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Nov  2003

Added-Value Manufacturing

Combining forces

Two Prince George, BC companies are combining forces to resurrect—and build on to—an added-value facility that will manufacture niche products to complement what the major lumber companies are producing.

By Jim Stirling

What intrigued the partnership was the sheer potential of the mill site: there are a couple of planers, a moulding machine, dry kilns, a large paved area, covered storage and rail spurs. To sum up, it had good infrastructure for an added-value venture.

The dictionary defines “niche” as a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing. In the context of secondary wood product manufacturing in British Columbia’s Central Interior, that description of “niche” should add: Good Thinking. In a trend-turning initiative, Dollar Saver Lumber Ltd and the Prince George Sort Yard have invested in the future by acquiring the remaining assets of the Netherlands Overseas Mill, which was closed by Canfor Corporation in the late 1990s. And they plan to breathe new life into the facility as a manufacturing site for wood products that complement—not compete with—those of the major licensees.

Dollar Saver Lumber and the Prince George Sort Yard have as individual companies already succeeded in niche exploitation. Dollar Saver has operated a lumber yard in Prince George for more than 25 years, selling material to the public and contractors. The lumber yard remains a fixture, despite the arrival of a Home Depot outlet in the city. The yard’s developed a niche—that word again—with its products and pricing. Dollar Saver also operates an adjacent manufacturing operation. It began making items like kiln sticks, lathe, grooved dunnage and fencing products. The plant expanded into doing custom work for major licensees like Slocan, Canfor and West Fraser, along with custom planing and re-sawing to specific customer specifications.

The yard and mill provide employment for 50 to 75 people, depending on the season. “We’ve moved ahead slowly, step-by-step, and reinvested steadily in the company,” outlines Greig Taylor, Dollar Saver Lumber’s general manager. Taylor and partner Ron Lind, who runs Analog Investments Ltd., a Prince George-based log harvesting contractor, bought into Dollar Saver in the early 1990s and now own the company. The Prince George Sort Yard is a more recent arrival on the Prince George re-manufacturing scene. The company is owned by Grant and Mark Dakus and its log sort yard is complemented by a specialty sawmill. It produces a variety of items, from cants for the home building industry to railway ties and specialty cut sizes. “We feel we can all work together and generate a larger company than we could individually,” explains Taylor, of the partnership. “And so far it’s working out quite well.”

What intrigued the new partnership initially was the sheer potential of the Netherlands Overseas Mill site. “The fact the facility was sitting there with a couple of planers, a moulding machine, dry kilns, a large paved area, covered storage and rail spurs. It was a good infrastructure,” says Taylor. “It seemed to be a natural fit for us, and the Prince George Sort Yard is right next door to the plant.” Canfor wound down the Netherlands sawmill operation in 1998, but kept the adjacent re-manufacturing plant operational. It has been idle about four years. Canfor sold off or re-distributed much of the sawmill equipment. The sorter/stacker line, for example, was incorporated into a recent upgrade of the company’s Fort St. James sawmill. “Canfor very generously provided us with a good opportunity when they chose not to dismantle the re-manufacturing plant, allowing us to proceed with our plans,” continues Taylor. There have been additional advantages. “We’ve been lucky enough to get some former Canfor employees,” he explains.

 The partnership expects to deal with what they call “problem wood,” products such as one-inch material, 2x3 and the short dimension sizes that large mills—with their high operating speeds, and wider and longer products—deal with less easily.

These people bring with them an intimate knowledge of the old Netherlands plant and its equipment. An example is Frank Skerlak, who worked many years at Netherlands. He’s now Dollar Saver’s sales and production manager. The new operation expects to deal with what Taylor calls “problem wood.” He’s referring to products like one inch material, 2x3 and short dimension sizes large mills deal with less easily. “The goal of the big mills was and is to process their own wood. But with their operating speeds and wider and longer products, material like one inch can be problematical,” he notes. (Canfor’s new planers at its upgraded Houston plant are a good example, capable of sustaining speeds of 3,000 ft/min.) The new operation, however, can plane at lower speeds and add grade value to these products, adds Taylor.

It leaves the big mills to concentrate on what they do best. Taylor says the large companies he’s canvassed are very encouraging to the partnership’s ideas. He believes when a good base is established, the opportunity exists for the new Netherlands operation to develop different product ranges. He adds the partnership has no intention of competing for raw wood with the majors. The softwood lumber dispute with the United States has thrown a curve atkick-starting the partnership’s plans. “We have to wait until there’s some resolution or acceptable interim measure to allow us to move ahead.” Taylor says the operation can’t ship products to US markets with the onerous duties now in place. But the hiatus also identifies what the operation can do. And that’s readying the plant. A work crew is involved with a program of clean-up, tune-up and ongoing maintenance.

Taylor says the dry kilns are elderly but very serviceable. Options about re-configuring the three planing machines are being weighed, and investment on upgrades continues. “We’ve run a little product from the Prince George Sort Yard through the equipment and we’re correcting problems as we find them,” reports Taylor. The equipment is basically sound but it has been sitting unused for four years. “Everything is now operational but as we get up to speed we will probably find more problems to deal with,” he predicts. “It’s all a bit of a gamble and we have to be very careful,” continues Taylor. “But we’re optimistic about our industry, the secondary manufacturing sector and for companies like ours to work hand-in-hand with the big ones.”

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