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Bit of a twist

In a bit of a twist on the usual north-south flow of wood, a new BC veneer operation imports lumber from the United States-and then exports the finished product right back to the US.

By Paul MacDonald

George Doonan is the kind of guy who can't sit still. While friends and associates were retiring and looking at spending their time down south or on the golf course, Doonan was building a new veneer operation -virtually from scratch-in the British Columbia interior. And the kicker is that he imports the wood for the operation from the United States and exports it right back to the US. The Kamloops businessman, who started his worklife as a machinist and millwright, already had a successful trucking company. And in his spare time, when down in Arizona, he used to help crew on a NASCAR Northwest Featherlite Tour Car. 

What gives Eldcan the edge, says George Doonan, is the ability to produce alder veneer to the demanding specifications-in terms of the right colour-of their customer.

"The trucking company was running well," he explains. "But I always wanted to get involved in manufacturing." But Doonan got involved in the veneer business by a circuitous route. He bought a small sawmill operation in Kamloops several years ago, planning to turn out pine shakes, with lumber as a sideline-an integrated operation. They could not get the quality of pine logs they needed, though. Like a true entrepreneur, Doonan shifted gears and decided to set up a veneer slicing operation. 

The mill was sold and today Doonan, along with daughter Candace Goss, oversees Eldcan Forest Products, which slices alder veneer from about 10,000 board feet of dimensional alder lumber a week, and exports the product to a plywood mill in Washington state. Getting to this point was not easy, but Doonan seems to relish a challenge. Eldcan had purchased an Omeco veneer dryer from Brazil. With his strong mechanical background, Doonan figured he could oversee the dryer's set-up. 

What he didn't plan on, understandably, was receiving all the support material, including minimal assembly instructions, in Portuguese, the main language of Brazil. While Doonan gives the manufacturer in Brazil good marks for trying to assist him, he was still thousands of miles away-and Doonan didn't speak Portuguese. What usually happens is that Omeco sells a dryer and then gets a contract to install it-it's a turnkey deal. 

They were not used to someone with the skills of George Doonan, who would just as soon put the dryer together himself. There was some creative work that had to be done. The gas burners supplied with the unit, while CSA approved on their own, were not approved when tiedtogether with the system. "We could have spent a lot of money retrofitting the system to the gas burners, but we decided to get a couple of thermal oil heaters to do the job." This, he notes, also leaves the door open to using waste wood as fuel as part of the heating process at a later point. In the end, Doonan said he's happy with the dryer. "It's actually a good product." 

It can be a bit of a tricky process-alder starts out looking close to white and changes colour in the dry kiln. To ensure that consistency of look, Eldcan's alder lumber comes from the same supplier as the plywood mill. And thankfully, since Eldcan is producing a hardwood product, and in veneer form to boot, Doonan does not have to worry about how or if the softwood situation is resolved with the US. He notes that alder has been considered a weed species in the western part of Canada and the US.

"Other places don't have alder, though. And while we may have seen it as a weed, they look at it and see a beautiful hardwood." Father and daughter appear to make a good combination at Eldcan. Doonan has the strong mechanical and equipment background. Daughter Candace had worked for another veneer slicing company and brings strong operational and management skills to Eldcan. "I like the mechanical and engineering side of things so I work on the equipment side," Doonan says. "With her background, Candace knows how to make good veneer and runs the day-to-day operations." 

When they first started up in 2000, Eldcan was slicing only. The conditioning and the drying of the wood was done by others. Now it is all done in-house, with a total of 18 employees. "That was our plan all along," says Doonan. "It just took some time to get the dryer finished and the conditioning vats weren't ready right at the start. But now we're doing all of that work." The company may never generate the huge volumes of large veneer producers, but that's fine with Doonan. 

"That's not the direction I wanted to go anyway. I just wanted a small manufacturing facility. And after 30 plus years in business, profitability is more important to me than size or growth." In his book, being small means being manageable, and with a solid bottom line. But Doonan, again not content to stay pat, says they may look at limited growth. The dryer is capable of handling veneer production from two slicers so they may install another slicer to maximize efficiency. 

They may also look at a splicing operation. Currently, the strips of veneer are sent out to a variety of locations for splicing before ending up at Mt Baker Plywood. In the end, the decision to expand will be up to veneer industry veteran Candace Goss, says Doonan. "It's her call." There's little doubt, though, that he'll be there to lend a hand on the equipment side when and if that happens. From start to finish, it took a year to pull things together for the veneer operation, with Doonan doing most of the work, from installing the slicer and dryer to building and setting up the merry-go-round. They purchased a used Marunaka slicer in Oregon and shipped it up to Kamloops. 

The slicer works with a range of lumber sizes, with a 9 1/2-inch width the most desired size. Anything less than five inches means a good deal of work on the splicing end to create veneer sheets for the plywood and makes it difficult to get profitable volume. The focus is more on the quality of wood available from the mill, rather than being stuck on a particular size, however. The thickness of the veneer they produce ranges from 1/42" to 1/12" of an inch. Before the mill was completed, a local company contracted Eldcan to slice only and they conditioned and dried the veneer Eldcan produced. 

But what Eldcan really wanted was one solid customer for a finished product. That came last year when they started turning out veneer for Mt Baker Plywood of Bellingham, Washington. What has given Eldcan the edge, so to speak, is that they are able to turn out alder veneer to the demanding specifications of Mt Baker. "They were having problems getting alder veneer in the right colour for their plywood, so it would match the alder lumber being used to build things like kitchen cabinets and for use in making furniture," says Doonan. "They need to get the colour bang-on. "That whole side of the industry is all about colour. They want to achieve that rich colour that makes alder look like a traditional hardwood, like cherry."

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