Growth In Mass Timber Market Spurs Expansion at Western Archrib

by | Dec 18, 2023 | 2023, Industry News, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, November/December, Sawmill

Western Archrib, a sister company to Fort McMurray, Alberta-based Northland Forest Products, is embarking upon an $82 million phased expansion of its glued-laminated structural wood systems manufacturing operations.

The investment is expected to triple local production of this attractive, engineered mass timber product, commonly known as ‘glulam’, to 25 million board feet per year.

The expansion follows quickly upon the heels of Northland Group’s acquisition of Western Archrib in 2021. This acquisition included manufacturing facilities in Edmonton, Alberta and Boissevain, Manitoba and brought together the legacies of two families with a combined 120 years of successful wood product manufacturing history.

Craig and Howie Ewashko are the second generation owners of Northland Group, which operates a modern sawmill producing 450,000 board feet of dimensional lumber daily, as well as sawdust, shavings, and hog fuel at a site just north of Fort McMurray. The former owners of Western Archrib, Kent and Joan Fargey, were third generation owners and in the absence of interest from a fourth generation, made it known to the Ewashko’s that they were interested in selling their business to someone they felt could effectively preserve their culture and legacy.

Aware of each other’s businesses and reputations—Northland being one of several lumber suppliers to the glulam operation over the years and a head office featuring a considerable amount of glulam from Western Archrib—conversations began at an Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA) conference in 2020 that eventually evolved into a purchase agreement and sale.

Acquiring Western Archrib was a significant milestone for the Northland Group. It rebranded the company as both a premium lumber producer as well as a value-added manufacturer of wood products. The ability to transform timber from sustainably managed forests to a high value product employed in complex commercial and community projects meshes well with the company’s seedling-to-structure approach. Their stated vision and philosophy is ‘Stewarding Sustainable Forests and Crafting Nature’s Strength into Marvels’.

Howie Ewashko (top, left), co-owner of Western Archrib with his brother, Craig, Benjamin Gill (centre), Northland Group’s Corporate Development lead, and Travis Van De Vliert, Director of Operations for the Edmonton plant, are three key individuals who are part of the management team. They are looking forward to the $82 million investment into a new plant.

Western Archrib came packaged with a tenured team of technical employees, some with 30 to 40 years of experience in the business and company. They continue to handle and advise on product design and manufacturing under new ownership. Kent Fargey also maintains a presence, actively interested in business operations, and continuing to provide mentorship.

For years, Western Archrib was one of those local success stories that sort of flew under the radar. Founded in 1951 by Cecil Fargey and joined shortly after by his son, Jim Fargey, Western Archrib initially provided glulam in the construction of farm buildings, hockey rinks, and storage facilities. Over time, Jim wisely focused on employing in-house design staff as well as actively participating in and establishing national manufacturing standards and technical specifications for glulam’s architectural and engineering use in building codes. This continued to open the door to participation in many new and innovative project opportunities over the company’s 70-year history.

The Ewashko’s also have a long history of entrepreneurship and innovation as it relates to managing their lumber manufacturing business. This had already led to a diversification of product lines and markets to ensure 100 per cent of the fibre that enters their yards is used productively and economically. When the opportunity to purchase Western Archrib presented itself, it was the type of investment that they were interested in because of glulam’s potential in a climate-conscious world where sustainable solutions, such as wider use of wood products in building construction, is growing significantly.

“We see a lot of opportunity in that movement toward greener, more sustainable living,” says Howie Ewashko.

Northland Forest Products plans to divert a portion of their dimensional spruce lumber volume to Western Archrib. Continuing to grow the market for spruce-based glulam is something that the company is pursuing, with 80 per cent of lumber production at the sawmill being spruce and the remaining being 20 per cent jack pine.

Northland’s sawmill has upgraded its computerized lumber grader to pull more ‘lamstock’ from the mix. A major difference between dimensional lumber and lamstock is its moisture content. Dimensional lumber can have up to 19 per cent moisture content while lamstock must be in the 12 per cent range. As such, lumber generated by Northland and slated for Western Archrib is further air-dried to bring the moisture content down before delivery.

