Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products

RESOLUTE GOES SOUTH with sawmills

Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products—which will soon be part of Paper Excellence Group’s Domtar subsidiary in a recently announced deal—has expanded its sawmill operations with the purchase of three sawmills in the U.S. South, and has already started to upgrade the mills.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Major Canadian softwood lumber producers continue to invest in the American South, with Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products among the latest to head in that direction with the acquisition of two sawmills in Arkansas and one in Florida.

Quebec-based Resolute Forest ProductsThese are the company’s first American sawmills and together will produce 550 million board feet of softwood lumber annually from southern yellow pine (SYP). While Resolute has a long history of producing SPF softwood lumber in Canada— from three sawmills in Ontario and 14 in Quebec—the addition of the three sawmills in the U.S. boosts the company’s total softwood lumber production capacity by close to 25 per cent. The company has a total of 40 wood products facilities in North America.

The three U.S. sawmills are the El Dorado and Glenwood sawmills in Arkansas and the Cross City sawmill in Florida.

The mills had recently changed hands when B.C.-based, Conifex Timber Inc, purchased them in 2018 for nearly $173 million (U.S.).

But after making significant capital investments in all three facilities, the company opted instead to exit the U.S. market and sell these facilities to Resolute in February 2020 for approximately $176 million (U.S.), according to Conifex. The sale was part of its proposed asset divestment and restructuring plan approved in principle by the company’s lumber segment lenders in November 2019.

Conifex successfully repaid a considerable amount of its debt as a result of this sale.

Since acquiring the sawmills, Resolute has announced a capital investment program of about $35.5 million into all three American sawmills to restart the curtailed El Dorado facility and eventually ramp up production at all three sawmills, with the aim of achieving production as close as possible to their design capabilities.

What’s attracting Canadian companies like Resolute to the American South is the abundance of affordable wood fibre close to production facilities, the ability to avoid having to pay American softwood lumber duties on Canadian-produced lumber, and the fact that southern yellow pine grows about twice as fast to achieve the same volume as an SPF tree in Canada.

Quebec-based Resolute Forest ProductsAmong the major upgrades made to the Glenwood sawmill in Arkansas was an edger optimizer supplied by Baxley. Production is ramping up at this sawmill, with the addition of 25 new jobs.

In the case of Resolute, the move toward softwood lumber production in the U.S. goes even further. It is a major plank in the company’s transformation strategy.

According to David Marshall, Resolute Director, Sustainability and Public Affairs, one reason behind the company’s drive to expand its softwood lumber manufacturing business is a recognition that the market for its paper products is shrinking. Resolute is a large global producer of newsprint and specialty papers.

“Our corporate strategy is focused on value creation by growing in wood products and pulp, maintaining a disciplined approach to capital allocation and maximizing cash generation from our paper assets, while investing in production innovation,” says Marshall.

Resolute is pivoting more toward softwood lumber production where the market continues to be robust, and the company anticipates higher softwood lumber prices. Since Resolute was eager to grow this part of its business particularly in the U.S., it definitely caught their interest when these three sawmills in Arkansas and Florida became available.

“The acquisition of the three sawmill operations provided the company with immediate scale in the attractive U.S. South, with quality assets in a rich fibre basket, close to growing end markets,” says Marshall. “Scaling our lumber business forms a key part of our stated transformation strategy.”

He adds that with ongoing softwood lumber disputes between the U.S. and Canada, it made sense for Resolute to expand its softwood lumber portfolio to the U.S.

Resolute already had a large footprint in the region. It operates six pulp, tissue and paper operations as well as a converting facility and a chip mill in six U.S. states primarily in the American Southeast, some of which were acquired as part of the merger of Abitibi-Consolidated and Bowater in 2007. The merged companies became Resolute Forest Products.

Another advantage was the availability of wood fibre. The company will be sourcing its wood from the same private sources that supplied the sawmills previously. However, Resolute is implementing its fibre tracking system within these operations this year.

“Resolute has fibre-tracking systems at all of our North American facilities to ensure that our wood fibre supply comes from acceptable sources such as certified forests and legal harvesting operations, with the exception of our three U.S. sawmills,” says Marshall. “We expect to implement fibre-tracking systems at these facilities this year, integrating them into our multisite chain of custody certification system. Resolute is committed to 100 per cent chain of custody certification at all of our operations.”

Quebec-based Resolute Forest ProductsResolute is able to capture about 85 board feet per log processed through its Arkansas sawmills. The logs processed through the Cross City mill in Florida are smaller, yielding about 40 board feet per log.

