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West Fraser Timber has had more than a half-century of success in Western Canada, and the company is continuing to improve its operations—most recently its Quesnel sawmill—to remain competitive in these tough lumber markets.

It was 1955 and the three Ketcham brothers were in Quesnel, British Columbia on a fishing trip. But the young Americans, ever alert to business opportunities, got sidetracked. The fish had to wait. Instead, Bill, Pete and Sam landed their first forest industry company. The brothers would later recall that the Two Mile Planing Mills Ltd, operation looked like it was held together by baling wire. It probably was. But the Ketchams saw potential and bought the planer for $60,000—lock, stock and baling wire. Unwittingly, the Ketchams also launched a legacy.

The acquisition of Two Mile Planing led to the creation of West Fraser Timber Co Ltd, now an integrated forest products conglomerate. It has more than 7,000 employees and is North America’s second largest lumber producer.

In 2005, 50 years on from that initial planer acquisition, West Fraser announced construction of a new $105 million sawmill and office complex for Quesnel. The project shifted West Fraser’s operational base back to the company’s origins. The new Quesnel sawmill came on stream in 2006, held together by something more durable than baling wire: a determination to contain costs, produce lumber and maintain employment levels through the most demanding times yet to face the BC Interior sawmilling industry.

 The company has largely succeeded in meeting those objectives. While other regional mills have been forced to curtail production or close indefinitely, the Quesnel sawmill and planer has continued to operate despite the collapsed US housing market, the high valued Canadian dollar and the other assorted ills besieging the industry.

More than half a century of history, from the purchase of a planer in Quesnel for $60,000 back in 1955 by the three Ketcham brothers (left), to a new $105 million sawmill and office complex for Quesnel (top, left, under construction).

The Quesnel mill has the geographic advantage of being close to the principal sources of raw material. And during the mill’s planning stage, a critical eye was trained on what was and what would affect the mill’s future wood fibre diet.

Quesnel is at the heart of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Future supplies of local pine will continue to decrease and its quality will be increasingly compromised by the beetle epidemic. The shape of future timber supply, the lumber recovery from it and the desire to keep West Fraser as a low cost lumber producer helped drive what the Quesnel sawmill was expected to accomplish.

Hank Ketcham is chairman of West Fraser’s board as well as the company’s president and chief executive officer. He’s also company co-founder Pete Ketcham’s son. And the future timber supply facing his company was one of the subjects he touched on at West Fraser’s AGM in Edmonton in 2006.

“We do not know the timing or extent of the expected reduction in our annual allowable cut but I believe that West Fraser, both as a result of the Weldwood acquisition (completed in 2004) and the significant capital improvements we are now making in our sawmills, is better positioned than our competitors to deal effectively with the reduced cut as it occurs,” he said.

Ketcham also alluded to what has evolved into another West Fraser trademark: the preference to go about its business without fanfare. And to demonstrate reliance on good old fashioned hard work and common sense. “It is,” Ketcham said, “time to get back to business—the grunt work.”

Some of that philosophy is reflected by West Fraser’s equipment choices at its operations. The company tends to look at the tried, tested and true when it comes to compiling a corporate shopping list for sawmill machinery and supplies. That over-arching attitude has been demonstrated through many West Fraser upgrades and improvement projects in BC and Alberta. West Fraser uses and modifies the equipment to meet each mill’s operational realities.

West Fraser is a major lumber supplier to the home building market in the United States, and has been impacted by the slowdown in US housing starts. But efficient operations, such as the new Quesnel sawmill, position the company well to weather this downturn.

The Quesnel rebuild was no exception. It utilizes equipment and services from well-established companies like Linden Fabrication, Brunette Industries, Porter Engineering, Optimil, Coe-Newnes (at least at that time), Del-Tech, QM Bearing, Signode, Simonds and Anthony- Seaman. And some 90 per cent of it was sourced in BC.

The three-line Quesnel sawmill has an annual design capacity of about 520 million board feet of lumber and was estimated to cost $100 million.

The other part of the project was to add about 16,000 square feet to the Quesnel administration office and transplant around 35 jobs to Quesnel from Vancouver. “The expansion of the office confirms our belief in having key senior people where our products are being manufactured,” Ketcham said at the time. The lumber manufacturing process at Quesnel begins on two high speed log merchandising systems which can handle tree-length timber, from Linden Fabricating. Brunette Industries supplied the mill with three new Kodiak series debarkers with dual rotors, and a hog mill.

Optimil supplied the three primary breakdown lines for the mill. Each has a fully optimized canter twin band system backed by an Optimil 10-inch vertical double arbour gang. The machines can handle logs in diameters from four inches to 22 inches at feed speeds up to 650 feet per minute.

An auto rotation system positions logs for an evaluation through Porter Engineering true shape scanners. Because the mill has to deal with dry, checked and breakage- prone beetle wood, the best orientation of each log is critical for maximizing recovery. The Optimil infeed systems provide a skew and slew capability on two axes to further enhance lumber recovery.

The mill utilizes “crack detection” technology from both Porter and Coe Newnes/McGehee (now part of USNR) to assist in recovering value from mountain pine beetle timber. All three Optimil canters in the mill also have crack and stain detection from Porter Engineering. Side boards are removed by Optimil six-foot twin bandmills. Centre cants are scanned into boards on the in-line Optimil 10-inch vertical arbour gangs.

Lumber edging, trimming and sorting systems downstream follow the primary breakdown process and maintain a similar focus on fast, accurate material handling with an emphasis on lumber recovery and grade optimization.

It took longer than anticipated for the Quesnel mill to come fully on stream and perform as expected. But it has been doing exactly that for a while.

The anticipated US market turnaround remains a mirage, at least at this point. Some analysts predict recovery will begin in 2009. Others expect 2010 to be the pivotal year. All agree it will happen. Meanwhile, West Fraser wants to be one of the survivors, however long it takes, and believes its “grunt work” attitude will ultimately prevail.

But there’s always lessons to be learned from the past. Maybe like having a coil or two of baling wire on hand. Just for good luck.