Americus Goes Global with Georgia Wood
It may be an unusual business in a suprising location, however, Jae Lee, native South Korean, founder and CEO of Georgia Chopsticks, LLC thinks that Americus, Georgia, just happens to be the perfect place for his business.
With the demand for wood products in Asia at an all time high and a lack of wood supply, Lee determined that there is a new market for chopstick manufacturing in the U.S. Most chopstick manufacturers in China use wood from the Poplar tree to supply the need for approximately 63 billion chopsticks a day. In order to help meet this demand, Lee decided that it is more economical to make unfinished chopsticks that are then shipped to China and sold wholesale to companies that finish and package the product in order to sell it to stores and resturants.
"I just sat down and thought outside the box," Lee said. "There is currently a huge market in the southeastern U.S. for simi-unfinished products; of course, outside of the normal domestic housing market that Georgia is so accustomed."
The main struggle of getting the business started was to find an abundance of wood that is similar to Poplar which has been used in China for years.
According to Lee, Georgia's Sweetgum tree, more commonly known for its thorny seedpod, is the best wood for chopsticks due to its perfect pliability - it is not too hard but not too soft. Currrently, Oakcrest Lumber, Inc. of Buena Vista, Ga, supplies a combination of Sweetgum and Poplar logs to Georgia Chopsticks on a daily basis.
The logs from Oakcrest are shipped in 16-24 foot lengths which are then cut down to 18 inches long and no more than 18 inches in diameter at the factory in Americus. The shortened logs are then pressed into a veneer that is fed into the cutting machines that roughly cut out the chopstick shape.
From the cutting machine the chopsticks move down a conveyer belt where they are sorted by quality control and moved to the drying bin. Lee designed this bin which is patterned after similar bins used to dry peanuts. After being checked once more for quality, the chopsticks are packaged and prepared to ship by truck to Savannah, where they are shipped by sea to China.
Georgia Chopsticks currently averages about four million chopsticks per day. A log that is ten inches in diameter and 18 inches long can produce approximately 2400 chopsticks. So, the facility uses 128 - 24 foot logs per day.
According to Lee, Americus is not just the perfect location for wood; it is a great location for potential employees.
According to the Americus & Sumter Payroll Development Authority (ASPDA), of the 17,013 people who live in Americus, 12 percent are unemployed. Currently, Georgia Chopsticks has 81 full time employees that work one of the two ten-hour shifts at the facility which is open 24 hours per day. By the end of the year, Lee hopes to employ up to 150 full time employees. At full production he plans to have approximately 400 full time employees.
"Americus is ideal because of the unemployed." Lee said. "It has been very easy to find new employees who are willing to work."
Lee predicts that the current lack of suppy of wood in China will result in future markets for related products such as toothpicks, popsicle sticks and matches. Also, with the expansion of his company and others, a new market could develop from the waste of these products.
Georgia Chopsticks averages a 30-40 percent waste, which, after aexpansion and increase in waste, will allow them to sell the scrap wood to biomass and paper industries.
David Garriga, executive director of ASPDA, is very optimistic about the future of Georgia Chopsticks. "This is a very unique and beneficial opportunity for our area that has been through some tough economic times," Garriga said. "It is not very often that a rural community such as Americus can provide a staple to an economic superpower such as China. Hopefully, future markets in timber and agriculture will lead us out of this."
There is no doubt that the establishment of this industry in Georgia is a sign of a birth of new markets that have previously not been available to landowners and forest related businesses. Hopefully, this new global demand for wood will offer struggling businesses a great opportunity to excel and thrive through the economic turmoil of late.