hand it to our guys in the field. They keep stacking up the wood at our plants.  
How does your team determine what makes a tree ideal for poles and piling? 
  • Our process is a combination of technology and relationships. On the technology front we utilize optimization software to determine where best to manufacture a product in the most cost-effective manner, depending in part on the chosen treatment type and end product e.g. transmission poles or distribution poles. In turn this information helps determine where geographically we need to harvest timber from. Our foresters go to active logging tracts and hand-select every pole or piling that we ultimately treat in our facilities. We have decades-long relationships with many of our landowner partners, just as our sales team would have with their customers. Our foresters are looking for the straightest trees that they can find, and as they find them they paint a series of slashes on the tree telling the logger what length to cut them at.

How is the price of the timber you procure determined?
  • Pricing is nearly always determined by how far the logger has to haul them from the woods to a peeling facility. Most of our wood in being hauled from 50 to 100 miles which most often allows us to be cost efficient compared to other treaters that may have to travel a greater distance to procure their timber.
From an environmental standpoint what else might our customers not be aware of when it comes to harvesting wood for poles and piling.
  • Foremost is that we are working with a highly renewable resource, wood, which offers a multitude of environmental benefits compared to other materials like concrete or steel. Wood sequesters carbon in large amounts helping significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Secondly, in addition to abiding by all federal and state laws pertaining to timber harvesting, many of our foresters have been specially certified making them experts in protecting one of our most precious resources for future generations. Lastly, we also operate within the guidelines established by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Forest Stewardship Council, and in many instances we actually plant two new seedlings for every tree harvested.
How do you see the future for pole procurement? Any issues that customers may need to better understand?
  • Wood is the most renewable source that we have so there should be no reason not to expect that an ample supply of quality timber will be available for our customers’ future needs. That said, there are always new and different stress points in our supply chain. As example, the growing wood pellet market has some impact on landowners’ decisions on when they elect to harvest their timber. The pellet industry typically offers landowners the ability to sell their product earlier in the growth of a tree whereas trees destined to become utility poles require a longer growth period to reach proper height and diameter. We are very aware of the interplay between the pellet and pole markets and in part that’s why our long-standing relationships with landowners comes into play. They know we are partners in this effort over the long-haul and will treat them fairly.