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February 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Going retail with your lumber

Small sawmiller C Ernest Harrison & Sons gets the most for its wood—which is produced on some older, but extremely reliable equipment—by selling it through the company’s three retail outlets.

By Stephen Bornais

Like the trees on which it depends to survive, C Ernest Harrison & Sons Limited has deep roots. The small sawmill and retail operation in Halfway River, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia—about 200 kilometres northeast of Halifax—is a third-generation company, and has connections to the area that go back more than 150 years.

Founded in 1939, the mill is not even 10 kilometres from the tiny community of Harrison Settlement, where its namesake family settled after emigrating from England in the middle of the 19th century. Donald Harrison, 77 years-old and the son of founder C Ernest Harrison, was just a boy when his father got into the mill business after years as a pulpwood logging contractor. “Dad was just cutting lumber and getting someone else to saw it,” Harrison says.

Back then, most of the mill’s production was shipped overseas to markets in England and Ireland via two small ports on the nearby Bay of Fundy. Once the mill was in operation, Harrison’s father started buying land in the area to ensure a steady stream of logs. The holdings now total about 10,000 hectares, all of it within 60 kilometres of the mill, a farsighted decision that continues to pay dividends to this day.

David Harrison is third generation and the company’s forestry manager, responsible for harvesting, silviculture and the sawmill. He graduated from the University of New Brunswick’s forestry school in 1998 and joined the family firm that same year. One of his first tasks was to prepare a detailed inventory of the company’s lands to get a better fix on an annual sustainable cut. Using the latest technology available—GPS, GIS and ArcView—helped to give the company a far more accurate picture of just what it can take from its own lands.

Donald Harrison (left) and David Harrison have deep roots in the community. David is the third generation of the family to work for the company.

Exactly when the company cuts on its own land is a balancing act that involves a number of factors, the younger Harrison says, such as which sections are ready to be harvested and how much annual allowable cut the company has left. Harrison also factors in the amount of private-owned wood that is available and at what price. “Prices have gone down and people are not really knocking on your doors too hard to get you to cut their wood,” he says. “So we’ve been cutting quite a bit on our land, trying to catch up on some AAC that we haven’t used before.”

The company gets about a third of its logs from its own lands, which lie within a 30-minute drive of the mill. The rest comes from private woodlot owners cut under contract, a small Crown allotment and a fibre arrangement with Neenah Paper in Pictou in which Harrison exchanges 12,000 tonnes of chips for logs. Bark is also shipped there for use in that mill’s boiler.

The elder Harrison says buying logs is expensive business given the stiff competition.“The bigger mills are paying a pretty good price for them,” David Harrison says.

In 2004, the company planted one million trees on its own lands and those under contract. “We like to see something growing for the next generation,” says Donald Harrison. The company staged a massive replanting of its own lands back in the mid-1980s when the forests around the mill were hit by spruce budworm. “It hit here before they started spraying and it took them a while to make up their minds to spray,” Donald Harrison says.

All those supply sources feed into the small mill, which cuts about seven million board feet a year, as well as some hardwood that goes into the company’s pallet-making plant. The mill’s 15 full-time employees work a single shift, five days a week. Production could be increased, but to what end, asks Donald Harrison.

“If you’re not making any money, why (do it)?” The mill did push to a double shift several years ago as the company strived to take advantage of favourable market conditions. That stopped as soon as the lumber market took a tumble.

Donald Harrison says the company learned a few valuable lessons. “The extra crew was hard to get and it was no fun working nights unless you’re making money,” he says.

The workers get the most out of the old mill, which has been slowly upgraded over the years. In the mid-1990s, Harrison received a $421,970 loan from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to upgrade the planer mill. For a government agency notorious for its red tape, Donald Harrison says the entire process was actually pretty simple. “They gave us the money and we spent it,” he says. The money helped pay for
the construction of a new Coe dry kiln to better access export markets. It is a rackloading style and was installed in 1997.

The sawmill produces enough lumber to meet all the needs of the three company stores. It does a lot of custom cutting, everything up to 24-foot lengths.

“The kiln was upgraded with a new boiler system in 2000 that allows us to burn our own shavings, dramatically reducing our operating costs,” David Harrison says. The ACOA money also paid for an upgrade of the planer mill in order to improve product quality, construction of two building extensions to provide a repair and maintenance facility, as well as an expansion of the pallet manufacturing facility.

There is some new gear in the company’s woodlands division, which operates a Tigercat 845B with a Fabtek 240 head. There is also a 2006 648 GIII John Deere skidder and a John Deere 853G feller buncher, as well as several heavy trucks for hauling. Logs are transported on the mill site by a Prentice 180 slasher which handles both the small- and largediameter logs. Everything then heads through the Cambio 26-inch debarker. Smaller logs go through an 18-inch Carbotech debarker.

The heart of the mill is the Cardinal rotary saw and the Consolidated Machinery chipper canter. The single oldest piece of gear in the mill is the PHL eight-inch combination edger with gang one side, board on the other. It has plenty of company, however. “Our equipment is all very old. The chipper canter was second-hand when we bought it, our carriage and saw bed was bought in 1967- 68,” David Harrison says.

Harrison says the mill has continued to use the older gear partly because of the cost of upgrading it and the difficulty of ensuring there would be enough logs at a price the company could afford. “We haven’t got a big log supply here and we didn’t think we could get too much more raw material without paying a lot of money,” he says.

“This way our sawmill will supply a retail trade and that’s about all we’re going for.” Donald Harrison says in order to saw cheap, “you have to saw fast and to saw fast you have to have a lot of expensive gear.” The fact that the old gear keeps working is also a factor working against a big upgrade. “We’re not killing ourselves with maintenance costs,” Donald Harrison says.

But the company has looked at new gear, especially since it can acquire virtually anything it needs second-hand. They picked up some new gear at auction, but has yet to install it. The equipment—a PHL chipper and edger, PS Manufacturing Canadian-style trim table and some decks—still sits in its packing crates, awaiting installation.

“We’re just trying to decide how we’re going to do it,” the younger Harrison says. “I’m pushing pretty hard to set up a new building and new mill.”

The mill today produces enough to supply all the needs of the three company stores. It also does a lot of custom cuts, everything up to 24-foot lengths. “We can produce just about anything someone wants,” David Harrison says. “If someone wants a long piece of lumber, we can get it for them.”

Like everything about the Harrison’s operation, the retail side of the business goes back a ways. It started in the 1950s, when the mill was having problems getting rid of its lower-quality lumber. The solution was a local retail outlet that eventually grew into three stores selling a full range of building supplies. It is a move that continues to pay off, Donald Harrison says. “With our size, if we had to survive just on the margins from the mill, we couldn’t do it,” he says. The fact that all of the wood in the stores is locally produced is often a factor when customers are making a buying decision. It is also used to influence a wider audience, the younger Harrison says. “It is definitely told to the politicians around here. We make sure we tell them,” he says.

Harrison switched store brands three years ago to ensure a wider product mix, allowing them to better compete with a regional home building chain owned by the Irving family of New Brunswick. It is just more competition for a business that already has plenty, in all areas of its operations.

The solution is simple, Donald Harrison says with a chuckle. “Don’t take any money out. Work cheap,” he says. “But it’s not easy.” And if the company wanted a quick cash infusion, it could always sell off its lands, Harrison says. But in the same breath, he doubts that would ever happen. “That’s just not in our nature,” he says.



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