Colleen Smith with Mobile Bay Firewood

Colleen Smith with Mobile Bay Firewood

This week on The Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, we sit down with Colleen Smith. Listen in as we discuss her life, career journey, and how she got into the world of wood!

Produced by Blue Fish.


Colleen Smith: Hi, my name is Colleen Smith and I'm the co-owner of Mobile Bay Firewood. Marcus Neto: Awesome. Well, welcome to the podcast Colleen. Colleen Smith: Thank you, it's nice to be here. Marcus Neto: Yeah. And so we'll get to the business here in a second, because I'm actually really interested in, I mean, firewood. I've got to hear the story behind this, but before we get there why don't you tell us the story of Colleen? Like where are you from? Where did you go to high school? Did you go to college? Are you married? That kind of stuff. Colleen Smith: Yeah. So I'm originally from London, Ontario, Canada. I moved here in 2005, so I don't think anybody will know where I went to high school. Oakridge Secondary School in London, Ontario. And then went to... I moved here in 2005 to play volleyball at South Alabama. Marcus Neto: Oh, very cool. Colleen Smith: And so that's kind of what brought me here. And I played volleyball there for graduating in 2009. Marcus Neto: What did you study yourself? Colleen Smith: Exercise Science. Marcus Neto: Okay. Colleen Smith: So not related- Marcus Neto: [crosstalk 00:00:56] within that same... yeah. Colleen Smith: ... to business whatsoever, but yeah. So I did some personal training for a while and still currently have a full-time job. My husband and I both are co-owners and we both have full-time jobs, but... So yes, I'm married and we have two small kids, four and six. Marcus Neto: Very cool. Colleen Smith: So... Marcus Neto: And does your full-time job, is it in any way in relation to this or no? Colleen Smith: No. Marcus Neto: Completely different. Colleen Smith: Yeah. We're still in the kind of "side hustle" phase- Marcus Neto: And that's... We've had people on and just for the audience too because I don't know that I've said this recently. We've talked to people that are just getting started and people that have been doing this for decades. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And so that doesn't... because what I am impressed with is that I can sit, and I'm not saying you, but I can sit with somebody that has literally just started a business and they have learned something that I need to hear. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And so it doesn't matter where they are on the path, I still want to hear the story because the story of somebody starting relates to somebody... it's easier for somebody that hasn't started to relate to them because they're closer. Colleen Smith: Yeah, for sure. Marcus Neto: Whereas somebody like me that's been at this for 15 years, if I talk to somebody that's been at it somewhere in that same neighborhood, then I can relate to them a little bit more because they're dealing with the growth issues and finding people, personnel, HR, all that stuff that I'm dealing with. Colleen Smith: Right, exactly. Yeah. Marcus Neto: So anyway. Well tell me what your first job was, I'm assuming that they make people work up there in Canada. And so were there any lessons that you still remember from that? Colleen Smith: My first job, I guess technically, was babysitting- Marcus Neto: Okay. Colleen Smith: But- Marcus Neto: No, that's good. [crosstalk 00:02:37] for me. Colleen Smith: Okay. That was like as young as I think the legal age was 11, so I was babysitting at 11. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: I saved enough, I learned the value of saving through that. I mean, I was frugal and I saved enough. I babysat all through until I moved out and then got another job, but I saved enough money to plan a backpacking trip to Europe, that would I was- Marcus Neto: Wow. Colleen Smith: Yeah. So I just saved it all. I'm like I'm living at home- Marcus Neto: Wow. Colleen Smith: It's tax-free, they paid me well at the time and I can't say I loved kids, but it was an easy job where I could work whenever I wanted to work. And so I guess that would be the very first paying job. Marcus Neto: No, that's cool. And that's not... I don't think that anybody's ever answered that way, so that's really neat. Now you... I mean, how in the world do you get started in a firewood business? Colleen Smith: Yeah, that's a great question. Marcus Neto: I mean like what... I mean, especially, let's just point out, how many cold days a year do we have in the South? And that's not to say that people don't enjoy fires outside of that, but I mean, it's not exactly- Colleen Smith: So that has been the number one thing that most people say, is like, "You started a firewood