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July Aug 2003

Delivering on details

The overall approach at Quality Hardwoods—giving the customer what they want—is simple, but their success and growth lies in delivering on the details.

By Ray Ford

Pete Van Amelsfoort of Quality Hardwoods in front of one of their eight Nardi kilns, which give the company a total drying capacity of 320,000 board feet a week.

Giving the customer what they want may be the world’s simplest business strategy. But when the job involves transforming green, rough-sawn lumber into kiln-dried hardwood for export, meeting client expectations is no soft touch. “There are a lot of nuances in the hardwood business, a lot of details you have to attend to,” says Pete Van Amelsfoort, sales and yard manager for Quality Hardwoods Ltd. The Powassan, Ontario firm has achieved export success by ensuring customers get the high-quality hardwood they want when they want it, and the company sweats the details to make those transactions as smooth as freshly-planed maple. As Van Amelsfoort looks over the lumber in the yard, many of those nuances are easy to spot.

Consider the 80x164-foot steel canopy spanning the gap between the kilns and a warehouse. In heavy rain or snow, the big steel roof offers shelter for truckers loading their rigs, keeping shipments flowing smoothly and shielding valuable hardwoods from rain and snow. On the other side of the canopy, Beth Domianczuk and Jeremy Winters stack bundles of green basswood on diagonally-ridged kiln sticks. The Breeze-Dried sticks seem like a minor detail, but Quality Hardwoods probably owns about $200,000 worth of them—all part of an investment in eliminating sticker shadow and preserving the wood’s natural beauty. Then there are the business cards the firm hands out, each printed on handsome hardwood veneer. “People don’t forget you when they pick up the card,” Van Amelsfoort says, offering his own cherry veneer card. “They get kind of mesmerized by the card and keep it at the top of the pile.”

No less mesmerizing is Quality Hardwoods’ phenomenal growth. In less than a decade, the company has gone from three employees in a pre-fab office to a 45-worker operation that moved nearly 15 million board feet of hardwood last year, much of it to the US. In the process, the firm won an Ontario government award for export development and its founder, Paul Brooks, was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Northern Ontario Business Awards. The company’s growth stems from the right mix of skilled workers, facilities, marketing and old-fashioned hard work. “There’s been a lot of trial and error, time and experience,” says Brooks, a former member of the National Hardwood Lumber Association’s board of directors. “It’s something that comes together over the years in business. You’ve got to get out and about to the conventions and trade fairs, letting people know who you are and what products you carry. “Honesty and integrity are two key things in this business,” he adds. “People have to know you can deliver.”

Down the line, the graded wood is sorted by appearance on to as many as 22 carts. “When we get in to species like hard maple, we can have every cart in use,” says sales and yard manager Pete Van Amelsfoort.

Quality Hardwoods buys green, rough-sawn hardwood, kiln dries and planes it and delivers custom-processed hardwood to clients across North America and around the world. It supplies wood for dozens of uses, including cabinetry, stairs, architectural millwork, flooring, caskets, hockey sticks, wooden toys, bowling pins and picture frames. About 70 per cent of the lumber is bound for the US, another five per cent goes to Europe or Asia, and the remainder is used in Canada. “We’ve concentrated very heavily on the American market,” Brooks says. “The incentive is the exchange on the dollar. The other nice thing about shipping into the US market is we can take advantage of export development insurance, so everything is insured.” And it is a slightly different market. “In my mind, the Americans are a lot fussier than Canadians are and they’re prepared to pay for the products that meet their specs.”

A native of the nearby town of Loring, Brooks trained as a grader at the NHLA school in Memphis, Tennessee, graded at Port Loring’s Rogerson Lumber and worked in sales and grading at Canadian Hardwoods. In the early 1980s, he struck out on his own, opening Quality Hardwoods Ltd as an office-based wholesaler in Aurora, just north of Toronto. A decade later, Brooks got the itch to return to his northern Ontario roots. He bought a 20-acre parcel alongside Highway 11, about 30 kilometres south of North Bay, and moved the firm north in 1994. “When we moved up here, it was like taking an old car and starting to work on it: everything began to work and come together.”

Fuelled by increasing orders, the firm launched a series of expansions. The first Nardi oil-fired kiln was installed in 1995, eventually to be joined by seven more, for a total drying capacity of 320,000 board feet per week. Other additions include two heated warehouses with 60,000 square feet of space, the canopy for loading trucks and a 27,000-square-foot building housing an automated grading line and a Newman Double Planer, both installed by Rutherglen, Ontario-based Advantage Mechanical, with electrical work by Curran Electric Services of nearby Restoule. By integrating planing, drying and warehousing, “you have total control over what’s happening with your own product. You know the lumber is dried the way you want it, and when you want it done, and you’re not relying on somebody else,” Brooks says. “We can grade it exactly the way we want it and sort it the way the customer wants it, and for us, that’s all value-added.”

Quality Hardwood employees Jeremy Winters(left) and Beth Domianczuk stack bundles of green basswood on diagonally-ridged kiln sticks. The Breeze-Dried sticks are part of an investment in eliminating sticker shadow and preserving the wood’s natural beauty.

