Alberta’s family-owned Boucher Bros sawmill has invested $7 million in its mill and is now receiving a handsome payback: a 17 per cent increase in recovery.
By Tony Kryzanowski
It was quite a change in corporate culture for Berry Heinen, coming from the hard-nosed, bottom line-driven environment of a multi-national pulp company to take a job as general manager at Boucher Bros Lumber Ltd, where deals are still done with a handshake. However, both Heinen and Boucher family members involved in the day-to-day operation of this Nampa, Alberta sawmill have learned a great deal from each other over the past five years. Boucher Bros is an independently owned and family-run sawmill. Owned by Normand and Jean Louis Boucher, the company recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Boucher tradition of sawmilling in Alberta began with Normand’s and Jean’s father, Camile, who established the family’s first sawmill north of Peace River, at Spring Burn, in 1951. He brought his sawmill from Quebec, along with his wife Laurette and their seven children.
It was crowded around the supper table—they had seven more children in Alberta for a family total of 16. The sawmill eventually relocated to Keg River and then to High Level, growing into a large operation with as many as 100 people on the payroll. When it burned down in 1978, Camile decided to retire. However, sons Normand and Jean kept the sawmilling tradition alive by joining forces and establishing a new sawmill in Nampa. In fact, many Boucher family members continue to work at the mill. Younger brother Mage is the planer supervisor. Norm’s son Ricky is sawmill supervisor, with another son, Bertin, the head electrician. Jean’s son Jason works in the sales department, while another son, Brian, is the shop supervisor and heavy duty mechanic. Nephew Bernie is the head millwright. It’s truly a family affair.
Normand also founded the Manning Diversified Forest Products sawmill located in the town of Manning north, of Peace River, of which both he and Jean are shareholders. “One of the things I’ve gotten to know about Normand and Jean is that both of them very much believe in fitting into the communities around here,” Heinen says, “and in providing employment as much as possible to the local community. They have a philosophy of paying a fair price based on this business being fairly healthy. That has earned them a great deal of respect in the community.” The owners’ philosophy is particularly evident considering how the company manages its logging operations.
It owns three softwood quotas on Crown land. Logging on two of these quotas has been contracted to local First Nations communities in the Red Earth and Cadotte Lake areas. The third quota is near Manning, and is harvested by a group of about 12 smaller logging contractors. Because logging at Boucher Bros is seasonal, from November to March, this works out well for these contractors, as many of them are also farmers. “This program is quite an economic benefit to the Manning area,” says Heinen.
The smaller logging contractor program has been operating for the past decade. “Everything is done on a handshake and that is quite unique in this day and age,” he says. “There’s pros and cons with that approach. We work on a great deal of trust and give our contractors a fair degree of independence to get the work done for us. It seems to work quite well.” Boucher Bros employs two staff members in its woodlands department, Phil Dube and Chris Kennedy, to ensure that the contractors are operating within the company’s environmental standards and also that the log haul proceeds safely. For his part, Heinen has helped to implement a $7 million modernization at the sawmill, which has improved production from 30 million board feet annually with 67 employees to 40 million board feet and 55 employees.
Because there is a high level of business activity—particularly in the resource sector in the Peace River area—Boucher Bros was having difficulty attracting people to work on the sawmill’s green chain. Plus, there was a need to improve on fibre recovery. With the installation of scanning and optimizing equipment, the sawmill has increased recovery by 17 per cent, from 230 board feet per cubic metre to 270 board feet per cubic metre. The company manufactures dimensional lumber almost exclusively from white spruce, averaging 2.5 trees per cubic metre. Its annual allowable cut on Crown land is 115,000 cubic metres.
However, it acquires an additional 45,000 cubic metres from incidental conifer it owns on mixed stands harvested by other area companies, from private woodlots, and from timber cleared on oil and gas leases. About 65 per cent of the sawmill’s production is dimensional lumber in 16-foot lengths, in a range from 1x3 to 2x10. Almost all of its production is sold in Alberta. Boucher Bros operates two log lines, with the small log line accepting anything up to 11 inches in diameter, and a large log line processing logs over 11 inches. A Prentice electric heel boom crane places logs on the log deck. Logs proceed through a Nicholson 27-inch debarker before encountering a cut-off saw, where the operator removes any obvious imperfections and cuts the log to length based on maximum recovery. He tries to optimize the logs as much as possible to 16-foot lengths.
Once cut to optimum length, he will kick the log either to the small or large log line infeed. About 60 per cent of production is processed through the small log line, with the remainder achieved through the large line. The small log line is equipped with a HewSaw R200. Other sawmills using a HewSaw often sort logs by diameter to maximize throughput. However, Boucher Bros prefers not to diameter sort its logs prior to ribbon feeding them. This results in throughput of about 350 pieces per hour and 3,000 per shift, versus over 6,000 per shift in other sawmills that sort their logs. “We still mix our diameters together, so we slow throughput down a little bit to give the optimizing scanner a chance to do its job,” says Heinen. “The machine has to work a little harder to go from a small to a large log.”
The reason the company has stayed at this throughput level—even though it could produce more if it sorted the wood—is because it does not have enough wood to justify sorting at this time. Maintaining this level of production, complemented by production achieved on its large log line, helps to keep the work week balanced at 44 hours. The large log line is equipped with a Cardinal arbor electric carriage. Sawmill supervisor Ricky Boucher says the carriage works very quickly, having increased production from 70 to 100 logs per hour. However, they have had a few challenges operating the head, particularly when it falls out of alignment and service support is quite a distance away. The cant from the carriage proceeds to the PHL bull edger. The edger consists of 30 circular saws placed two inches apart. Installation of this scanner and edger increased recovery at the sawmill by 15 per cent overnight.
Lumber exiting the bull edger continues on to the outfeed table, where it is inspected, categorized and redirected either to the resaw edger, trimmer, or chipper. All lumber from the small and large log line containing defects is conveyed to the PHL edger resaw optimizer. It was equipped with an Autolog scanner. Each piece of lumber conveyed through this station travels past the scanner wane up, and the information gathered is used to automatically adjust the edger saws to remove defects using pre-programmed criteria.
All lumber is merged through another Autolog scanner, prior to encountering a 10-saw, multi-saw trimmer. Once through the trimmer, the lumber is automatically sorted using a Huot 45-bin push sorter and stacked. The stacked lumber is all kiln-dried on site using a 150,000 FBM natural gas heated kiln, and then planed. Given the current state of the softwood lumber market, Boucher Bros is very interested in any value-added investment opportunities and is constantly investigating anything that would require a modest financial investment. “We honestly believe that with the single shift scale that we work at, the nice logs that we have, and the wood that we produce, that staying in the commodity business over the long term might be fairly dangerous for us without getting into some value-added processing,” Heinen says. “We’re looking.”
The company has received assistance from Forintek and personnel have visited Europe, looking for ideas that would suit their business without requiring a huge capital investment. One of the challenges at Boucher Bros is that the company’s wood supply is almost exclusively white spruce, which historically has had very specific uses in building construction.
Even though Boucher Bros does not export its lumber to the United States, the softwood lumber dispute with the US has had the effect of keeping domestic lumber prices depressed—at levels the company hasn’t witnessed since the 1980s. “I think there are a number of sawmills out there in the commodity business that are simply trying to survive right now,” says Heinen. Where the company goes from here will likely be left up to a new generation. The owners are currently working on a succession plan that would see Norm’s sons Ricky and Berton, as well as Jean’s sons Jason and Brian, eventually take ownership of the sawmill.
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