By Tony Kryzanowski
Brian Fehr, the founder and former CEO of the major mill equipment supplier/construction company, the BID Group, is enjoying life since leaving the company in 2018 after 35 years at the helm—but probably not in the same way most people would enjoy life after turning 60 years old and cashing out of a thriving business.
He has re-created himself. Now he is Brian Fehr, venture capitalist, happy to live the jet set life with his partner from their home located in B.C.’s East Kootenay region in what he considers the most beautiful place in the world.
Fehr’s retirement after the BID Group lasted for a grand total of about three hours.
“If they read my eulogy and my retirement announcement on the same day, that would suit me just fine,” he said in an interview with Logging and Sawmilling Journal.
Prior to Fehr’s departure, he facilitated a number of key acquisitions that has resulted in the powerhouse that BID Group is today: one of North America’s largest providers of one-stop procurement and construction services to the forest industry.
This included the addition of mill equipment companies Comact, DelTech, PHL, Miller Manufacturing, MoCo Engineering, Vibra-Pro, TriDelta and McGehee.
Fehr—who is a certified welder and millwright—and his father, Ike, and brother, David, were hands-on involved in building and remodeling forest industry production facilities primarily in British Columbia starting in the early 1980s. Their main customers were Canfor, Slocan Forest Products, and Northwood, with major support provided by Ike Barber at Slocan and Alistair Cook at Canfor. Cook is now President and CEO of the BID Group of Companies. Originally, the BID Group got its name from the owners, Brian, Ike, and David. The company’s home base was and is in Vanderhoof, B.C.
Fehr’s father died at the relatively young age of 59 and in 2010, his brother, David, suffered a serious medical setback. That left Brian in charge. In 2012, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, putting the BID Group in position to take part in the ongoing massive capital investment program in the forestry sector in the southeastern United States, driven largely by forest companies headquartered in Canada.
He credits two critical milestones in the company’s history that propelled it to its current leadership role. The first was the marriage between sawmill equipment manufacturer, Comact, with the BID Group in 2010. In his mind, the combination of Comact’s technology and manufacturing capabilities with the BID Group’s installation workforce was a match made in heaven. Both companies recognized that each offered exactly what was lacking in their own operations—an experienced and trusted workforce capable of working hands-on with sawmill customers in the case of the BID Group, combined with the proven, cutting edge technology of Comact.
“With the addition of Comact equipment and with what BID did, we started offering turnkey mills in the southern U.S. and today, the majority of the mills built in the U.S. South are BID mills,” says Fehr. “You wouldn’t believe the miles I drove in those six years I was down there.”
The second game changing decision taken by the BID Group was to offer the forest industry turnkey equipment procurement and installations services on major capital projects. But first it was necessary to have all the pieces in place from the sawmill front to back before the company could market this service. Fehr says this strategy worked because of the owners’ decades of hands-on experience working with various equipment suppliers. They were keenly aware of what fit and worked well within each segment of the sawmill production line. So they launched a campaign to purchase those companies, to offer one-stop service to customers—a service that the forest industry was clamoring for, and they worked hard to provide. It was a company, and industry, game changer.
“There was nobody putting it all together and then being responsible. A lot of our customers really liked that we would take on the full responsibility for the project, including start-up,” says Fehr.
He says they modeled their business on some of the major contractors serving the oil and gas industry, who were also offering turnkey services.
However, by 2018, Fehr says that he felt that the company had outgrown him. Having turned 60, he sensed that it was time for a change. The money he received from selling his shares in the BID Group has helped facilitate a personal transformation. Perhaps it was the knowledge that his father, Ike, died so young and never really realized the fruits of his labour. Fehr says that one day he suddenly realized that he had outlived his father.
After leaving BID Group, he decided that he wanted to help people, particularly First Nations communities, interested in becoming more involved in the resource sector. He was attracted to the plight of those struggling with alcohol and drug abuse because of his own struggles earlier in life. He’s been clean and sober for over 25 years.
Among his earliest investments were in his own back yard. It started with Galloway Lumber Co in nearby Jaffray which today supplies raw material for use by the former C & C finger-joint lumber plant in Cranbrook. He purchased the plant out of bankruptcy.