The company relies heavily on green lumber from Tembec Inc and Commonwealth Plywood Co mills in central Ontario and Quebec, along with a few smaller or independent operations. It will also go further afield to find special orders and buys dried, dressed wood if it meets a customer’s needs. Quality Hardwoods deals in red oak, soft and hard maple, aspen, yellow and white birch, white ash, cherry, beech, basswood and butternut. In the yard, Van Almsfoort inspects stacks of hard maple so white it glistens in the late winter sunlight. “Now’s the perfect time to harvest it,” he says.

Once spring comes and the sap rises, the wood loses its lustrous tone, so the Quality Hardwoods crew was busy laying in a healthy supply of the ivory-coloured wood. Ensuring a good supply of suitable hardwood remains a long-term concern. “To some extent, we’re at the mercy of the mills sawing what they want, rather than what we need,” Brooks says. “Our quality in the north has never been as good as the Appalachian area in the US because of the slow growing season. A lot of the trees we saw into lumber here they’d use for pulp down there, so you always have problems getting exactly what you want. We need more supplies of green lumber, but overall, we get enough. “We dry maple, oak, aspen on an ongoing basis, month to month, year to year,” adds Van Amelsfoort. “The rest is referral, advertising and new business. There’s a fair bit of marketing that has to happen. We’re always looking for new accounts and new niches.”

Because constant product turnover is a goal at Quality Hardwoods—most of the wood in the yard will be shipped within two weeks—the typical bundle doesn’t linger in the air-dry yard. Green lumber is slotted into the Italian-made Nardi kilns as required and logged by species and grade. Drying time varies from six to 45 days, depending on species and thickness, and wood is dried down to six to eight per cent moisture. “SPF kilns typically dry on a higher temperature and a short schedule, and you’re worried less about appearance. We dry for our end users and appearance,” says Van Amelsfoort.

Although all the Nardis share a common central processing unit, each kiln can be individually controlled for temperature, humidity and air flow. Sample boards are used to calibrate moisture levels and ensure proper drying. At the end of the drying process, boards are misted with a fine spray to equalize moisture between the core and the shell, and prevent the wood from warping when it’s ripped. “A cabinet maker will get that lumber in the States somewhere and he’ll be able to rip those boards. After ripping he should be able to put them back together and they’ll fit perfectly,” Van Amelsfoort says.

After kiln drying the wood can be planed, graded and sorted to meet the customer’s specifications. The planer is a Newman Whitney EPR 18 SS short stock planer, with a helical head and carbide knives. “It’s a very quiet machine, and it does a very nice job on hardwoods. It just does the two faces on the boards. Our end users will rip the lumber once they get it.” The planer can send lumber on to the grading line, or the line can be fed bundles by forklift.

The line, which includes a Melotte tilt hoist and unscrambler and electrical equipment and roll cases from North Bay’s Canelec Mfg & Development Inc, feeds boards onto the grading deck, where the grader marks them with a chalk stick. The machinery is paired with three NHLA-trained graders who rotate through the line and the staff includes three or four others who have NHLA certification or have been trained on short courses. To help keep the graders sharp and prevent repetitive strain injuries, each grades for a quarter-day shift before handing over the controls to the next.

Down the line, the graded wood is sorted by appearance on to as many as 22 carts. “Right now we’re doing soft maple and there aren’t too many differences. When you get into hard maple,you can have every cart in use.” After sorting and bundling, the wood is either shipped or warehoused for shipping. The system’s beauty lies in its flexibility. “We might get a call today and someone says ‘Paul, I need a load of four-quarter maple. My shop needs it at 15/16ths, and I need it on the trailer tomorrow’,” Van Amelsfoort says. “If we have the lumber in stock, we can pull it and dress it and have it out the following day.

The planer itself doesn’t make money for you, but it’s the ability to meet those orders that give us the edge. That’s all value-added.” Future expansion plans include installing a semi-automated Coe stacker in the air-dry yard. It will help stack lumber more quickly in the summer, when the green lumber runs the risk of discolouring in the heat. Additional kiln space could also be in the offing during the next few years. Although it doesn’t face the trade problems bedevilling the Canadian softwood lumber industry, the hardwood business is not without its concerns.

Energy costs are an increasing burden and Van Amelsfoort is looking for anything—including installing a wind turbine—that will trim the oil and hydro bills. “But the whole industry is constantly changing,” he adds. “We have lumber coming in from Russia right now that we’re competing against. We’ve actually brought some in ourselves. We have to constantly look for better ways to compete.” Along with finding a suitable source of lumber, the firm has to keep abreast of the trends and fashions in the business. “The trend for years was oak cabinets and now we’re seeing a demand for close-grained wood like birch and maple,” Brooks says. “White birch and yellow birch are the hottest things on the market, the hottest thing in kitchen cabinets. You’ve really got to stay alert for these changes.” As for his long-term plans, Brooks plans to continue the course that’s made Quality Hardwoods so successful. “We’ll continue to expand and follow the market,” he says. “I don’t want to get so large that I lose control. The company’s been successful here and it would be a shame not to continue on with that growth.”

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