Manufacturer Focus: Better Built Dry Kilns, Forest Products Equipment, March 2002.

Some are content to build a better widget. Others, like Larry Randall, have larger aspirations. He envisioned a better dry kiln. In 1998, he launched Better Built Dry Kilns, Inc. The company, based in Villa Hills, Ky., just south of the Ohio River, is already living up to its name.

Randall has developed kilns that effectively improve upon existing lumber drying technology. “We supply a complete line of package and track kilns that can be high or low pressure steam, hot water, direct fired and indirect fired along with dehumidification,” Randall says. Better Built installs everything it sells and features three distinct styles of cross-flow pre-dryers. Two are designed with straight overhead and center fan wall configurations. The third, an all-aluminum model, dries green red oak to 25 percent in 22 days. “That is unmatched in drying time.”

Better Built’s product line also includes HT pallet sanitizers and a complement of green dust burning wood fired boilers starting at 50 HP and up. And, its innovative stainless steel walnut and cherry steamers have folks talking. These models don’t lose steam to the process. Rather, they return the chemically treated water to the boiler, providing supersaturated steam at the lowest possible temperature and eliminating the need for expensive chemicals.

“The things that set us apart from the others are that we are able to supply R32 insulation in all of our kilns. We encourage the use of stainless steel interiors and we have a new and patented fan line that produces 20 percent more air than the same horsepower connected to the same size panel fan.”

Companies across North America clearly appreciate Better Built’s touches. Its equipment has recently been installed at Great Lakes Veneer in Oswego, N.Y., Pine Tech in Gladwin, Mich., Taylor Lumber in McDermott, Ohio, Wayne Dry Kilns in Monticello, Ky., Rives and Reynolds in Louisville, Miss., Pacific Rim in Bellingham, Wash. and Cherry Forest Products in Guelph, Ontario. A new stainless pre-dryer roof was put in at Bill DeNoon Lumber in Bergholz, Ohio, as well. In fact, based on a recommendation from the people at DeNoon, Frank Wilson Lumber in Elkins, W.Va. opted to go with Better Built. “We must be doing something right,” Randall says.

More than a little something, it seems. “Business is good and is getting better.” Last year was not what it could have been, he admits, but 2000 was nothing short of “terrific.” He adds that 2002 looks like it will be even better than 2000. However, even with another promising year ahead, Randall isn’t going to get ahead of himself. He plans to continue to supplement his staff of four with subcontract labor, as he has since the start. And, Better Built will remain a “fabless” operation. He explains: “We have several suppliers, so that if one goes broke, is overloaded, or one has a natural disaster, we have the flexibility to react so that we do not disappoint the customer.”

Versatility is paramount in today’s economy. So, too, is strategically targeting your market. “Our niche has been in doing business with the smaller companies. As you know, the larger company won’t ‘take a chance’ on small players. We take the time to work with the smaller jobs that some of the larger producers won’t and have noticed that those small orders turn to much larger ones in time and those customers remember us and the help they got when they were smaller.”

Although, Better Built is, by no means, limited solely to single-kiln projects. “We are certainly able to take on the larger jobs,” Randall says, citing installations involving up to 10 kilns. Actually, one of Better Built’s very first orders netted nearly $1 million for six direct-fired double track kilns. “The completed job is absolutely beautiful.” Randall says. He considers the installation a real highlight.

He recalls the time when Better Built was just a dream. “I had always harbored the desire to work for myself but never had the nerve until one day I had a spat with an employer and was over the edge and too far down the trail to return. I have never regretted that day.” He remembers so clearly the feeling that follows the great leap of faith. “You have absolutely nothing, not an envelope, a piece of literature or letterhead. Not a business card, a computer or a desk. Not even an order. But what you do have is a rapidly dwindling bank account, two kids in college and a big unanswered question as to what the hell did you get yourself into and, of course, you panic.”

Fortunately, Better Built’s lumber drying equipment has never been a major source of worry. “Dry kilns are a rather unique animal in that there are not that many things that can go wrong with them. Usually it is a valve, a trap, a motor, an electrical component or the controller. All of the components are warranted for at least one year and typically if there is component failure it is within the first month or so of operation and the component is overnighted to the site,” Randall says. On-board modems mean problems can often be diagnosed over the phone. For more serious malfunctions, a technician is dispatched to the site.

Problems may be kept to a minimum at Better Built. Still, Randall shares the concerns of those he meets in the field. “My view of the industry at the moment is similar I am sure to most and that is that logs are too expensive and lumber prices are too low. It is tough finding margin at the end of the day. I do know that we are an innovative, creative society and we will find a way to get through these hard times,” Randall insists. “I am of the mind that the USA is not the only one that is finding times a little tough. I did hear recently that the Russian government is pressuring for a reduction of the export of lumber and logs, while the Balkans have stopped the export of logs all together. I guess the point is that some things are certain: death, taxes and change. And, change it will. We will rebound and we will be stronger and smarter as a result.”

As sanguine as Randall is, he can’t help but be uneasy with the complacency he sees. “We have a tendency here in North America to be wasteful, as we have been blessed with an abundance of natural resources and inexpensive energy. We tend to take it all for granted. The rest of the world has been forced to protect what they have and make the best use of their dwindling natural resources and efficient use of their expensive energy. We are starting to see some of that here and I think it is a natural trend,” he says.

“Those industries that are researching making more products with fewer raw materials and less energy present large opportunities for Americans. We are seeing an emergence of veneered products, such as engineered flooring and cabinetry. It has been years since the Europeans have used solid hardwood for flooring,” he says. What does this have to do with Better Built specifically? “We see future expansion into those areas and are busy trying to align ourselves with equipment suppliers that have suitable products and experience to offer.”

Then again, Randall has always sought out the kind of suppliers that would allow him to deliver a superior product time and time again. Randall continues to work closely with Lignomat, which serves as Better Built’s primary source of computer control systems.” Why Lignomat? Its control systems are outfitted with wireless MC sensing probes, along with wireless dry and EMC sensors. Randall also relies heavily on the expertise of Kerry Fry and Fry’s Construction. “They’re a very large reason for our success.” His “saviors and saints,” he calls them. “They make our installations go smoothly and make molehills of mountains.”

Similarly, Randall credits the Nyle Corporation, which provides Better Built with its dehumidifiers and Partlow control systems. Nyle’s Don Lewis has championed Randall’s cause since 1985, when Lewis had the “vision and excellent judgment” to hire the Better Built founder. “He was instrumental in moving my family from Canada and was instrumental in getting our citizenships. Without him we would have missed the greatest opportunity of all and that is to be an American.”

Above all, Randall couldn’t forget the contribution his better half has made, day in and day out. Randall says he is like so many men, who would simply be lost without the guidance of their wives. More than handling all the details- the finances, customs and brokerage issues, freight, taxes, even computer problems-his wife, Florence, has “salved his frustrations.” He has nothing but appreciation for her and for all those that have helped make Better Built Dry Kilns what it is today. “Thanks to all of you.”

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