How Working in a Sawmill Prepped me for Business & Life Better than University: Part 2/3

My first full time job was at a sawmill in my small hometown. The goal was to work there and save money to go to business school. Little did I know the mill would teach me just as much about business and life as school would.


When I was a child I always felt the need to lead people and help them, even though I didn’t realize it. In high school I became more aware of it. People listened to me when I spoke and for some reason, valued my advice and my opinion. I used this to lead school groups and then speak for my class as valedictorian. But at the mill I learned I had an intuitive knack for leadership.

Teach Me to Sawmill

Since I had a thing for systems, management thought it would be beneficial for the new hires if I taught them. At first I thought this was some kind of punishment, but I very quickly came to enjoy coaching people. I made sure they had fun, I kept it light, I didn’t burden them, and I let them make their own mistakes so they could learn from themselves.

Life’s a Joke

When your job is to teach people how to do some of the most miserable tasks in existence, its necessary to screw around a bit. Harmless pranks, a little bit of newbie hazing, and helping them prank others makes the new hires feel like they’re part of the family which is a crucial feeling to have.

“Hey, go ask that millwright if he has any dust pliers.” New people hardly ask questions, so they go ask for dust pliers. They very quickly receive a dirty look and a “piss off” response. Until they walk back to find us chuckling and realize dust pliers don’t exist. My intention was to joke around, but this quickly became a tool to help new hires ask questions. I’d ask them for something and they’d ask what it was, what we’d use it for, or what it looked like. My hires needed less training than others because they started to learn for themselves and follow systems that already worked.

Burnin’ Down the House

The following story made me realize my purpose was to lead people. Anyone can call themselves leaders, but when it comes down to the test most crack under pressure or worse, abandon their followers.

It was a brisk night and I was touring 3 newbies around the mill. Showing them this, telling them to stay away from that, etc. We walked up the very long and steep catwalk toward the “hog bin”. It was a massive bin that wood waste was dispensed into. It was raised in the air so semi-trucks could pull underneath and have the waste dumped into trailers.

I explained how it worked, then opened the side door for them to get a peek inside. BAM as I opened the door a ball of fire launched out at us. Only later would I realize it melted my hard hat and the better part of my right eyebrow. They panicked, “Holy shit, are you okay!?” “What do we do!?” “We need a fire extinguisher!!” I whipped the door closed and stood up as one of them started down the catwalk. “STOP” I yelled, “get back here.” They all stood in front of me as I firmly said, “We all have a job to do, but we need to do it like this.”

“You, go to the office across from the building you entered at the start of your shift. Call 911, tell them there’s a fire at our division, then ring the fire buzzer so we can get some help. You, go to the control panel I showed you guys, the one on the inside of the basement door. There’ll be a painted section labeled hog fuel, when I radio you turn off every switch in that section. DO NOT do it sooner because the fire will travel back inside the mill. And you’re coming with me, we’re gonna open this bin and dump it on the ground then then start spraying the inside.” They all nodded and took off.

We hauled ass to the bottom of the bin, I opened the fire box and assembled the hose. I got a radio call that my other guy was waiting at the panel. I turned the hose on and started spraying the bottom of the bin, then handed it to the newbie. “I’m gonna open this, and it’s all gonna drop onto the ground…ignore it and start spraying the inside of the bin near the conveyor to make sure the fire stays here.” Luckily it was cold out and the ground was covered in snow.

As I ran to the lever I could hear sirens approaching up the road. I radio’d my panel guy, and said “On 3 kill it all.” On 2 I switched my bin open, on 3 he shut it all down. I came back around the corner to see a huge pile of burning wood waste on the ground, and my guy spraying out the bin. The fire dept showed up just seconds later and took over.

We helped clean up the mess that night and salt the ice that formed. My newbies were taken away and I was tasked to stay behind and make sure the fire didn’t spark up again.

The newbies and I didn’t get any recognition for that night. No medal or award, but I wouldn’t have wanted one anyways. I like to think we possibly saved the lives of the other employees that night, and that we saved the jobs of over 200 people. I believe true leaders don’t need recognition for their efforts, we aren’t after fame. Fame sometimes follows, but we would be fine forever working in the shadows making our worlds a better place.