Fehr also purchased the Canfor sawmill lands in Canal Flats, B.C., about an hour north of Cranbrook, dismantled and sold the existing mechanical equipment and eventually turned the site into a 30-megawatt power hub for Australian firm, Iris Energy. Today, the site operates as the Columbia Lake Technology Centre.
Iris Energy builds, owns and operates data centres and electrical infrastructure to mine Bitcoin from renewable power sources, in this case, BC Hydro power. Fehr also purchased a 10,000 hectare cattle ranch in the Canal Flats area, operating it as Columbia Lake Ranch.
Then he focused on his personal mission to build relationships with First Nations communities. It started with a venture called Peak Renewables, which acquired Canfor’s holdings in the Fort Nelson area. It included a mothballed oriented strand board (OSB) plant. With that purchase of production facilities and forest allocations recently approved by the B.C. government, Fehr and his First Nations partners plan to build a large whitewood pellet plant on the old Canfor site capable of producing 600,000 tonnes of wood pellets per year for export, along with other plans not announced yet.
Fehr says because of the relationship he built with the Fort Nelson First Nation, he was approached by a group of 12 First Nations from Saskatchewan wanting to build an OSB plant in Prince Albert. He had the surplus OSB equipment and they had a secure wood supply from the province of Saskatchewan. It resulted in the establishment of a joint venture, One Sky Forest Products, with the goal of building a $250 million OSB plant. Construction is slated to begin in 2023.
But those aren’t Fehr’s only forest industry investments. In 2019, he purchased two more struggling businesses, the SmartLam cross-laminated timber (CLT) operation in Columbia Falls, Montana as well as the Alabama X-LAM plant of what was International Beams. It manufactures CLT using southern yellow pine and is now part of the SmartLam group. He has a strong belief in the potential growth of mass timber use in North American building construction.
In 2020, he also purchased a 75 per cent interest in the shuttered Canfor sawmill in Vavenby, B.C., with the other 25 per cent purchased by the Simpcw First Nation.
Among his other ventures, Fehr owns Prince George-based, Formula Contractors, which is engaged in bridge construction as well as other heavy construction endeavors. It has strong First Nations involvement.
Recently, he was named to the Order of British Columbia for his efforts to help struggling sectors of society and small communities. The award is given to persons who have served with great distinction. Looking at Fehr’s track record, it’s truly a well-earned honour.
On the Cover:
With the help of technical experts from Italy, Germany, Montana and the province of Saskatchewan, the First Nation Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan has now launched a state-of-the-art $90-million bioenergy facility. The new power facility is producing enough energy to process the wood waste from their sawmill, power the bioenergy plant’s in-house facility (heat, lights and run the wood hog), provide power to 5,000 nearby city homes—and has enough energy left over to sell 6.6 megawatts to provincial utility, SaskPower Corporation (Cover photo courtesy of Meadow Lake Tribal Council).
Spotlight: Moving on to the next challenge…
Former BID Group CEO Brian Fehr is now on a mission to help struggling businesses and communities—and is also keeping his hand in the forest industry.
Grinding it out in Saskatchewan
The First Nation Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, has launched a $90-million bioenergy facility—and helping it reach its feedstock goals is a custom built wood hog grinder from Rawlings Manufacturing.
ELTEC expands manufacturing operations, logging equipment production
Logging equipment company Eltec has recently embarked on a significant expansion of its production facilities in Quebec, positioning the company to supply not only the present needs of loggers, but their future needs, as well, with cutting edge equipment.
Most Wanted finds its services even more wanted
Most Wanted Contracting is finding demand for its forestry services increasing among land owners in the B.C. Interior concerned about wild fire prevention.
Family-owned Ayat Timbers International truly came back from adversity after the New Brunswick-based mill operation was struck by a fire—but they were quick to rebuild.
We take a look at what’s new in log trailers, that essential link in the wood transportation chain.
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 (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
The days of B.C. forest land use policy favouring the interests of the forest industry are long gone, says Jim Stirling.