Currently, the preferred lamstock used for production of glulam is still Douglas fir and some Western larch. Western Archrib works with several suppliers, including J.H. Huscroft located near Creston, B.C., Canfor’s Elko and Radium, B.C. sawmills, and Pacific Northwest-based, Frank Lumber. They continue to establish new relationships to grow their supplier base.

“We think that there is and will be more spruce opportunity in this space,” says Ewashko. “We’ve increased our volume at Western Archrib and the volume that we want to increase is definitely on the spruce side. But most of our business is still on the Douglas fir side.”

Since the purchase by Northland, the number of employees at Western Archrib has grown from 125 to 197 and it has almost doubled production within existing mills from between 6 to 7 million board feet annually to north of 11 million board feet in the coming year. This has been supported by strong glulam demand and it only looks to be getting stronger.

“Because we are from a production focused environment, we saw the opportunity to run the equipment,” says Ewashko. “We brought a different perspective to the business looking to build on a culture of quality established by Kent and Joan and extend this to a larger, more diverse client base. What we said is, we are going to produce, and our sales guys need to get out there and sell.”

That new approach has worked, as the number of orders filling their order book has increased from 6 to 12 weeks ahead to as far ahead now to late-2024 and early 2025.

Benjamin Gill, Northland Group’s Corporate Development lead, has played a pivotal role in navigating the ownership transition as well as the expansion project. With a background in finance and corporate banking, he is also driving efforts to expand markets in terms of both geography and products.

“Historically, the market for glulam has been dominated by the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “What we’ve seen is that the market is growing North America-wide. We want to supply Alberta first, Canada next, and then the U.S. market. Seeing our product used more in the communities in which we live, work and play is an increasing focus of our business.”

Western Archrib will also seek to introduce more spruce to the North American glulam market and beyond. Gill adds, “we are even starting to explore opportunities in overseas markets such as Japan.”

The glulam produced by Western Archrib undergoes a variety of processes to ensure that the company sends a high quality product to its customers. As an engineered wood product, precision is critical in the production of glulam.

Increased production and demand for Western Archrib’s products is what is driving a multi-year, multi-phase expansion project, featuring a new location in Sturgeon County north of Edmonton called ‘Heartland’. Significant investments in new, state-of-the-art equipment will facilitate a great degree of automation, improve efficiencies, and result in a higher quality end product. Another 100 new jobs will be created with this investment and the goal is to open that facility in early 2025. Again, coming from a production-focused environment, the new owners understand the importance of upgrading technology, equipment, and processes on a regular basis to increase competitiveness in the North American market.

According to Craig Ewashko, the new plant will be built in phases over the next two to three years. The list of contractors and equipment suppliers is currently being finalized, but the company has settled on its list for phase one. The first phase is focused on efficient lumber procurement with strength grading and sorting. The company also must ensure that it has commitments for the volume and quality of lumber it requires from reliable suppliers and has made that a priority. So far, the response from suppliers to provide more volume has been very positive and new suppliers are coming on stream.

Ewashko adds that phase one will include automated systems that will use internally-supplied as well as purchased lumber to stock the mills in the new Heartland, Edmonton and Boissevain locations. While glulam can be engineered into attractive curved structures, demand is mostly for straight beams for both structural and aesthetic purposes. The focus initially is to move, increase and streamline production of straight beam products in the new Heartland plant. Curved beam production will remain at the current Edmonton facility, with transition to the new plant after a second phase of development.

They hope to have phase one complete by late fall, 2024. The main equipment and technology suppliers are Mill Tech Industries for material handling, Microtec for scanning and strength grading, Ledinek for automated crosscut saw systems, and Iron Code Engineering Company for controls and electrical design.

Seko Construction has been tasked with expanding the new plant building and Gerhard Mueller of GME Machinery has been tapped to work on the overall design of the new plant. He helped Northland to design and install significant upgrades to their sawmill in Fort McMurray, which has helped to increase production by as much as 30 per cent. Much of the equipment for the new plant will come from Europe and so managing lead times for delivery and installation is a critical part of the planning process.

“This story is not only good for Northland and Western Archrib, but it’s good for Alberta,” says Howie Ewashko. “Both Craig and I speak with a lot of passion about it, and that’s also exciting for our employees.”

Tony Kryzanowski