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When the paper industry in Piscataquis County started fading earlier than it did in the rest of the state, what could have been a disaster became an opportunity.
Manufacturing businesses that had already adapted to the challenges of doing business from a place many, even in Maine, consider remote were poised to adapt even more.
“Manufacturing is very much alive in Piscataquis County,” says Chris Winstead, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council. “We hear a lot about the wood products industry and what’s happened with it, but businesses have adapted and diversified.
“We were kind of ahead of the curve on the mills closing,” he says.
Of the four largest employers in the county of 17,000, three are manufacturers.
It’s significant, Winstead says, that Puritan/Hardwood and JSI are family-owned and committed to the area, despite challenges that range from finding workers to putting salespeople on the road to meet with far-away customers.
“We could really be anywhere in the country,” says Mark Awalt, executive vice president of JSI and a Milo native. “But this is where we started, and we’re connected to this community.”
In Guilford, 20 miles west, Puritan is celebrating its 100th year in town.
The company, which began as Hardwood Products Co. and is now affiliated with its sister company of that name, could also be anywhere.
“We’re here because of the wood,” says Timothy Templet, executive vice president of Puritan. “Ironically, as Puritan grows, we don’t have anything to do with the wood anymore.” (More on that later.)
Templet says Puritan/Hardwood is committed to the community, where events are being held throughout the year to celebrate the company’s centennial.
“We’ve had generations in families work here,” he says.
Puritan and Hardwood offer scholarships to children and grandchildren of employees, as well as supporting a number of community causes.
In Milo, the Tradewinds grocery store recently doubled in size, in a large part because of solid employment for so many area residents provided by JSI, area development officials say.
Puritan added 40,000 square feet of warehouse space recently, but it isn’t enough. “We’re bursting at the seams,” Templet says.
He says it’s hard to find employees — the company would employ more if it could find the people.
Awalt says he doesn’t have that problem in the Milo area. “There aren’t many companies in places like Milo that offer health, dental and the pay we do,” Awalt says.
More than that, the secret to a successful business is treating people like they matter; the company’s employees return the favor. “I know I can count on them,” he says.
When an order required a quick turnaround, he offered extra pay to come in July 4 weekend. He was stunned at the response. “You can’t beat the work ethic here,” he says.
JSI also believes in giving back to the community. The Clayton Johndro Golf Tournament, named for founders Terry, Barry and Mark Awalt’s stepfather, has raised nearly $200,000 for local charities over the past 14 years. One of those causes is Jean’s Blessings, named for the Awalts’ mother, which provides schools supplies for children in the community.
Puritan/Hardwood, still referred to by many locals as “the pick mill,” began when Lloyd Cartwright, attracted by the abundance of Northern white birch, moved the Minto Toothpick Co. from Saginaw, Mich., in 1919.
Minto had 10 employees and one product — mint-flavored toothpicks.
Cartwright soon grasped the possibilities of being surrounded by forest, and adaption came early to the company, which was eventually renamed Hardwood Products Co. It was soon producing corndog and ice cream sticks, and by the late 1920s, tongue depressors and aseptic applicators.
The Puritan brand was trademarked for Hardwood’s medical products in 1948, and in 1965 Puritan began putting cotton on the end of a stick and making sterile cotton-tipped applicators — swabs. Puritan was certified by the Food and Drug Administration in 1975 as a medical device manufacturer, and today makes more than 1,200 types of swab and single-use sample collection devices for the medical, diagnostics, microbiology, forensics and other industries.
When the company started making products more sophisticated than swabs, “the world started opening up,” Templet says. Today it produces 5 billion swabs a year — 12 million a day.
Puritan and Hardwood became limited partnerships under the Hardwood Manufacturing LP umbrella in 2002. They’re across the street from one another. Hardwood, which trades under the brands Gold Bond and Trophy, still makes sticks for ice cream, corndogs, flags, corn on the cob, as well as wooden spoons for ice cream cups. It still makes toothpicks, both flat and round.
A tour of Puritan’s 88,000-square-foot manufacturing plant makes it clear this isn’t your grandfather’s pick mill. Employees wear caps, lab coats, surgical masks, gloves and booties. Many work on products that require extensive sterilization.