Taken separately, the El Dorado sawmill can produce 180 million board feet of lumber. It began start-up operations in December 2020 after being idled by Conifex in August 2019, and to date has added 153 jobs. The Glenwood sawmill can produce 185 million board feet of lumber and decking with 141 employees, while the Cross City plant can produce 185 million board feet of lumber and decking with 197 employees.

Resolute has assigned Maxime Langlais, Vice-President of Sawing Operations, who is responsible for the company’s wood products operations in both Canada and the U.S., to oversee the various capital projects at all three sawmills. He brings considerable experience to the position, starting with managing operations within the company’s Thunder Bay region for several years where he oversaw the start-up of the greenfield Sapawe sawmill, capital investment and re-start of the Ignace sawmill, expansion of the Resolute sawmill in Thunder Bay as well as installation of a wood pellet plant. He was then given additional responsibilities for sawmill operations in Quebec and relocated to Montreal. Now he is spending time in the American Southeast managing capital projects at Resolute’s newly-acquired sawmills, and streamlining operations to achieve their production potential.

Langlais says that the Arkansas sawmills are processing larger logs in the range of about 85 board feet per log, while the Florida sawmill is processing smaller logs in the range of 40 board feet per log. The logs arrive primarily in tree length but the sawmills can process cut-to-length logs as well, when they are available.

About 50 per cent of production in Cross City is decking and represents about 15 per cent of production in Glenwood, as well. Langlais says that Resolute is evaluating the option of improving their overall decking production to meet seasonal demand.

“It is certainly an advantage to be agile and flexible in our sawmills,” he says. “So our strategy is to remain competitive by adapting and modulating production according to market needs.”

Fortunately, Resolute has the technology to make adjustments in its gang saws in all three sawmills to switch from dimensional lumber to decking, depending on market demand.

Quebec-based Resolute Forest ProductsThe lumber produced at Resolute’s three sawmills in the American South is free of American softwood lumber tariffs, a major consideration when the company made its purchase of the sawmills in 2020.

The El Dorado sawmill currently has one production line equipped with a Kockums twin saw and HSS gang saw as its primary breakdown unit. Conifex invested significantly into the El Dorado sawmill prior to its purchase by Resolute which put the company in a good position with some of the best equipment available when it purchased the sawmill in 2020. Some of the other investments Conifex made were in a LogPro LLC overhead crane for log handling, LogPro feeders, a new Nicholson A8 debarker as well as two new, USNR natural-gas fired dry kilns and a new USNR planer and lineal high grader. New equipment at the planer mill was supplied by Piche, and Signode supplied a new strapper.

The main breakdown line at the El Dorado sawmill is fairly new so Resolute’s focus is further downstream with replacement of the sorter line with a USNR lug loader, paddle fence, trimmer and sorter.

Because the El Dorado sawmill was idle for about a year-and-a-half, Resolute spent a considerable amount of time staffing the facility and providing extensive training with a particular focus on the company’s protocols on health and safety.

The Glenwood sawmill is also a single line sawmill but with a Comact double length infeed (DLI) quad saw unit and what Langlais described as a gang ‘wiggle box’ for secondary breakdown. In this case, Conifex previously invested in reconstruction of the AFS Technology dry kiln, as well as trimmer upgrades and an edger optimizer supplied by Baxley. Samuel Packaging Systems supplied a new strapper.

The Cross City sawmill has two production lines. The larger log line features a Comact OSC sharp chain infeed with OSI chipheads and L&B twins. This feeds a Comact profiler which then feeds a Comact line bar curve saw gang. Past investments have included a Comact EdgExpert lumber edging system, Comact upgrades to log handling and profiling included a new profiler and gang saw. There is also a new USNR BioVision optimizer on the trim line. The small log line features a HewSaw R200+MSA with shifting edging tools breakdown unit.

“We are continuing to make additional improvements to the site, building on what was already done and focusing on bottlenecks in the production process,” says Langlais.

For example, the company is also adding a new bag house in the Glenwood planer mill, and a PLC lug loader in the sawmill. Resolute has been able to ramp up production in Glenwood as a result of its investments and has created 25 more jobs.

“We’re adding production hours so we need more staff, millwrights, and electricians particularly at our Cross City operation,” says Langlais.

The capital being spent in Cross City is focused on fibre optimization and overall efficiency with the main project being a log merchandizer from Lake City, Florida-based Quality Industries. This investment is expected to increase sawmill capacity by 20 million board feet.

“The log size is smaller at this operation so we need to increase our bucking capacity to merchandize logs for the sawmill,” says Langlais.

Given Resolute’s focus on growing its softwood lumber production capabilities, Marshall says that the company is keeping its eye out for opportunities as they arise that complement their existing facilities.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal

July/August 2022

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