By Paul MacDonald
When you’re a mid-sized family-owned company, sometimes the decisions can be made quickly, easily—and on a ferry.
That’s sometimes the case with B.C.-based San Group Inc., a forest products company with remanufacturing operations in Langley, just outside of Vancouver, and relatively newly-purchased mill operations in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island.
While travelling between the two operations between the Mainland and Vancouver Island on B.C. Ferries, San Group CEO Kamal Sanghera and his small executive group will review operations, and make plans—and execute them quickly.
Just over a year ago, San Group purchased the long-established Coulson Forest Products sawmill, based in the Vancouver Island forestry town of Port Alberni, about 80 kilometres west of Nanaimo.
In the short time since then, San Group has made a number of changes to the operation, including adding another shift and a molding line. And there are intentions to invest upwards of between $30 million and $40 million over the next several years, that will include a small log manufacturing operation to complement the existing large log mill. They are having a R200 completely rebuilt by HewSaw, to be installed later this year.
It would be an understatement to say that San Group’s Kamal Sanghera is a man in a hurry. When the Coulson operations became available, the decision to purchase them was made quickly.
“We have a long relationship with Coulson, going back to 1991, when they built the sawmill in Port Alberni,” he explained.
It was, and is, a good fit, added Bob Bortolin, vice-president of business development for San Group.
“If you talk to any reman operation, what is their biggest problem? Getting fibre —finding raw material,” says Bortolin. “So it was natural for us to purchase Coulson.
“Over the years, we had been processing a lot of material from the mill already, so we knew their fibre, the manufacturing, and we knew how to take that material and maximize the recovery. You could say the gears just meshed perfectly between the operations.”
“We were missing the sawmill component,” added Sanghera. “So it was a natural fit for us. We had the logs from timber sales from BC Timber, but we did not have the sawmill to process them.”
With Coulson, came its logging department, giving San Group access to a wealth of expertise on the logging and timber management side. They currently have four logging operations on the B.C. coast, some of which is done with helicopters, with Pacific International Heli-Log.
In addition to having logs processed in Port Alberni, they are also using, and will continue to use, Lower Mainland operations such as S&R Sawmills and Mainland Sawmills to do contract cutting for them. “We have a lot of very good partners. But Port Alberni is now meeting most of our reman needs.” They also purchase wood products, for remanning, from the majors’ primary sawmills.
“But now we have control of the wood from the standing tree to sending it as a finished product to whatever market we ship to,” says Sanghera. “We can process the wood to a finished end product, and put it out into world markets.”
And they ship to a lot of markets, including Australia, the UK, Japan, China, South Korea and the Middle East. “You name it, we are there.” And it all goes by container.
That variety of markets gives them choice in where, and what product, to send. “Australia might take this product, Belgium might take that product—this enables us to move all grades of lumber.” says Sanghera.
And, he noted, they are very customer focused. Sanghera or one of the senior management group visits each customer regularly. “We do that because we want to understand what their needs are—that’s how relationships are built.”
With the Port Alberni operation, San Group is looking to get the maximum value out of every log, but even more so on a broader, operational basis, since it does remanufacturing into products as varied as solid wood boards right through to engineered siding products. “We are applying technology to get as much out of the fine grain timber as possible.”
Their plans include producing more engineered wood products to make use of fine grain western red cedar, such as a laminated core product with a cedar veneer. “So out of that one piece of wood that would normally yield a single piece of tongue and groove, we would be able to make several clear pieces of tongue and groove out of it. We are adding labour to it, but we are also getting good value from it.
“We want to do more value added,” added Sanghera. Value added has been their specialty since the company was set up in 1979.
After acquiring the mill, Sanghera and his team were quick to review operations, and implement changes.
“We walked in the first day, and we knew that it could be configured better from a reman perspective, that things could be done more efficiently—and that started in the week after we bought the company.”
They have since added 40 employees to the Port Alberni operation. Sanghera says the company expects to invest $100 million in the Port Alberni and Langley operations over the next several years, combined, and will be hiring 100 new employees in the next year, most of them in Port Alberni. There is plenty of room for expansion in Langley, where they have an 80-acre site on the Fraser River, which in addition to reman facilities, also includes drying equipment with kilns from Porta Kiln.
Senior company staff travel a fair bit between the two operations, and there is a focus on hands-on management. The company has beautiful offices in Langley, but Sanghera, Bortolin and other senior managers don’t see a lot of those offices—they are usually out in the mill operations.
In addition to producing wood products differently, the company is also looking to handle the timber input into the Port Alberni mill differently.
Some companies leave a lot of low grade wood behind in the bush, because they consider it too small—it may not fit into their large mill cutting programs, says Sanghera. But San Group’s philosophy is to take waste or underutilized logs out of the bush, some of which will be supplying their new small log line.
Any logs from four to 14 inch will go into the refurbished HewSaw small log line, with 15 inch and up logs going to the existing large log line. “We’re investing in property and equipment for Port Alberni. Our engineers are working on the plans for the new small log line facility.” Also involved with this project is MPM Engineering, who will be supplying the controls for the new line.
In addition, they have other equipment on hand that they expect to be putting in place in Port Alberni.
They are working to get the new log line, with a trimmer line, in as soon as possible, with equipment such as a bin system, to follow.
They have already added a Weinig molding line to the mill facility, so it now has two Weinig molders, one with a sanding head. They also have a radio frequency laminator and a Grecon optimizing saw, plus resaws, sander and sash saws.
