Traveling the World for Wood: An area man’s 3,700 mile Commute

TRAVERSE CITY – After six flight connections and almost 24 hours of travel, Rick Paid finally reaches his destination of Santarem, Brazil. He's more than 3,700 miles away from his hometown of Traverse City. For the next month he'll be sleeping in a small house he built in a forest, which is home to seven different types of monkeys. In what little spare time he has, he'll also kite board along the Amazon River. But Paid is not on an exotic vacation, rather on a business trip he takes several times a years.

"I spend about one in ten days there," he says. Needless to say, I've racked up quite a few frequent flier miles over the years."

Paid is the owner of Rare Earth Hardwoods in Traverse City and Zero Impact Brazil in Santarem, a city about 1,600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. It's where the Amazon and the Tapajos rivers meet and was once home to the Tapajos Indians, a Native American tribe after which the river was named.

So what's the connection between these two companies and why are their offices on different sides of the equator? The story spans almost three decades, starting with Paid's love of everything lumber. "I just love working with wood," he says. "There's something about its feel, its texture, its smell. My favorite is the production side of it."

In 1982 he opened Rare Earth Hardwoods, which manufactures and supplies wholesale and retail customers worldwide with specialty domestic and imported wood products like flooring, inlays and marine plywood. He was the sole employee at the time, but over the years his business expanded to include a 60,000-square-foot mill production facility on 10 acres of land on East Traverse Highway, and up to 44 employees during the construction craze in 2005.

"Unfortunately right now with the weak economy, people just aren't building as much and we are down to 11 employees," explains Paid. "During the slow times we have to trim our staff and refocus our budget plan."

Rare Earth Hardwoods' inventory consists of more than half a million board feet of lumber, including traditional woods like beech, cedar and mahogany. Rare Earth also offers for sale exotic Brazilian cherry, purpleheart and zebrawood.

Where does all this wood come from? That's where Brazil comes into the picture. While some of the wood is harvested locally and around the Midwest, a good majority comes from Brazil. Approximately 27 percent of the South American country is made of up frontier forests. One study estimates the Brazilian portion of the Amazon basin has (or had at one time) more than 11,000 different tree species. Some of them can grow to be more than 200 feet tall.

Because Paid was importing so much wood from Brazil to Traverse City, in 2002 he opened Zero Impact Brazil, which currently has three employees. "Our direct involvement at the source enables Rare Earth Hardwoods to better monitor the production practices of our associate mills in the region," he says. He also adds that by having a business in Brazil, he is able to provide Traverse City with exotic woods that are otherwise hard to find.

The office, located just two degrees south of the equator, sits on a minimally harvested site along the Amazon region and includes a 2,000 acre preserve of virgin forest. "I came up with the company name on one of my long flights," says Paid. "We want to have as little impact on Brazil's environment as possible." He stresses that his companies do not go into forests and merely cut down hundreds of trees, rather they are "committed to the responsible harvesting of timber used in our products." And if trees are cut down, they are replanted – a practice called sustainable logging.

Since opening his Brazil office almost 10 years ago, Paid has been able to secure the rights to woods that would otherwise be wasted, allowing him to sell more lumber without cutting down additional trees. "We utilize leftover wood from other loggers," he says and gives this example. "Recently we found a seven foot burl that was left to rot in the forest. We were able to use that wood for a project."

Like Rare Earth Hardwoods, Zero Impact Brazil also has customers all over the globe, including a well-known U.S. guitar company that recently ordered a large quantity of rosewood. Paid goes on to say his two companies rely on each other during slow times. "Right now the Brazil economy is doing very well, so it's directly helping out the Traverse City office during these slow times." BN

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