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May 2004

Added-Value Manufacturing

Confidence in the future

Pioneer finger jointer John Brink is closing in on a 30th anniversary with an expanded plant in Prince George, BC and confidence in the future.

By Jim Stirling

Brink Forest Products: the company plans to turn out 50 million board feet of finger-jointed product a year in the new $4 million building housing a finger-jointing line.

Brink Forest Products, Canada’s pioneer finger-jointed lumber manufacturer, is closing in on its 30th anniversary in Prince George, BC, with an expanded plant, confidence in the future and, interestingly enough, a new pigeon coop. The expanded plant is Brink Wood Specialties, a new $4 million lumber remanufacturing building housing a finger-jointing line. Within a month of opening, the plant was operating three shifts and running 85 to 90 per cent of capacity, reports John Brink, company president.

Thirty years of reman know-how tends to produce seamless start-ups. “We hope to manufacture 50 million board feet of finger-jointed product a year in this plant,” says Brink. Across the road from Brink Wood Specialties is where it all began. Brink started up Canada’s first finger-joint plant in this central BC city in 1975. “There were no standards for our product in Canada then. This company worked aggressively with the Canadian Standards Association to create them,” he recaps. It proved a tough task, compounded by an industry that was—to put it politely—skeptical about the concept and role of finger jointing lumber. “We persisted. One of the features of this company is that it is strong during adversity,” says Brink. Now in 2004, the horizon looks much brighter. Brink has the two finger-jointing lines in Prince George, with more capacity planned.

Company president John Brink with one of his neighbours from the nearby pigeon coop he had built on the Brink Forest Products site.

He has a block reman plant in Houston, 300 kilometres west of Prince George, with expansions also anticipated there. He employs more than 150 people, significant numbers of whom are 20 year-plus veterans with the company. “We’ve doubled our size in the last 18 months and we plan to double it again in the next 18 to 24 months,” declares Brink. So what’s going on here? After all, the BC forest industry is not exactly at its most stable point right now. “I tend to be optimistic,” understates Brink, who epitomizes the glass is half-full philosophy. The industry is in transition big time with dramatic changes in forest policy, he notes. “But we felt very confident and positive in the direction of change taken by this provincial government and could justify our investments.

In the long term, I believe the policy changes will create a viable and stable industry,” predicts Brink. Access to raw materials has always been a challenge for secondary wood product manufacturers. “We are very fortunate to have a strong relationship with Canfor. We are identified as the re-manner of choice by Canfor. The strategic partnership is very solid and can be built upon,” he explains. Establishing alliances between viable secondary and primary manufacturers is key to success, he adds. “I use the word ’viable.‘ In our 30-year history, we’ve had no handouts or subsidies. All we ask from government is give us a level playing field. Then we’ll succeed and exceed.” Brink’s acquisition of Pleasant Valley Remanufacturing in Houston last November was the fit he’d been looking for for years to expand into the area.

The reman plant employs 40 to 50 people and its primary product is blocks that are used as feedstock for the Prince George finger-joint lines. Pleasant Valley enjoys a solid working partnership with raw material supplier Houston Forest Products. “When primary and secondary work together to do the right things for the right reasons, I see that as a key to the future,” he continues. “It’s based on good sound economics and it’s mutually rewarding.” Brink’s pioneering spirit has not been confined to finger jointing. He says Brink Forest Products was the first forest company in BC to receive ISO 9001 standards for quality assurance and ISO 14001 for environmental assurance from forest lands to end use. “We think we should not just meet the standards, but exceed them. It’s smart business and it’s the right thing to do to respect the land. It makes us unique in the marketplace.”

Brink was quick to adopt a leadership role in the early days of the Forest Stewardship Council, believing in the concept of all stakeholders working collectively to ensure forest practices are sustainable. In 1998, Brink and Rosalind Ferre with WoodWorks launched an initiative in northern BC emphasizing the use of wood products. Ripples from that have encouraged wood use in building projects throughout BC and across Canada. Earlier this year, Brink Forest Products re-joined the Council of Forest Industries of BC (COFI). Brink says since COFI has re-invigorated itself, he finds the organization’s goals of representing primary and secondary manufacturing industries complementary with his own. “I feel passionately about training,” adds Brink. In 1999, he put up money to match his convictions with a $500,000 offer to help create a northern wood technology centre at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. The offer remains on the table. “I hope it will happen,” he says.

For years, explains Brink, he’s been convinced that access to a skilled trades workforce—more than any other single factor—is key to economic success for the north central BC region. He feels establishing a wood technology centre would be a catalyst to creating the largest forest industry concentration in North America of primary, secondary and tertiary wood product manufacturers. One of those tertiary-type opportunities Brink refers to, and plans to pursue, is a furniture pilot project. He says putting together the components for the marketing, design and manufacture of furniture could and should be done successfully in the Prince George region. The vast quantities of mountain pine beetle-infested wood in the region offer other opportunities to Brink.

His company worked in the spruce bark beetle epidemic of the 1970s that created the infamous Bowron clearcut (now a healthy young forest). “We’ve had 30 years experience dealing with lower grades of wood. There’s no lack of raw material or innovative processes,” he says. And, oh yes, the new pigeon coop at Brink Forest Products. Pigeons were around the site when Brink set up shop in 1975. They used to roost in the old mill building. As the operation grew, the pigeons moved, most latterly to a dry kiln. When that was needed, Brink built them a coop nearby. “They’re family, too; they need a place to live.”

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