Growing up in the mill town of Rumford, Louise Jonaitis developed an inherent attitude about Maine’s 17 million acres of forest: There’s value in wood beyond shade and aesthetics.

SAUNDERS BROS. AT LOCKE MILLS LLC
256 Main St., Locke Mills
Founded: 1900; purchased by Jonaitis in 2010
Products: Customized wood components
Employees: 24
Annual revenue: $1 million
Contact: 875-2025
www.saundersbros.com

“People have stored knowledge based on their life experiences,” she says, an observation she tested over nearly two decades in social work. “I understand the intrinsic value of wood, something that’s often not valued by a lot of outsiders.”

That philosophy gave her an edge when her $450,000 bid bought the former Saunders Bros. dowel mill in Locke Mills, a 111-year-old manufacturer of wood products that went on the auction block last year. The only woman bidding in a room filled with more than 250 men, Jonaitis wanted the whole mill — building, land, equipment, inventory — to restart the operation. Most of the other bidders were only interested in capturing the customized milling machines or the real estate. “This is a gem of a mill. I knew I could make it work,” she says. “And I really wanted to put people back to work.”

Ten months later, the 24 employees she rehired are producing dowels, rolling pins, drum sticks, paintbrush handles, croquet mallets, furniture and other customized wood components. They’ve also accomplished another of Jonaitis’ goals: breaking $1 million in sales in her first year of ownership. “I think maybe next year we can double that,” she says.

Jonaitis made the transition from social work to business to fulfill a lifelong entrepreneurial urge. A fortuitous meeting with George Denney, former CEO of Cole Haan and Jonaitis’ angel investor, provided the financial support. The operation in Locke Mills, a village within the Oxford County town of Greenwood, is the latest in a series of business ventures that began with her 2005 purchase of Plumbago Mountain in Newry, where she successfully restarted a tourmaline mine that now provides gems to Cross Jewelers. From there, she expanded into mills, buying the Saunders Bros. sister operation in Fryeburg and a wood mill in Andover that was supplying furniture to Ethan Allen.

She intended to buy the troubled Moosehead Furniture plant in Monson, but abandoned her $1.05 million bid when environmental issues surrounding the property came to light, and instead purchased the company name and its assets. The results are stacked neatly in the 126,000-square-foot Locke Mills plant where Moosehead bookcases, beds, hutches and more await final assembly before heading to retailers. “I love these pieces, and I paid dearly to save them,” says Jonaitis as she runs her hand over a handsome maple bookcase on the factory floor. “I’m thinking of starting a new line in pine.”

Conjuring new approaches to traditional products has been a recurring theme in the success of the mill. Soon after purchasing it, Jonaitis reached out to IKEA and landed a contract making wood components, mostly dowels, for the mega home furnishings retailer. She’s talking to Wal-Mart now, hoping to capitalize on its recent campaign to offer products made in America.

Although most of her employees were happy to simply have their jobs back, Jonaitis knew she would be taking the company in a new direction and needed their buy-in. She offered many a $3 to $4 per-hour bump to come back to work and immediately began a cross-training program to gain efficiencies at the plant.

While she’s proud of the success she’s had with her enterprises, they are a means to an end that takes Jonaitis back to her social work roots. Once she has enough profit, she intends to finance a program to end homelessness in Maine through a sustainable model she developed from her work with shelter programs as a social worker. “I grew up poor, but happy, because I had the essentials,” she says. “Others don’t. In my mind, there just shouldn’t be hunger or homelessness in Maine.”

IN HER OWN WORDS

What was the biggest challenge of your career? To not second-guess myself.

When did you know you’d made it? When people thanked me for a job here at Saunders.

What advice do you wish you’d gotten early in your career? I got plenty of advice, I just didn’t listen.

“I’ll relax when … real estate values go back up in Maine. It’s an indication of what we value here.”

What was your “Haven’t we moved beyond this” moment? When I hear people say Maine’s too expensive to do business in. I don’t believe that.