Rooms and machines have been built to produce a single product for one company.
In the 1990s, the company began producing foam-tipped applicators for industrial, medical and specimen collection uses. In 2011, it patented high-performance flocked swabs, as well as sampling kits for environmental sampling for the food and drug industries.
In 2012, it launched UniTranz-RT and Opti-Swab, media for viral and bacterial transport, and a line of specimen-collection devices. The products are available at a range of medical suppliers and cost between $300 and $400 apiece.
It also produces the PurSafe line, a DNA/RNA preservative.
“It’s never boring,” says Paul Dube, director of regulatory affairs and quality assurance. One day he’s dealing with a customer who’s trying to find the right device for a diagnostic test, “the next day it’s a crime lab looking for test ampules.”
Pallets in the warehouse are stacked with products for the 255-mile trip to Northborough, Mass., where they’ll be sterilized with radiation or ETO gas before returning to Guilford to be shipped to customers.
The rise in DNA testing, advanced disease testing, more attention to food safety and increasingly sophisticated technology requiring clean industrial machines have all boosted business.
JSI has also successfully ridden — and benefited from — the wave of change.
“As people’s tastes change, we change what we produce,” says Steve Dunham, general manager of JSI’s Milo wood-products plant. The plant makes 35 different items for grocery store produce, wine, flowers and bakery displays.
“If they want it, we make it,” says Dunham. The day he gave Mainebiz a tour of the plant, two employees were crafting rustic-looking cases for large flat-screen monitors, part of a craft beer display.
JSI also has a refrigeration products plant in 45,000 square feet of leased space in Bangor.
Duane Hallowell, vice president of refrigeration, says grocery store needs are rapidly changing beyond what the wood products division provides.
“It’s about fresh foods and prepared foods,” he says.
JSI opened the refrigeration division in 2013, and it alone generates $25 million a year in sales.
Overall, JSI had $68 million in revenue in 2016, its best year. Awalt says 2019 will be its second best, with $64 million in sales spread among its four divisions, including a Utah division that oversees West Coast customers, and one in Ontario, where JSI acquired Shaw Woodworks in 2016. It expects to generate $70 million in revenue next year, Awalt says.
The company added 60 positions this year and intends to add 40 companywide next year.
With adaptability comes something else, Awalt and Templet say — the ability to see a bigger picture.
Awalt’s brother Terry, who’s the company’s CEO, in 1991 suggested a business building store fixtures. He’d sold them and had ideas that he thought would work.
Mark Awalt wasn’t so sure.
Terry got their stepfather, Clayton Johndro, on board and the business started in the garage of Johndro’s Milo home. Mark recalls the two painting fixtures in the living room.
Mark, who earned an MBA in 1995, was soon on board. The first customer was Hannaford supermarkets. “They helped create JSI,” Awalt says.
“Terry’s a big thinker, he sees the big picture,” he says. “I’m more cautious.”
After a couple of moves, the company bought the former Dexter Shoe building in Milo in 2001, and doubled the space, to 85,000 square feet. There were 30 employees at the time. There are now close to 400, with about 200 in Milo.
It’s hard to convince Terry an idea won’t work, Mark says. He developed a banana holder for large displays that doesn’t soak up liquid, keeping bacteria down and the product fresher. Many, including Mark, were skeptical. The company now has a patent on the banana holder and has sold millions.
“Our success has a lot to do with Terry’s vision,” Awalt says. “He’s always trying to figure out ways to better serve the customer.”
In Guilford, Templet says both he and his cousin, James Cartwright, vice president of Hardwood Products, have a drive that goes beyond just running a business.
“It goes back to passion,” Templet says. “I have it, and James has the same passion for the wood business.”
Templet doesn’t have a background in medical devices. “I’m not a microbiology guy, I’m just curious.”
He says the expansion, automation, moving into fields the company hadn’t gone before may be scary, but are necessary.
“It’s about taking a risk,” he says. “It’s about taking the company to a place you think is going to work. And here we are.”