business in Southern Alabama?" I'm like, "Yes, and you would not believe the market." Marcus Neto: Probably because nobody else has ever thought to do it- Colleen Smith: Nobody else is doing this, yeah. So we started... actually, we got married in December 2009 and we had 30 acres of land out in Mississippi. We built a log cabin, we just lived in the woods basically. And we had no money, newlyweds, my husband's a firefighter for the City of Mobile and he was doing that still then. And we had this 30 acres of land and he's like, "Oh, I'm going to clear the trees." He's just like a country guy and he's like, "Why don't I just sell it for firewood?" I'm like, "Yeah." Colleen Smith: So honestly our whole business and even our business dynamic began back then in 2010, he would just cut trees down, split it, let it season for a whole year. And then I had the... I was the extrovert, I was the one with the relationships with people, in Spring Hill and Mobile and I got basically our sales. Colleen Smith: And so it was just totally not a lot. I mean, just a little bit of firewood here and there. And really Jason always said, this is kind of where the entrepreneurial bit came in from day one. He always said, "There's got to be a better way than my back, which is breaking-" Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: "... from cutting firewood. And making a hundred bucks to drive at 30 minutes and let it season for a whole year and I get a hundred dollars for this? There's no money in this." And he any event anyway, he did it for about five years, gave it up and kept kind of coming back to like, "There's got to be a better way to do this, maybe machines or whatever." Anyway, we had our first child and then he went on a hunting trip, a guys' trip up to Michigan in October 2018. And I don't know how, but stumbled upon this massive firewood operation. And he called me on the way back and he was like, "All right, are you ready?" I was like, "I don't know." Marcus Neto: Should I sit down for this one? Colleen Smith: So he said, "I've got an idea, a business idea. I think this is a good idea." I was like, "All right, well, let me hear it." So he just basically explained this concept of kiln-dried firewood and everything being machine operated and not handling it by hand. And not running out, one of the issues would be inventory, right? Like if we're just cutting wood off of our own property, when we run out of trees, then we're done. What do we sell? Marcus Neto: Right. Colleen Smith: So we've just changed the whole concept. And so we are currently the only kiln-dried firewood supplier on the Gulf Coast. But so he had this idea, started to do a ton of market research. He flew around the country to look at other operations- Marcus Neto: Wow. Colleen Smith: ... that are doing this and talked to the owners. One guy was really helpful up in Hilton Head area and they have a massive... I mean he's grown immensely in seven years and just kind of shared his information with us and was super helpful. So we kind of went all in and bought all the equipment and a kiln and machines and kind of basically the way it's done, call it the old-school way, the side of the road firetruck, kind of guy way. You're handling the firewoods approximately seven times yourself individually. We've cut it down to one. So basically eliminating all sorts of wasted time. Marcus Neto: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Colleen Smith: So, yeah. Marcus Neto: Yeah. It's just interesting to me because obviously in the service industry that we are, we're always looking for inefficiencies, ways to automate processes, tools that we can use that help get around time. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: Right? Colleen Smith: Exactly. Marcus Neto: I never would've thought that in firewood that there are ways of doing that same thing, so it's really interesting to me. So is there some sort of mechanism by which you go up, grab the tree, cuts it, trims it into the pieces and then those pieces get thrown into the back and taken to the kiln, or? I mean- Colleen Smith: Yes and no. So we actually buy our trees from loggers. So we don't use the trees that we currently own. Maybe one day we'll get to that point, but right now it's easy to just... we have relationships with different loggers and they come deliver an 18-wheeler full of trees and they'll just throw them on our property and we'll pay for them in advance and they might sit there until we need them. But we have a firewood processor, which is a machine that's got, I think it's a four-foot blade. So we load the trees onto this thing. It's machine operated, one guy sitting in the cab with a joystick or whatever. And my husband, if he listens to this, he's going to be like, "Colleen, come on," obviously I don't