Peres and Hozza, surrounded by the fruits of their labor
Say you’ve worked for a company for 28 years, and your department starts in with layoffs. Your boss offers you a buyout. You’ve got a nice little nest egg, but you still love your job. Do you:
A) stay on and wait for the inevitable pink slip;
B) take the money and go lie on a beach;
C) take the money, go to one of the coldest places in the United States, find an unused grain elevator, and toss in the whole wad. Plus any other savings you’ve accumulated.
Judy Peres chose C. After spending nearly half her life as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, in 2008 the Evanston native moved at age 61 to Superior, Wisconsin, where her life partner, David Hozza, had his eye on eight acres on which to build a marina on Lake Superior. One thing was in his way. Actually, three things: massive 123-year-old grain elevators, the largest 150 feet high and longer than a football field. Demolish those hideous beasts, and then we’ll talk, potential financers told him. But when Hozza, a former investment banker from St. Paul, Minnesota, looked inside the dilapidated buildings, he saw a gold mine.
Hidden within the outer layer of corrugated sheet metal were roughly six million board feet of prized virgin white pine, protected from the elements since 1887. It was an entire forest—the kind that no longer exists in the United States. In other words, these eyesores contained a virtually endless supply of the type of gorgeous antique wood for which people building a rustic cabin would pay upward of $4 per board foot. After guessing it would take a year to salvage the wood from one elevator and sell it wholesale, Peres and Hozza paid $1.2 million for the elevators and the land.
Why not? thought Peres, a self-described “Jewish princess” with a law degree from Yale. “The newspaper business as I knew it was ending,” she says. “My kids were grown. I could do anything I wanted.” Two years later she was $1 million in debt.
As it turned out, they had no idea what they were doing. Removing huge machines required blowtorches, which had to be handled carefully, surrounded by wood and all, making progress painfully slow. After running up a $250,000 bill on a crane rental, Peres and Hozza bought their own crane and began the job themselves. They detached each section of wood, lowered it to the ground, denailed it, and sawed it.
Today, the largest elevator is halfway done. Peres and Hozza have revised the estimated time to finish the job to five years. Meanwhile, they set up two companies: Wisconsin Woodchuck LLC, which sells wholesale to contractors and timber framers, and Old Globe Reclaimed Wood Company, which makes flooring and paneling for the retail market. The expected profits may take some time, too. “We have nearly everything we own invested in this project,” says Peres. “And we’re too old to get another chance if we fail.”
“The whole thing is crazy,” says her daughter, Dana Peres Edelson. “But my mom is ridiculously capable. She’ll figure it all out.” Edelson’s mother actually seems more relaxed; her blood pressure has dropped, and the muscle cramps she suffered while at the Tribune are history.
Peres’s former colleagues aren’t surprised that she traded her laptop for a chain saw. “Judy was a great journalist, but she had another act in her,” says Judith Graham, a health reporter. “It makes sense that she chose to do something incredibly challenging.” And the challenge is starting to pay off: Peres and Hozza—now together 24/7—recently made their first commercial wood sale to one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants. If her old co-workers in the Tribune Tower want to see what Peres has been up to, all they have to do is cross the street, walk into The Purple Pig at 500 North Michigan Avenue, and look down.
Photography: Jonathan Chapman