Independent sawmiller Stuart Lake Lumber continues to evolve to meet market needs.
By Jim Stirling
It's an era of company consolidation in the Canadian forest industry. Conventional wisdom says larger is not just better, it's essential for survival when competing in global lumber markets-and in competing for capital.
Publicly traded forest companies have become bigger both to keep up investor interest and to ensure access to capital markets that were-up until recently-much keener on funding high-flying technology companies. But fortunately, opportunities still remain for small, well-run, independent sawmilling operations. Stuart Lake Lumber Company Ltd is one of these outfits.
The company traces its family origins back to the bush mill days of the 1940s in British Columbia's central interior-a time when a five-man mill was considered a major operation. Arthur Goodwin began cutting and planing lumber back then in the Fraser Lake area. He shifted activity to Fort St James on the shores of Stuart Lake in the mid-1950s and the Stuart Lake Lumber Company was on its way. The dimension sawmill/planer complex has been at its present location on the BC Rail line since about 1970.
Through the years, the company has done its own consolidating, plucking small mills and forest licences that in today's buzz words would be termed securing sound strategic alliances. Then-as now- it's survival of the fittest. Stuart Lake Lumber has the responsibility for the planning and harvesting of 202,000 cubic metres of timber annually in four operating areas north and northwest of Fort St James. "We have a mill that's roughly equivalent to our Annual Allowable Cut," says Gord Goodwin.
Roots go deeper than trends here and the fourth generation of Goodwins work at Stuart Lake Lumber. Other relatives are numbered among the operation's approximately 85 employees. It routinely hired First Nations workers long before it became commonplace and there's a handful of people who have put in 30 to 35 years with the company. That constitutes a lot of miles on the mill's creaking wooden stairs.
The ties that bind also spread into the bush. Ubleis Logging Ltd has been contracting to Stuart Lake Lumber since the 1950s. Bob Ubleis and family are into their third generation working with the company. Ubleis harvests most of the company's annual volumes using feller bunching, grapple skidding to roadside methods for most of them. On the lumber manufacturing side, the sawmill has and continues to gradually evolve through the years.
Don Allan has worked in various capacities for Stuart Lake Lumber since 1975 and puts it well: "There's been a lot of thought gone into this mill over the years." Based on size, logs from the mill's two cut off saws are directed to one of three Bradson debarkers. The mill's log diet ranges from four inch tops to occasional 34 inch butts. The smallest logs, from four inches to about seven inches, are scanned before passing through a Valon Kone V-head breakdown process. The six-inch to 15-inch material is debarked on a Bradson with a Brunette ring and on through a Mark ll chip 'n saw with scanning system.
A Bradson scragg line with chipping heads in front and four saws behind accommodates larger logs, those up to around 18 inches in a single pass. The lumber production process downstream continues with a 14 saw line double arbour Salem gang leading to a bull edger and a 37 bin sorting and stacking system. Side boards can be directed through a new edger or trim saw line. "We have guided, thin kerf saws on all our machines," adds Art Goodwin.
The new Kockums CanCar board edger has a Softac optimizing package and has proven a welcome addition to the hand fed edger it replaced. "It takes out a production bottleneck and has increased our lumber recovery factor fairly dramatically," continues Goodwin. The edger has a re-man head. It also allows more 2x3s to be reclaimed. Stuart Lake has rebuilt its planer, making it a new machine to them, and has installed a J-bar drop sort.
The mill produces some one inch material but most of the production is 2x3 to 2x12 in eight foot to 20 foot lengths. About 60 per cent goes to the US, with 30 per cent directed to domestic markets and the balance overseas. The past several years are forgettable for most forest industry operations in British Columbia, regardless of size. Stuart Lake Lumber is no exception, having to struggle with quota restrictions on softwood lumber entering the US market, lumber prices hitting new lows and a high cost operating environment.
The company also had to grapple with the death of Bob Goodwin, the company's general manager and Gord and Art's father. The close-knit Stuart Lake Lumber community rallied around the family during the re-grouping process. It still is. It's what Stuart Lake Lumber has always done.
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