Back to school
Pallet component producer Star City Forest Products has converted an abandoned school into a manufacturing plant, and is bringing new economic activity to a small Saskatchewan town.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Saskatchewan pallet component manufacturer Robert Labossiere recalls that at one point he had a vision of a school being in his future—though it was long after he had left school himself. But even he probably didn’t expect this vision to manifest itself in quite this way. The company Labossiere co-owns has purchased an abandoned elementary school in the small rural community of Ridgedale, south of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, and has converted it into a rapidly expanding pallet component manufacturing plant. Where once there were gym classes, there are now multi-head band resaws. And where students once worked at desks on art projects, there are filing rooms.
Labossiere owns half the business, dubbed Star City Forest Products Ltd, with his sons Eugene and Aime, along with brother-in-law, Ken Labossiere. A secondary wood product manufacturer owns the other half. At present, the company has the capacity to produce 10,000 board feet of pallet components per day. However, according to Labossiere, they have just scratched the surface of the full potential of the business. “There is an awesome potential here,” he says. “We could be shipping five million board feet of pallet wood per year without difficulty. It’s very easy for me to envision 100 employees working out of here in the not too distant future.”
This would be quite a change for a community that itself has a population of only about 100 people. Star City Forest Products plans to achieve production of 50,000 board feet per week and have as many as 20 employees by this summer. “We have to let this business go where it must go,” says Labossiere. “It drives itself. We never started out to do it. We’ve been drawn into what we have, and we continue to be drawn forward. It seems to be on a gradual development program, and it has all kinds of potential for the future.” The 62-year-old Labossiere says he entered the forest products business later in life, having had a variety of work experiences that included working in a mine, accounting and business management, owning a car dealership, sales, and farming.
He got involved through his son’s interest in establishing a firewood business by harvesting some of the poplar and birch on the family’s property. This led to experimenting with producing higher value lumber, and finally to pallet manufacturing. “You start at a hobby level and it doesn’t earn enough,” says Labossiere. “So then you take another step, and another step, and the next thing you know, here you are.” The pallet manufacturing business was originally established in an old lumberyard in Star City, Saskatchewan, hence the name. However, it was impossible to operate the component manufacturing equipment in winter because there was little protection and limited expansion potential on the property.
So Labossiere began to look for another more comfortable location, and the idea of using an abandoned school had occurred to him. Although he was aware that there was a school in Ridgedale, it was only through a casual conversation with local residents that he learned that it had been sitting empty for more than four years. “I met with the town and we put together a purchase agreement,” says Labossiere. “It was a tremendous answer to our needs at the time. When it is 40 below zero outside, we can run inside here in shirt sleeves.” Garry Mutch was mayor of the village at the time of Star City Forest Products’ arrival, and is still a village councillor. He also taught at the school for 22 years. He says smaller communities in Saskatchewan are struggling to stay viable. The Ridgedale school closure in 1998, followed shortly after by the closure of the grain elevator, had a severe impact on the community.
Village residents hope that the pallet component manufacturer’s operations will bring more prosperity, although there is still sadness among some residents faced with the reality that the school’s presence has been erased from the community. Mutch says the village is prepared to work with Labossiere on whatever expansion plans he may have. At present, the village owns about 10 serviced residential lots. So far, it has benefited by collecting both residential and commercial taxes on the former school property, with two more homes occupied by plant workers and family members. Star City Forest Products has also had a positive impact on the local co-op general store and the hotel. While Labossiere describes the school purchase agreement with the village as “a very generous situation,” re-activating the school building has had its challenges.
It was already showing signs of deterioration, and re-installing the water supply was a huge job. The building came equipped with a water-based heating system. Given the amount of wood on the property, the company disconnected the gas supply used to heat the hot water boiler, and now heats the boiler using a wood burner instead. About half the building houses the manufacturing plant, while the remainder consists of two apartments. The owners live on the property. Each apartment is equipped with a wood-burning stove to provide additional heat during extremely cold weather.
The gymnasium serves as a warm working environment to operate the company’s manufacturing equipment year-round. However, because it has a suspension floor, a forklift cannot drive into the building. Consequently, material has to be manually transferred to the bay door before the forklift can pick it up. Labossiere adds that he has to be very careful not to overload the floor with equipment or components. Also, there is very little storage space in the gym. He says the owners realized almost as soon as they moved in back in June 2003, that they had outgrown the facility, because of how rapidly their business has grown. Eventually, they will need to decide whether the business will remain at its current location and expand, or relocate to a larger production facility. For now, however, Star City Forest Products is looking forward to a bright future. “It’s a lot less expensive to set up in Ridgedale than it is in Winnipeg,” says Labossiere—and a lot of other places in Western Canada, he could have added.
The company purchases birch, poplar and tamarack logs—which it acquires from private land or as a by-product from other forest harvesting activities—for use in its pallet manufacturing process. It uses these species because customers specify them. Using chain saws, logs are sawn manually on site into four-foot lengths. A specially designed scragg mill transforms them into four-inch by six-inch cants. The mill consists of one horizontal and two vertical blades, which produce a three-sided cant. The cants are then moved to the plant where they are end trimmed and sliced into pallet components. This is accomplished using either one of two horizontal band resaws located in the plant. One is custom built while the other is a Waechter band resaw. Each has two blades. Once the components exit the resaw, they are stacked manually.
A pallet consists of several top components, several bottom components, and three support components in the middle, called stringers. Star City Forest Products performs two value-added manufacturing processes—notching and chamfering—on the components at its plant. Notches are placed along the sides of the support components so that a forklift can pick up the pallet from the sides as well as from the front and back. Chamfering is the process of putting beveled ridges on the bottom boards, so that pallet jacks can be guided into the pallets more easily. Star City Forest Products uses a team module approach to its manufacturing process versus an assembly line approach. Labossiere says the problem with an assembly line is that if one area goes down, the whole operation comes to a standstill.
One team stacks components produced by the band resaws, while another team uses the accumulating material for notching and chamfering, as needed. Each process operates independently. Once the manufacturing process is complete, the stacked components are transported to markets in Western Canada and the north-central United States. Labossiere says producing components makes much more economic sense than building and shipping complete pallets from Ridgedale. “It’s too expensive to ship the finished product from here,” he says, “so we just wrap up the finished parts and they are assembled at their destination. It’s the most cost-effective way of doing it.”
While the company is strongly focused on pallet making—which it calls its bread and butter product line—it already has plans to launch a recovery program to reprocess material produced as a by-product of its pallet manufacturing process. Star City Forest Products has also been approached by manufacturers of higher end wood products to see if it would be interested in selling its better quality wood at twice the value of what it is worth as pallet material. Labossiere says it would be easy for workers to recognize and remove, for example, clear birch cants as they come off the scragg mill, stacking them in a separate pile from the pallet cants. “If we reach five million board feet of pallet wood per year, we could probably have one million board feet of value lumber coming out as a by-product of that activity,” he says.
Finally, Star City Forest Products has also been approached by a major hog producer to use some of its sawdust in a composting process involving animal waste. The company has done a lot of things right to this point, most importantly recognizing the value of manufacturing components instead of finished products, particularly since the manufacturing plant is located so far from the finished pallet market.
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