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High Gains

Slocan's Mackenzie sawmills have been able to achieve high production gains with no equipment upgrades.

By Jim Stirling

Something unusual is happening when young sawmill workers chat willingly about how the atmosphere has improved in their mill and they no longer feel it's drudgery to go to work every day. And something's definitely happening when production at Slocan Forest Products' two Mackenzie, BC sawmills increases by 40 per cent between 1997 when Slocan acquired them and 1999, without the benefits of major equipment upgrades.

"There is a new feeling of success," says Keith McGregor, divisional manager for Slocan's Mackenzie operations based on the shores of Williston Lake in north central BC.

"The change in ownership clarified expectations for us and that generated some excitement. We are focused on running a sawmill, making a good product for a good customer base. And we have a core group of people who can work together," says McGregor.

A 40 per cent boost in production sounds super-impressive. But McGregor exercises caution. No one is bragging. Rather, while Slocan Mackenzie's story is one of change, it's very much a work in progress.

"This site has under-performed compared to its true capacity for a number of reasons," says McGregor, who is careful not to criticize previous owners. "We were a fourth quartile producer and now we're a second quartile producer. The process is not complete. We're not as good as we can be. We think about stuff we haven't done yet rather than what we've accomplished," he adds.

Slocan's Mackenzie operations are run on a grand scale. In December 1999, the company's two sawmills were averaging 1.7 million board feet of lumber on four shifts. The largest A Mill produces about a million board feet.

Slocan's two Mackenzie sawmills have seen a production transformation, with increases in production of 40 per cent without equipment upgrades.

"When I look at A Mill, I see a 1.2 million board foot mill," says McGregor. Given past experience, don't bet it won't become one. The operation's core products are dimension lumber, four inches through 10 inches in eight to 20 foot lengths for US home construction markets and in Jgrade.

McGregor has no problem justifying the "spaghetti-factory" image. "You need the big prime commodity plants ." Fall down fibre from the mills helps support two value added plants in Mackenzie and the company contributes about $45 million a year in stumpage payments. And it's a huge employer, with 380 members of PPWC Local 18 and 85 staff people. Then there are the contractors who harvest and transport about 1.52 million cubic metres of timber annually and the host of support people sustaining that process. But staff job numbers have dropped by about 20 per cent (not union positions) mainly through attrition and early retirement packages. "Those are tough decisions," says McGregor.

Ike Barber, Slocan's chairman, embraces a keep-it-simple philosophy. It's very evident in Mackenzie. On office walls around the place, a chart tracks lumber commodity price cycles and costs. It's a reminder that when costs are lower than the price of lumber, the operation can make money.

Barber and the Mackenzie team are proving good fibre, good people and good iron breed success in managing for the long term. In two years under Slocan management, production has increased, safety has improved and morale has gone up, says McGregor. "People have risen to the challenge. Targets have to move and the mills' people keep clearing the bar ."

The mills' lumber recovery factor has also improved in the last year and a half to about 270 board feet per cubic metre.

"We wanted to get really good at our core products first, get the basics right, and then take our recovery from there. Reducing our target sizes and using finer kerfs will come later," continues McGregor.

A more proprietorial attitude has developed among the work force. For the most part, crews figure it's their mill and if it runs well, it can run more. Tom Brooks, manufacturing manager for both mills, well understands that. He says selective delegation and people involvement is the only way to run a production facility. "And remember," he adds, "everything on this site has been accomplished with very little or no capital ." McGregor puts it succinctly: high expectations and relentless pursuit of improvements.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004