“And we will be running all species—not just western red cedar and hemlock, but Douglas fir and yellow cedar,” explained Sanghera. “We want to utilize all species in the forest.”
In the meantime, they have since ramped up operations at the existing Port Alberni mill.
Sanghera says they have invested several million dollars in the mill, very heavily in the reman end, to better fit with the company’s reman facilities in Langley. Some of the reman work that had been done in Langley is now being done in Port Alberni, making for more integrated operations.
“We are running the mill more completely,” he says. “The mill had been running one shift, sometimes only four days a week.” As of this spring, they were running two shifts, and were planning to run three shifts, once they were able to get wood from their logging operations, which are mostly BC Timber Sales.
“Without a doubt, we can say we are the only mill operation that has been adding shifts,” says Sanghera.
To prepare for this scaling up, they have been training and adding staff. “We are not there yet, but we want to have the people in place to take on the new equipment with the small log line.”
And being a company in growth model, San Group is looking at other opportunities.
“The Coulson mill has added a lot for us, we’ve been able to do a lot more. But we’re also keeping our eyes open, and looking for other opportunities. As a business, we don’t believe in just sitting with what we have.
“We’re also looking at other mill operations. We have an appetite for growth,” says Sanghera. He says the company has a five year plan, and it includes significant growth. “We know where we want to go.” And they have the expertise, through their employees and senior management, to get there, he says.
“Manufacturing and sawmilling is where we grew up,” says Kamal of himself and his brother, company president Suki Sanghera, and their 30+ years in the business. “If there is an opportunity, we don’t need a consultant to look into it and tell us what to do—we take a look at it, and see if there is something we can do, if there is something there that we can work with.”
And they seem to be happy to take on a challenge, and buy operations that might not be working perfectly. “Anything is fixable as long as you have the will do it—and we have the will,” says Sanghera.
Sanghera says that hurdles do crop up, but they try not to have them stop them from achieving their goals.
“We handle the issues head on,” he says. “That’s the approach we have taken from day one with the company.”
And he added that approach, and the company’s success, would not have been possible without their employees. “I’m very proud of our people and their commitment.”
The Coulson family may be shifting out of sawmilling in Port Alberni, in selling their mill operation to the San Group, but it is still going to be involved in the industry through its aviation company.
The Coulson Group includes Coulson Aircrane, run by Wayne Coulson and owned by the Coulson family. It has been in the aviation business for 30 years, and operates both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Its operations include helicopter logging and forest fire suppression.
Its equipment includes two massive C-130 Hercules aircraft used for air tanker work, and the fabled Martin Mars planes, the world’s largest water bombers, with their massive 60,000 lb. payloads. The company’s two Mars aircraft, the Philippine and Hawaii Mars, have worked on hundreds of forest fires, saving untold thousands of acres of valuable forestlands, delivering massive amounts of foam or water exactly where and when it is needed.
At one time, through the 1950s and 1960s, the central Vancouver Island town of Port Alberni, B.C., was a booming place.
There were multiple sawmills, a plywood plant, pulp and paper mill operations—and logging jobs galore. It was dominated by forestry giant, MacMillan Bloedel.
But some see the opportunity for a resurgence in the industry in the town.
“We’d like to see the community grow again,” says Kamal Sanghera, the CEO of the San Group, which purchased the town’s Coulson Forest Products mill last year.
He sees part of the solution to getting more jobs for Port Alberni, and B.C., by securing fibre for B.C. mills and stopping log exports. This solution would be beneficial to all sectors of the lumber industry, he says.
“The natural resource is here—why are we shipping all those logs out, and the jobs to other places?
“Why can’t we have the jobs here? We can do it here, we have the technology. Why should we export logs when we can export finished products?”
That is part of San Group’s goal, with adding to their reman operations and starting up a new small log mill in Port Alberni.
B.C. sawmill workers are competing with labour elsewhere making a fraction of what they make, but labour can be a small component of a product’s final price. “We need to use our fibre more intelligently,” Sanghera says.
“As a manufacturer, we don’t like to see logs being exported. We should keep the logs right here in B.C.—natural resources are meant to create jobs for the people of B.C. and Canada.”
On the Cover:
Hannah Dehoog of Smithers, B.C., is catching a lot of attention in the logging community. It’s not just her engaging presence on social media, but her determination and skill as a young female heavy equipment operator working in a decidedly male dominated industry. Read all about Dehoog and the logging work she is doing beginning on page 8 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Tigercat).
Safety evolving with silviculture sector
The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association set out recently to gain an insight into how the silviculture sector has evolved—and where health and safety programs might need to be changed, to reflect that evolution.
There is a place for young women in Canada’s forest industry, and B.C.’s Hannah Dehoog is proof of that. She loves being in the bush operating logging equipment, and has run everything from skidders to leveling feller bunchers, doing steep slope work.
Big B.C. mill investments
The San Group, which recently acquired a mill operation on Vancouver Island, has some ambitious spending plans for its B.C. sawmill and reman operations, including adding a small log mill operation, with HewSaw equipment.
Dealing with the aftermath of forest fires—at the sawmill
B.C. forest company Tolko Industries is successfully handling fire salvaged timber from last year’s massive forest fires, thanks to some changes at their mill operations.
Tackling the tough job of fire salvage
Last summer’s forest fires in B.C. created a lot of salvage work for forest companies including Tolko Industries. But just as Tolko’s employees and contractors were up to the task of fighting the fires, they’re also up to the tough job of salvaging the fire-affected timber.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the forest industry needs a better communications approach for advocating wood-based alternatives in the battle against plastic.