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July August 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

QUEBEC SAWMILLING

Quebec - high performer

Quebec sawmiller Yves Barrette has taken the approach of adapting his company’s mill equipment to the boreal forest and achieved some very high lumber production numbers as a result, including 300 million board feet of lumber from a single mill.

By Martine Frigon

Yves Barrette is passionate about his work. So passionate, in fact, that after working in the forest industry for the last 30 years, he still shows no signs of slowing down. Barrette heads Barrette Enterprises Ltd, a 2,500-employee company which runs three mill operations— including an added-value facility—and has annual sales of more than $500 million.

The company is among the top independent sawmillers in Canada. In the Top 30 Lumber Producers list published earlier this year in Logging & Sawmilling Journal, Barrette was listed at number 17, with production of 352 million board feet at its two sawmills.

Its largest division, Barrette Chapais Ltd, is situated in Chapais, in northern Quebec, bordering James Bay in the black spruce-laden boreal forest. More than 680 of the town’s 1,800 residents work at the Chapais installation, which handles a payroll of $20 million annually.

So strong is Yves Barrette’s personality and vision that he has achieved what was considered nearly impossible 10 years ago: produce more than 300 million board feet annually at this single mill, even with supply restrictions in the area.

His peers describe him as a self-made man who found his place in this industry at the tender age of 19. His strength, over the years, has consisted of adapting equipment and production to the demands of the boreal forest.

As soon as he was able to work during summers while he was still at school, Barrette would go to Lebel-sur-Quévillon in the northwest of Quebec to work as a truck driver in the sawmill owned by his father, Vianney, and another business partner. “It was by far the best sawmill east of the Rockies,” Barrette says.

There were large-scale modifications to the equipment at the Barrette sawmill to better adapt the mill to the timber of the region. The curve sawing edger (above) was substantially customized.

In addition to the sawmill, Barrette’s father had a company that specialized in planing—using product from the sawmill— just outside Montreal, beside the family’s Laval home.But in 1973, Vianney Barrette died, an event that changed his 19-year-old son Yves dramatically. The two shared the same passion for the forest industry and the son had lost his mentor.

Then and there, Yves decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.“I wanted what my father achieved to continue, and although I was very young, I wanted to join his business partner and go on.” However, both parties eventually agreed to sell the Barrette family’s shares to the partner, with the planing company the Barrettes had founded staying with the family. “We negotiated an agreement in which we agreed to supply planing services to the former business partner for five years. But it was necessary to look beyond that. After five years, what would we do? I didn’t want to see the company my father founded disappear.”

So in 1975, taking advantage of the financial security granted by the contract to supply the former partner, Yves Barrette bought a recently-built sawmill in Chapais. The plant, which belonged to a local company, was losing money and the owners wanted to sell it.

“I took up the challenge and, after several hits and misses, came to the conclusion that I had to change my production style.”

Therefore, Barrette decided to adapt his equipment to the boreal forest and not vice-versa. “We had big problems sawing 16-foot boards. It’s a Nordic forest and the black spruce here does not exceed six inches in diameter. Instead of trying to be like the other sawmills in the south, we decided to offer eight-foot boards and a large variety of other products. Then, we modified our equipment,” he explains.

Sawmill equipment was rethought and totally modified by the company’s research and development team, which now consists of 32 technicians.

In the last 15 years, the company has set up two end-dogging machines, which were modified with a scanner on each, rebuilt its planing unit and added a scanner, bought and customized an optimized board edger, and built a shelter for the chipwood.

Give him a chance and Barrette can mention dozens of examples of equipment he has modified over the years. Just to name one, there’s the debarker designed to feed 150 feet per minute that was transformed to do 330 feet per minute.

“Standard debarkers are made for logs of 18 inches diameter and our trees are six inches. We therefore modified the machine so that it is faster because the wood is smaller.” Another innovation: all the end-doggers in the sawmill were customized.

“We have three of these machines in Chapais. Two engineers from Vancouver modified them so they can feed 45 logs per minute,” Barrette says. An edger optimizer system was also modified to increase its rating to 1,000 feet per minute. Trimmers too, rose from 150 to 200 pieces per minute.

In a nine-hour shift, the Chapais sawmill processes 600,000 board feet, which requires 60,000 logs. The plant operates two shifts daily, five days a week. As well, a team dubbed “optimizers” checks bottlenecks that may occur on the flow line. “This team works independently with employees trained on the equipment so that they can repair and test it as need be,” Barrette says.

Located in the Quebec boreal forest, on the 49th parallel and at the doorstep of James Bay, the sawmill is supplied from area 026-20 by the Timber Supply and Forest Management Agreement shared with two other companies. This area has plenty of black spruce and Barrette- Chapais is the main user of this wood type.

In addition, Fenclo, the company’s added-value division in Saint-Jean-sur- Richelieu southeast of Montreal, produces pre-assembled fences and lattices.

Aside from production and business matters, Barrette has to take into account the region’s politics. The area belongs mainly to First Nations groups, especially the Cree in James Bay. In a February 2002 agreement called the “Paix des Braves” (peace of the braves) between the Cree and the Quebec government, the Quebec government agreed to pay the Cree $3.5 billion over the next 50 years.

Yves Barrette (left) with son Benóit, who is now CEO of Fenclo, the company’s value-added division.

 

The agreement compensates the Cree Nation for hydroelectric installations built on its territory and also gives the Cree a say in the economic development of their territory. Currently, no negotiations are taking place between the Cree and Barrette-Chapais Ltd, but Barrette indicates negotiations will occur in the near future. “We’re currently in the midst of a political conflict between Attikameks, a native community located a little bit south of here, and the Quebec government. The natives are claiming the land
from which we get our supply contracts. Because of the Attikamek claim, there have been delays at the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Parks, in the issuance of Forest Act permits.

“Last year, my annual licence was delivered seven weeks after the opening date for forestry work, and even this year I received it on April 28. Our employees should have begun work in the forest five weeks before that,” he explains.

In March, Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources decided to impose a 20 per cent reduction on the annual allowable cut for the main softwood species.

The decision stemmed from the recommendations of the Commission to Review Public Forest Management in Quebec (also known as the Coulombe Commission). It comes into effect this year and lasts through 2008 (see Spotlight story.)

“We’ll wait to see the results,” says Barrette, but he believes it will have an impact on their timber and, hence, their lumber production. In late April, 2,500 people demonstrated on the streets of Chibougamau—the only nearby city in this vast region—their opposition to the plan to reduce the volume of cutting.

Among the equipment modifications at the Barrette sawmill were the installation of scanners on end dogging equipment (right).

The event was organized by a coalition for the survival of the forest industry in Chibougamau-Chapais. Leaders of the coalition believe Northern Quebec has already lost much of its cutting rights because of the agreement signed with the Cree Nation. Added to that is the softwood lumber conflict between Canada and the United States, which has also taken a toll.

Despite timber supply and forest management issues, and sometimes difficult negotiations between the government and natives, Barrette has maintained his passion for forestry. He has even passed it on the next generation. His eldest son Benoît, is now following the same path and is chief executive officer of Fenclo, the added-value division. Benoît will have a tough time topping Yves Barrette’s exploits and boundless ingenuity over the years to ensure the survival of his company, and to adapt it to the demands of this part of the province.

 

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