operate that. Colleen Smith: But anyway, so it cuts it and splits it basically in one motion and then it goes up a conveyor and we tumble it to get rid of debris and bark and we just want good clean wood. And then it goes into baskets. And then we fill these metal baskets and then we fill the kiln with the baskets. So a kiln is... it's basically a giant oven. So we dry the wood for approximately two days. So we can take a tree that's standing like in Baldwin County today and it could be- Marcus Neto: By the weekend it could be firewood. Colleen Smith: Yeah. They could be cut, split, dried down to about 20% moisture content and then ready to go in five or six days. Marcus Neto: Wow. Colleen Smith: So it's a pretty... it's a quick, quick, quick process. Marcus Neto: And the demand is high enough to warrant? Colleen Smith: Yeah. So we actually have learned, we're in our... Well, we're in our off season right now obviously, but we just went through our second full season. And in our second season, we left a lot of money on the table. We bottlenecked and we reached capacity. Yeah, in year two, which was crazy. So we've, since... not since, we're having another kiln built currently up in South Carolina and they're going to ship it down to us I think in June next month. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: So about a second kiln we've got... we're basically doubling our capacity, doubling everything. We've got a second delivery truck- Marcus Neto: Because that was the bottleneck was the kiln. Colleen Smith: Yes... Marcus Neto: If you don't want to say that, that's totally fine. Colleen Smith: It's fine, it's fine. The bottleneck was... Yes, the bottleneck was the kiln for sure. And we're actually changing up our entire process so that we're actually not going to be processing into the baskets anymore, which is a whole different thing. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: But yes, the bottleneck was the kiln. We ran it basically I think from like October, November, pretty much 24 hours with that turnaround time. We gave Spire gas, like... We had a hefty bill with them, but yeah, it was... there's a demand, like massive. People love a fire and I think COVID actually helped. People could sit outside and we had a cold winter, so we have kind of three facets too of the business. So we're not just selling to individuals, we do barbecue joints, like most barbecue, bonefish grill actually, a few different restaurants. And then- Marcus Neto: Well, even the barbecue place up there in Spring Hill, I can't remember the name of it off the top of my head, which is right there- Colleen Smith: Brickwood? They closed. Marcus Neto: No, the one on the other side of 65. Colleen Smith: Oh, Dreamland. Marcus Neto: Dreamland. Colleen Smith: Yeah. We actually don't, they've got an old somebody they've used forever. Marcus Neto: Okay. Colleen Smith: But whatever. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: And then commercial. So like little bundles of firewood, we do the packaging processing of that and deliver too, we actually had a delivery today. Marcus Neto: I just... I mean, that was one of the things that I've wanted to get into when you wanted to come on or when you said that you wanted to come on was just like, why firewood? Because like I'm from the Northeast, I get it up there, you know what I mean? The demand is high. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And oftentimes in the wintertime, depending on where you're at. So like I went to school in the Shenandoah Valley and the apartment that I had, if you didn't start that fireplace, it had a heat pump. And then when it gets to zero that heat pump was not keeping up with the temperature. So you had to start a fire in order to keep the apartment warm. Marcus Neto: And so, but down here, it's just kind of like, I don't know, like we're looking at building a house right. Actually we are going to build a house. I'm not looking at it, but we sat down with a planner to talk about, you know, the CAD drawings and stuff like that. And we mentioned a fireplace and they were like, "Well, I mean, if you want one." But then I was like, "Yeah, well now I'm also kind of curious, what do you think about gas heat?" And both the builder and the planner were like, "Why would you ever want gas heat down here? We have like four whole days a winter, the heat pump is fine." So it's just, it was interesting to me, so. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Well, I mean, a lot of people use them for... we have our residential customers use them for outdoor fire pits, their fireplace inside or more people are doing pizza ovens than ever. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: So there was actually a national, you probably don't know this, a national firewood shortage last year. So we actually got a call from Ace Hardware down in Orlando, seeing if we could supply. And that's another reason we are doing this next step, is we couldn't supply. And we want to be able to, that's one of our goals, is not necessarily Orlando Ace, but Ace Hardware locally and Aldine, and getting into some of the bigger distributors. Marcus Neto: Yeah. One of the things I didn't realize was just how much timberland there is in Alabama. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And I guess if you've got access to timber, then starting a firewood company that isn't... not a bad idea. Colleen Smith: Yeah, and it's one of the reasons I think it's been successful is most people say like, "That's crazy." I mean, it was hard, so nobody wants to do it. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: Nobody wants to- Marcus Neto: But at the same time, it's like, "It's perfect. It works great." Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: Well, so if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them? Colleen Smith: This is going to sound... hear me out here, don't do it. Hear me out. It is hard. So that's... if you're not... My bit of wisdom is if you're not completely and utterly dedicated, if you don't believe and know that it's going to work- Marcus Neto: Right. Colleen Smith: Don't go into it half-ass, basically. My husband says, we're exactly where he kind of thought we would be. Everyone's kind of shocked at the success and he's like, "No, I mean, if you do your market research and you know what you're getting into and..." There's a level of confidence, not arrogance, just confidence in what you're doing in your product, if you believe in it. But if you don't have that, then don't do it. Save your money, your time. It is, hands down, the hardest thing. I mean, both of us are still working full-time jobs and this firewood business is more than a full-time job. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: But save yourself. Anyway, I'm not trying to sound negative. Marcus Neto: No, not at all, because I think people need to hear that. There's this pie in the sky mentality that surrounds the word entrepreneur. Colleen Smith: Yes, absolutely. Marcus Neto: Right? Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur like Gary Vaynerchuk, you can be your own boss, blah, blah, blah. Grant Cardone this, go into real estate, blah, blah, blah. And it's just kind of like, I wanted this to be a positive outlet for people to hear what the people of Mobile were doing like yourself, but I also want it to be realistic in that, there are over 25,000 micro businesses in Mobile alone. Colleen Smith: Wow. Marcus Neto: And that's a stat from the chamber, that's not a stat from Marcus Neto, okay? Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: So I'm on the board for the chamber. And I think they said it was 27,000, but I'm going to just say 25,000 plus. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And so those people are doing kind of what you're doing. It's a side hustle. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: Right? And then that doesn't even count how many small businesses there are in Mobile, which I'm sure there are probably 10,000. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: So I mean, we are an area of hustlers of people that want to make eke out in existence for ourselves and share things that we're passionate about and stuff like that. But the reality is, it's not easy. Colleen Smith: Yeah, I mean, you give up sleep and your free time. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: Especially in the early stages, it is a grind. And if you don't have that grind and grit, then- Marcus Neto: It took me well over a decade before I felt like I had some wiggle room of taking some time off or just saying, "Screw it, I don't feel like doing it today. I'm going to go sit by the pool and read a book," or something like that. Colleen Smith: Absolutely, yeah. Marcus Neto: So, I mean, it's not easy, you know what I mean? And people need to know that. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: If you look to the business world, is there a person that you imagine, that you look to and that kind of motivates you or that you kind of look up to? Colleen Smith: Honestly, not necessarily. I mean, we're... I wouldn't even call myself an entrepreneur, I'm not one of those... I don't know. We just kind of had this business idea and started it. So, hey, I don't have time to read. I've listened to podcasts or books on tape probably because I can't sit still either, I have to move. But I mean, I've listened to like Guy Raz, How I Built This podcast, which I love. And I mean, I listened to this one actually. And then being involved with innovation portal. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: They've been of a huge help. So honestly that's kind of it and I don't really have any- Marcus Neto: Well, maybe the next question is one that you can answer then. So are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been really helpful in moving you forward? And you mentioned the, How I Built This. Colleen Smith: Yeah. That... Okay, so the reason that... I mean, that was just a fascinating... there're so many fascinating stories on that. Marcus Neto: The thing that gets me about that podcast is, it started after this one and I listened to it when it first started out and I would still listen to it. I just don't have... I'm not as much as I used to. I think it's a phenomenal podcast with the similarities between what he does and what we do. Colleen Smith: Uh-huh (affirmative). Marcus Neto: They're so similar. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: I was just like, "What the heck man!" Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: "Come on!" I don't think he's ever even heard of... I know he hasn't, but it's just funny- Colleen Smith: But I just like... I think the thing that it's drawn me to, I guess even this one, I like hearing the local stories- Marcus Neto: Yep. Colleen Smith: And then that is more national obviously, ones that have made it big, but hearing as we're in this grind, it's a lonely place sometimes to be. And your friends don't really get what you're doing, your family doesn't really get what you're doing, people kind of think you're crazy. Marcus Neto: Yep. "Just get a job." Colleen Smith: Yeah. But being able to hear other... even just for me, it's I get to hear on a podcast that, "Hey, other people are going through this same thing," or "Other people have been here, you're not doing... you're not alone," kind of thing. So I think just honestly hearing other stories and I really enjoy the local stories. I don't know, it's just... it hits home a little bit more and it's exciting to see all of the progress in Mobile and- Marcus Neto: Yeah. I mean, and going back to comparing those two podcasts, so How I Built This, he interviews like the... and I can't remember her name, the lady that started Spanx and all these really big founders of large brand names that we would all know. And hearing their stories and then hearing stories of entrepreneurs that I know locally, there's not much difference between the two- Colleen Smith: There's not. Mm-mm (negative), no. Marcus Neto: And that's what I find... that I find fascinating is, we've interviewed 200 plus people for this podcast. And there's not that many differences between what they're saying and the... and I think, I don't know, if there was... I've been trying to figure out why it is that somebody like that is able to find this trajectory that is to the moon. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And then most of the local entrepreneurs, it's like, well they may grow their business to a certain extent, they may have a lot of employees, but for the vast majority of them, they're not getting to the a hundred million dollar mark. Colleen Smith: Right. Marcus Neto: Right? Let alone multiples of that or billions. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Marcus Neto: And so it's been interesting to me kind of as a case study, if you will. Colleen Smith: Yeah. Well, I think some of the... like a common thread that I noticed in yours and theirs is, you start and then there's the high and the hype and you feel excited and then there's the adversity that hits. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: And that is just- Marcus Neto: Like a tunnel breaks, smacks you right in the face. Colleen Smith: Yes. And sometimes it's two steps forward, one step backward, or it's one step forward, two steps backwards. But as long as you're kind of moving forward. But that, because we've just faced, I feel like one thing after the next. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: And it's been encouraging to hear- Marcus Neto: "I'm not alone." Colleen Smith: I'm not alone, this is the normal path for an entrepreneur. Marcus Neto: Yeah. If it was easy everybody do that. Colleen Smith: Yet successfully... Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Marcus Neto: Well, normally I ask what's the most important thing you've learned? But I think you've already talked about multiple things there. So I'll jump into how do you like to unwind? Colleen Smith: I mean, I enjoy a good glass of wine at night. Marcus Neto: Or five. Colleen Smith: I try not to... My husband is a big bourbon guy, so he does that and I'll sit with my glass of wine, but play with the kids and... But more on the totally unwinding from the business, is like both he and I, we love to travel. I mean, and we've got... that's truly the only way for us to escape escape, is to get out of Mobile. Marcus Neto: I'll call an audible and I'll go, what's your favorite place that you've ever visited? And what's a place that's on your bucket list? Colleen Smith: Okay. So favorite would be Italy. Marcus Neto: Okay. Colleen Smith: I mean, just like the food- Marcus Neto: Food and the culture- Colleen Smith: And the culture and the wine and every... it's ridiculous. Eventually it's like the most immaculate, amazing church. It's just like, "Oh, another church," there're so many, but yeah, probably Italy. And I don't know, we went all over Italy. I think I liked the Amalfi Coast the best. And then bucket list, which hopefully will happen next year is Costa Rica. I mean, I want to go honestly all over the entire world, that's my goal, but not every country, you know what I mean? But we were supposed to go to Costa Rica last year for our 10 year anniversary in April, right before COVID. So we're going next year. So I'm hopeful that that can happen. Marcus Neto: I've heard a lot of good things about Costa Rica. And actually there was a conference that a buddy of mine was holding there probably like five or six years ago. And I still kick myself to this day for not going because he was staying at an eco tourist facility that light generated all their own, fuel and their own electricity and they grew a lot of their own food and stuff like that. And I think it would have been real interesting- Colleen Smith: That's neat. Marcus Neto: ... thing to see. And as far as... you mentioned something and I was going to go back to it, I can't remember now I'm getting old. Colleen Smith: Wine in Italy? Just kidding. Marcus Neto: No, I don't know what it is. So it just escaped me. Colleen Smith: It's gone. It's okay. Marcus Neto: It'll pop into my mind after we cut the audio. So tell people where they can find you. Colleen Smith: Yeah, our website is and then we're on Facebook and Instagram. Yeah. Marcus Neto: No, that's very good. And I mean, just give people an idea, like a bundle of firewood or cord of firewood, right now today's prices, if somebody called you, what would that be? Colleen Smith: Yeah, so we deliver by the pallet. So we don't do cord and a pallet... We kind of changed the whole way that firewood sales are done. So we do it by the pallet so we can just drop and go basically like we'll do 15 to 20 deliveries a day. And so that's 187 plus tax for a pallet. And that's... I mean, it's a five foot high. Marcus Neto: Jeez, that's a lot of wood for- Colleen Smith: Yeah. It's 32 inch by 32 inch square pallet and we stack the firewood five feet high. So that's 187 plus tax. Marcus Neto: That's not expensive at all. It's actually really inexpensive. Colleen Smith: And then plus delivery. So it comes out to right around 200 something. And then we sell to like Greer's, Piggly Wiggly, Redbeard's, those kind of... And then gas stations, grocery stores, we sell 75 bundles in a pallet and then they resell. And typically the resell for that is like 599, 699 a bundle. Marcus Neto: Yeah, no, it's really good. Because I had no frame of reference of course, I used to buy cords of firewood back when I was in college. We'd buy firewood, stack it up outside the apartment complex and then a bunch of us would like split it kind of thing. But I think, I dare say we were paying more for that than what you're charging. And it sounds like you might even be giving more wood. I don't remember what a cord of wood actually meant- Colleen Smith: A cord is a lot of wood. Yeah, people would call us and say, "I want a cord." I'm like, "No, you don't." That's just the only kind of frame. Yeah. So one of our pallets is actually around a fifth of a cord, which is about 220 pieces. It's still a lot. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong then. Colleen Smith: That's okay. Marcus Neto: But anyway. Colleen, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast, to wrap up any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share? Colleen Smith: Just, I guess, thanks to the Mobile business community. I mean, they've been very supportive and even the residents of Mobile and Baldwin County. We've had a lot of positive feedback and a lot of people saying like, "Finally, a reliable firewood source." And we've just had a lot of really positive feedback from the community and innovation portal and the chamber and just everybody. So we appreciate that. Marcus Neto: Well, no, that's really cool. You came up with, I mean it's not a new idea, but it's a 'new to Mobile' idea and that's something, so. Well, Colleen, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you. Colleen Smith: Thanks Marcus. Marcus Neto: Yeah. Colleen Smith: I enjoyed it.
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