Taking on the title of “Wood King” means filling some tough shoes, but the Black Diamond business’s new owners are up for the challenge.
Gaurav Ahlawat and Vineeth Mummadi had planned to operate a gas station together in Calgary, but their daily drives past the “for sale” sign at the Wood King in Black Diamond’s northeast got their creative juices flowing.
“We would drive past this lot pretty much every day,” said Ahlawat, who said they moved to Naptha for its rural beauty, despite working in the city. “It’s a prime location on the commercial side.”
Born and raised in India, the two met while attending the University of Winnipeg in 2006. Mummadi studied business administration and Ahlawat, who now lives in Calgary with his wife, studied human resource management.
They both worked various jobs from construction to real estate before deciding to pursue a business venture together.
“A lot of people know Wood King as a business that’s been there for 35 years in Black Diamond,” said Ahlawat. “We took it as a challenge. It’s a completely new avenue.”
Ahlawat and Mummadi are taking the Wood King to the next level by expanding beyond the firewood business to include custom-made wooden furniture, wood sculptures, fence posts and log homes.
“We want to get into reclaimed wood as well,” Ahlawat said. “We’re looking to do anything to do with wood. The customers need to have options.”
The business partners took over from Kevin Nicholson on Dec. 7 and opened in January.
“People are excited about the business not shutting down,” Ahlawat said. “We get random people coming in saying they’re glad we’re still open.”
Mummadi expects the firewood side to continue to be a big part of business.
“Kevin had a steady market - he had his clientele,” he said. “A lot of people around here still use firewood because they live on acreages. On a normal day we’re outside splitting wood and delivering wood to the Foothills region.”
Mummadi said they’re also looking to offer compressed wood pellets and more variety in the types of wood offered.
Nicholson opened the Wood King 35 years ago while recovering from an injury he suffered when an asphalt steamroller he was operating while working for the MD rolled in 1994.
He suffered a broken tailbone, several broken bones in his foot and injuries to his shoulder and neck.
He went to rehab five days a week for six months to learn to walk again.
“It changed my life,” said Nicholson. “I was a compensation write off.”
Despite this setback, Nicholson was no stranger to hard work.
Since moving to Alberta from Ontario to find work at the age of 20, he worked for the City of Calgary for 10 years doing road maintenance.
He bought a farmhouse on 3.43 acres on Black Diamond’s northeast side in 1988.
In 1990, he quit his city job and worked odd jobs in Black Diamond and Turner Valley before he was hired by the MD.
Following the accident, Nicholson worried about his future.
“I went out into the bush and prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “I asked him to give me something to do and show me something.”
Nicholson said the Lord directed him to cut trees for firewood. At the time, he was making extra money collecting firewood for a local man who had more requests than manpower.
“I thought there’s a business there,” Nicholson said. “I cut firewood in the bush every single day and I got wood off of every rancher and acreage within a 100-mile radius of Black Diamond. Wherever I could take wood I would take it.”
This included Canmore where subdivisions were being built, Calgary parks where he would sell it back to them and following MD crews that cut down trees to take the wood.
Nicholson began with a chainsaw, using his horses to haul the wood, then progressed to a motorcycle, a tractor and then a Bobcat.
At this time he added buildings to his property from material he collected at the landfill.
“I was taking building supplies people didn’t use,” he said. “I didn’t have no money at the time. I built my whole business on stuff I found on the ground. It was not enough money to make me rich, but it paid my bills.”
Nicholson’s business grew, and it wasn’t long before he worried about running out of wood.
In the early 2000s, he began buying property in B.C., taking the wood and then selling the land for sometimes triple what he paid.
Things began slowing down for Nicholson 10 years ago due to debilitating pain from arthritis in his spine.
“I struggled the last eight years trying to keep the business alive,” he said. “I let a lot of contracts go and let my business dwindle down to nothing. I sold all the firewood and stopped doing the work.”
Nicholson almost sold the land to developers interested in building a mall with a bank, grocery store and pizza joint, but they withdrew at the last minute.
When Ahlawat and Mummadi came along Nicholson knew the business was in good hands and he’s now enjoying his retirement south of Cranbrook.
“These guys came just in time,” he said. “They’re good guys. I want them to do well.”