Bob Sourek: Tenacious Businessman, Renewable Energy Pioneer

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 11, 2013

The founder and chairman of Bear Mountain Forest Products is helping to change Oregon's energy future for the better.

Soft-spoken and modest, Bob Sourek is working with Sustainable Northwest to implement biomass-based community energy projects

It was 1987 and a young entrepreneur hoped to jumpstart a fledgling firewood business. Bob Sourek, a former forester with the U.S. Forest Service, had quit a comfortable job to strike it out on his own. With his forestry expertise, a venture in firewood and firewood equipment seemed to make sense. But with no capital or business experience, things didn't look good. The market was already saturated.

As a forester, Bob had been interested in things like sawdust, wood shavings, and small-diameter trees - residual 'waste products' that came out of logging and timber harvests, which no one used. Bob came from a family that wasted as little as possible; his father re-used and re-tooled everything in the house. Having grown up with this ethic, he couldn't help but wonder if something similar could be done with timber by-products.

One day in Portland he saw something that galvanized him: a pellet stove, which uses condensed wood to heat homes in place of traditional wood-burning stoves, furnaces, or other heaters. To an ordinary person, the stove might have elicited mild curiosity at best, but Bob was no ordinary guy. Immediately, he was struck by its promise.

The pellet stove crystallized a vision for Bob.  "It used such a small amount of fuel and it burned so completely there was no smoke. I thought it was the greatest thing," Bob says. Seeing lumber waste transformed into clean-burning, efficient fuel, he started Bear Mountain Forest Products to produce pellets himself.  

But pellets - tiny pieces of compressed wood shavings and sawdust - were not easy to make, and Bob had no idea how to make them. Nor did he have money, land, production equipment, or a labor force. He did, however, have ingenuity and bravado. "I knew a mill that had a hard time getting rid of its waste, they were paying lots of money to dispose of their wood chips and shavings. So I approached the owner and said, "If you give me a spot to put my building, let me use your forklift, your shop, and the steam from your dry kiln, I'll take this waste material off your hands for nothing. And he went for it. He saw it as a win-win because I was taking away the cost of his waste." With free rent, free facilities, and no labor costs, Bob was on his way.

Wood shavings and sawdust are the building blocks of pellets
Wood shavings and sawdust are the building blocks of pellets

It took two years of trial and error for Bob to come up with decent pellets and the right mechanism to produce them. "It got to the point where I couldn't turn my back on the machine, it broke down so much" Good thing I was in my 20s, it would have killed me now," Bob chuckles. "The times I made bad pellets and had to go out, pick them up, take them back and say "I'm sorry," to customers - there was a lot of that. I definitely bit off more than I could chew. It was a tough two years."

After five years, Bob finally had a solid product and a reliable process. Meanwhile, most people didn't know what pellets were or what his business was about. "What are you making? Pallets?", they would ask.

Thriving under Adversity

Just when Bob had everything figured out, the 'timber wars' cut the region?s economic lifeline in the early 1990s. Decades of land mismanagement created a situation in which once abundant resources were now scarce, the spotted owl was endangered, and old growth trees were disappearing. As the timber industry came to a near-grinding halt, Bob had to adapt and diversify his products to stay in business. From wood materials less impacted by the crisis, the company produced animal bedding, Presto logs, BBQ pellets, and fuel bricks. Just as he had done with the heating pellets, Bob spent time discovering the right configurations of ingredients and processes for these new products.

Despite these hardships, the business steadily grew. In 2000, a corporation approached Bob and asked him to purchase their facility. "It was like David buying Goliath," Bob says. Upon acquiring the second plant, the business tripled in size.  

Today, Bear Mountain Forest Products continues to evolve and grow. It has come a long way, from a one-man shop to now employing more than 50 people at two plants. In its first year, it produced two tons of pellets per day; now it produces 400 tons/day at one plant alone. The company ships to five states and serves both residential as well as commercial customers. As always, there are challenges to face, including continuing fluctuations in the supplies and costs of raw materials. Yet he is as motivated as ever and committed to advancing what has become a passionate cause for him.

The finished product ? a bag of pellets ? is a clean and efficient fuel source.
The finished product - a bag of pellets - is a clean and efficient fuel source.

From Businessman to Activist

Bob is driven by a vision that Northwestern communities will one day become self-sufficient, producing their own heat and energy while generating revenues that stay within the community. "When you look at the potential, it's incredible, it's fantastic. It's all home-grown fuel. You look at the oil and propane that people are using - all that money leaves the state, and so this is an opportunity to create local energy. Jobs can be right here at home. And it's clean technology."

Much of this technology comes from overseas. Inspired by developments in Europe - particularly in Sweden, Germany, and Austria - where towns and cities use biomass boilers in place of fossil fuels, Bob is determined to disseminate this technology in Oregon. Beyond being clean and smokeless, these boilers heat building complexes quietly and invisibly in concealed facilities underground or elsewhere.  

Sustainable Northwest has worked with Bob to install similar commercial boilers at institutions throughout eastern Oregon. "Through the efforts of groups like Sustainable Northwest, people are starting to see it. It's not a dream, it's not a novel idea anymore, it's practical. And for me it's exciting because we can use those materials out of the woods that I thought could be used many years ago."  

Together, Bob and Sustainable Northwest are changing the future of energy development in Oregon.  You can learn more about how biomass projects are saving communities thousands of dollars in reduced heating costs and creating local jobs in the process.  Read these stories here.

Interested in Bear Mountain Forest Products? Check out the company website here.