Sept 2004 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
For Quebec’s E Tremblay et Fils sawmill, survival these days means distinguishing itself from the bigger players, and joining forces with other independent sawmills in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region.
By Martine Frigon
The sawmill operated by E Tremblayet Fils Ltd has been a part of the community of Alma, Quebec, for more than half-a-century. While the mill has been around for a long time, it has seen its share of change over that period of time, and that change is continuing today, especially on the equipment side. In 1951, Elzéar Tremblay launched his small mobile sawmill. His two sons further established the business by building a sawmill on the city’s outskirts, and in 1997 it was sold to Sodexfor, a company specializing in forest ventures. To avoid having their wood markets absorbed by larger forest corporations, the new leaders realized they had to devise a specific vocation for the company: value-added and custom-made products. In other words, deliver something that the giants do not offer. In addition to specializing in securing a niche market, the leaders of the E Tremblay sawmill also belong to a network of independent sawmills from Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean: the Réseau des scieries indépendantes du Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean (which translates into the Self-supported Sawmills Network of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean).
Joining forces to take up the future’s challenges of lumber production, the network, which represents seven sawmills in the region, promotes the exchange of knowledge, resources and operations, engages in group purchasing, and works together on common wood transformation projects. Each of the sawmills cuts less than 100,000 cubic metres of softwood. “We set up a structure to pool our resources and to gain a stronger voice,” explains Marc Dubé, executive director of E Tremblay et Fils Ltd and president of the association. The company has annual revenues of more than $11.5 million.
The average hourly wage is $12, much lower than that offered in the big paper mills, but according to Dubé, this wage matches the intra-regional average for the manufacturing sector. “Our wages are lower but we have 0.9 employees per 1,000 cubic metres of wood as opposed to 0.4 in the big paper mills.” The sawmill has about 60 employees, including 44 working in the plant and about 20 in the forest. The company uses sub-contractor services for the transportation of logs and forest entrepreneurs for cutting and silviculture. In contrast to some other sawmills, workers in the production area are not always assigned to the same task.
They can work at various positions during the same shift, according to the skills they have acquired. This is possible because the company has hired an exceptionally large number of certified workers. Thirty-two employees out of some 40 working in the plant hold a classification card for softwood whereas 16 others are certified for aspen. These cards were acquired through continuous occupational training that has been given on-site in the plant. “We facilitate this learning. When we have a small shutdown during the year, we set up a training program for the employees,” explains Dubé.
Because the sawmill has built a distinctive market based on its custom-made products, it can generally command higher prices than the large companies, especially those producing commodity grade lumber. “We have equipment capable of making 1x10, 1x6, 6x6, 4x8, 4x6, 3x3, 1x8, and all other special measures. There are very few sawmills that can offer the same capacity,” says Dubé. The sawmill consumes about 82,000 cubic metres of wood, including slightly more than 22,000 cubic metres from private woodlots, and produces about 13.5 million board feet a year. Almost all the production is intended for the secondary industry. The species are spruce, fir, grey pine, larch, white pine and red pine. The sawmill also produces round timber of 4x5 and 12-foot or less, which is manufactured to be jointed. “When we process a variety, we are making it for three to four customers at the same time.” Before the Canada/US lumber dispute, Dubé and his team had focused considerable efforts on larch.
He is hoping that following a sharp decline, this market will soon recover. Two and a half years ago, the plant was completely renovated with a budget of $1.6 million. “It is very little to reorganize a sawmill. For one year, I travelled through Quebec and Ontario to look for second-hand equipment which we have reconditioned,” says Dubé. The sawmill now has two debarkers—a Cambio 18-inch and a Cambio 24-inch—and a Swecan canter with Forano twin saws, which was adapted to the needs of the plant.
The entire production saw line is controlled by a computer system and machines with digital controls. “We are capable of pre-programming what we want to produce. We have entered dimensions for spruce, larch and aspen. That allows us to change over between varieties quickly.” The plant is not heated and due to the severe weather in this part of Quebec, the company sometimes shuts down for four consecutive days when the temperatures dip to -25º C. That kind of cold makes for tough working conditions for the employees.
To solve this problem, a new heating system may soon be implemented. Unique in Quebec, it would involve installing a furnace outside the plant, minimizing the fire hazard. This furnace would have the capacity to heat 25,000 square feet and use chips and all other wood residues as combustible material. “At the moment, there is no factory in Quebec which works with this kind of system. It is used a lot in Western Canada and in the northern United States. We requested an authorization from the Ministry of Environment of Quebec, but there is no legislation to regulate this type of energy equipment. In fact, we could be the innovators. That is why we contacted the Ministry because our project is a first in the province.” The project is estimated to cost $250,000. “We would then be self-sufficient in heating and moreover, we would not have any more waste chips and other material in our backyard. That’s an important thing for the environment,” explains Dubé.
For Dubé, being different from the large companies represents this independent sawmill’s strategic “call-to-arms.” They will continue to focus on seeking new markets and producing added value. The battle is never-ending and it’s tough, but he is optimistic. “Little by little, we are becoming a hybrid of secondary and tertiary processing. Our production will be value-added at 75 per cent; the other 25 per cent will be earmarked for use by the construction industry.”
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