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Posted: September 16, 2011

Your next business may be hiding in plain sight

Here's the latest winner of my "Duh, Why Didn't I See That?" award

Steve Baker

I'm a huge fan of Bev Doolittle. She is often called a "camouflage artist" because her distinctive use of context, design and pattern help viewers discover images and meanings which seem hidden only until they become obvious and then, bam, they're right in front of you.

Often, new business opportunities are hidden in plain sight, right in front of us until, like Doolittle's art, we view them differently.

Anyone who has ever driven across Wyoming has noticed the miles and miles of snow fences. As I drove across those lonely highways I looked at the snow fences flying by and, like most of you, just thought, "Boy, that's a lot of wood."

But some entrepreneurs look deeper and see beyond what's in front of them.

I recently met with an interesting business group in Laramie, Wyo. The founders of this company drove by those fences everyday and wondered what happened to all that old wood when the fences needed repaired. Their investigation found that it was burned or tossed in landfills.

One person's trash is another one's treasure.

So in 1999 the founders created Centennial Woods and cut a deal with WYDOT to reclaim the wood from snow fences across Wyoming and replace it at no cost to the state. John Pope, the company's CEO explained, "We created the perfect win - win business relationship. The state gets miles of snow fences repaired for free and Centennial gets raw materials for our business."

The company trims and sizes the sustainable harvested wood and sells the boards for both interior and exterior applications across the United States and Europe.

Snow fence boards harvested by Centennial Woods can range in age from 7 to 25 years old, giving it a distinguished look that's a true product of Wyoming's wild and windy weather: snowy winters, arid winds, clear skies, and abundant sunshine. The wood is a mixture of grays and browns in unique grain patterns that are rather symbolic of the windblown state of Wyoming.

But instead of being broken down by the weather, the wood is naturally weathered and strengthened by it, or as Pope calls it, "perfectly cured."

Since snow fence boards don't touch the ground, the wood isn't affected by bugs or ground moisture making it extra resilient. And, unlike other reclaimed woods, Centennial's have never been painted or chemically treated, and are completely free of lead and other hazardous treatments common in older barns and other structures. That's important in the green building industry and Centennial was LEEDS certified.

What for years was overlooked and discarded is now an excellent lumber choice for interior and exterior building/remodeling projects of the rustic variety. The company has repurposed more than 7 million feet of reclaimed wood from snow fence, saving Wyoming more than $10 million and avoiding more than 9,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

So, Centennial Woods is the newest winner of the Steve Baker "Duh, Why Didn't I See That?" award.

Because these entrepreneurs focused on something with a curious eye, they peered deeper and discovered something that the rest of us missed. Centennial Woods exploited a business opportunity and created a thriving international business that has grown to become one of the largest providers of reclaimed wood in the world.

If you know of other creative companies that have made something big out of something else, please leave me a comment or shoot me an email. I'd love to know them.
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Steve Baker is a founder of successful businesses and a business advisor with a passion for every phase of business cycle from startup to exit. He's also a public speaker and author of "Pushing Water Uphill With a Rake," as well as an avid poor golfer. He welcomes your e-mails at and invites you to visit his website



Steve Baker is a founder of successful businesses and a business advisor with a passion for every phase of business cycle from startup to exit He’s also a public speaker and author of "Pushing Water Uphill With a Rake," as well as an avid poor golfer. He welcomes your comments and e-mails at  and invites you to visit his website

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Readers Respond

The only thing that could be improved is the title. Maybe it could be called "Pushing Wood Uphill to a Greener Value". Steve has a unique ability to find the best out of everything. Readers ought to look into his book. By Ed Larkin on 2011 10 03
Once again Steve brings us an excellent article that causes us to pause and say, "ahhh, great insight". Keep 'em coming. By Dick Baumbusch on 2011 09 30
Years ago, I met the VP of Sales at Western Woods which became Centennial Woods. So I knew about this business plan before Steve wrote his most excellent article about the Company. I remember saying to myself at the time, "Duh, why didn't I think of that." (while I was driving from Denver to Yellowstone National Park on Highway 80 - with all of the snow fences). Then, I remember saying to myself, "You should write an article about this," but of course, I never did. So a big thank you to Steve for picking up this ball and running with it. Kirk Dennis By Kirk Dennis on 2011 09 28
Great article, Steve. More than that though, Steve, your articles serve to remind us all that our country has creativity and entrepreneurship in our DNA!! Thanks for continuing to drive home this fact through your writings and your work. We are lucky to have you! Now to unleash that spirit and support that work ethic and thus turn this economy around. By Mike Jaroch on 2011 09 28
Steve, Great article. Entrepreneurs see abundance where it is not. Thanks Kevin By Kevin Cullis on 2011 09 27
Steve, what a great entrepreneurial story. I stopped to watch a toddler yesterday while walking my dog. He was down on his hands and knees on the sidewalk finding bugs and treasures that I had been walking by. We entrepreneurs would benefit from the Buddhist's perspective of looking at the world with child eyes. By TC North on 2011 09 26
Steve...I found this very helpful, and have sent it on to my business clients. It was also helpful for my company, as we're expanding into some new and interesting areas. Thanks for the great article! By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 09 22
Great article, Steve! Now if we could only figure out what to do with all the wind in Wyoming in the first place. Here's a great article suggesting that we need more infrastructure (power lines) connecting WY to the rest of the country. By Irv Stern on 2011 09 19
Thanks for reminding me that there are two (and sometimes infinitely more) sides to a story or opportunity! By Gregory Olinyk, Point-of-Reference, LLC on 2011 09 19
Love it. I so appreciate creative folks. Talk about a ripple effect! I know another company that is being creative and green. They collect all the wasted discarded granite counter top pieces that normally pile up in fabricator's yards for years and recycle them with a new stonepress that punches them into cool shapes for pavers and landscaping. By Janet Fogarty on 2011 09 17
Brilliantly simple – but indeed far too many of us can’t see what others deem obvious. Cheers for that founder on a variety of levels. By Bill Reid on 2011 09 17
Brilliant observation, relevant to business start ups, but let's back up. Why does the wood weather in the first place? Because it's not been treated. If perhaps these governmental agencies (and I have the same situation with my homeowners association) would treat the fences with Cedar Stain (or whatever is most approriate) in the first place, the fences could last 50 years or more. Preservation is better than even the most enviro-friendly replacement! By Philip G. Varley, FCA on 2011 09 17
Hi Steve – I get that reaction a lot to my business. Thanks Steve. I started by twirling a cocktail napkin rose around my fingers, something millions of people do (do you?) and in 10 years it morphed into a business with over 43,000 customers and a total cumulative $3 million in revenue. By Jeff Block on 2011 09 16
Nice article. Well written. I never would have seen it, because I don't know squat about wood. Love the non-obvious win-win stories. Thanks for sharing By Michael Cushman on 2011 09 16
Steve, excellent article. You're right. Too often our next opportunity is staring back at us. While many true entrepreneurs may see the opportunity, the concerns are ROI and how-to-do-it. Congrats to Centennial Woods for surpassing the concerns and turning them into win-win outcomes. By Jeannette Seibly on 2011 09 16
Here's another business idea: THREE men and a truck. By David Ess(EveryoneHasABoss) on 2011 09 16

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