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Future Rosy At White River

Once a bitter nest of discontent, Domtar's White River sawmill has turned things around with a healthy new labour-management structure - and an $8 million upgrade.

Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Domtar Forest Products' recent investment of $8 million to thoroughly modernize its White River, Ontario sawmill was welcomed by both on-site mill management and its workers. You might think that would go without saying, but it wasn't all that long ago when management and workers at the plant didn't agree on much of anything.

Back in 1990 the mill suffered through a bitter, 4-1/2-month labour dispute made worse by "a lot of hard feelings from many years gone by," recalls mill manager Mel Jones. Savvy and personable, Jones could hardly forget; coming up through the ranks at the plant, he had been appointed manager just three months before the strike came down.

Just how severely the strained labour-management climate of the preceding years had impacted on the mill's performance was underlined almost immediately when the dispute was resolved. "We were able to clear the air and get back to work," says Jones. "The day after the strike, we were setting production records."

Domtar How much things have changed at White River is indicated by any number of positive developments: new capital investment that realigns the plant for a changing fibre base, a happier and more productive workforce, and renewed optimism in the community. But it is perhaps symbolized best by the IWA flag flying at the entrance, "the first in Ontario," Jones observes. Since the plant began upgrading, it has gone from 120 to 170 workers. The atmosphere amongst workers and management, once poisoned, is now based on mutual trust and cooperation, and on added employee responsibility.

"We used to have a superintendent for each department and a supervisor on each shift," says Jones. "Now, we have a unionized machine operator, a department supervisor who is responsible for both shifts, and myself." The mill runs two 10-hour shifts. There are no supervisors present on the night shift. Production responsibility lies with lead hands, who also operate equipment.

"Our production levels are just as good on night shift as they are on day shift - sometimes higher," says Jones.

One thing immediately noticeable to a mill visitor is the number of women in the plant - about one-third of the total workforce. In large part that is because families in White River, like many others in the country, need two incomes to get by - and in this town the sawmill is easily the largest employer. Located 300 km north of Sault Ste. Marie, the community depends almost entirely on the Domtar plant for economic survival. "If the mill was to close down, you might just as well roll up the sidewalks and shut off the street lights," says Jones. "There's no other industry here." A total of 320 workers in the area, including those in the woods, depend on the mill to support their families.

Domtar It comes as no surprise, then, that workers speak and feel passionately about this plant - and want it to succeed. During a five-year capital investment drought, workers built their own lathe, for example, to produce new products. A worker-inspired deal with an animal bedding company for the purchase of planer shavings created new jobs. "We started that in 1993 on a one-shift, eight-hour basis," says Jones. "It's now grown to three eight-hour shifts, and it employs an extra six people."

The White River mill turned its first profit in 1993, although it has been operational since 1977. Its original owners were Abitibi-Price. "They (Abitibi-Price) used a lot of West Coast technology that was not proven at that time," says Jones. "There were some design flaws in the production flow."

In 1985, the mill was sold to Domtar. "When we purchased the mill, we did a major revamp in the log handling area," adds Jones, "and were able to bring production up to a level that we could live with until 1994." Through the late 1980s, the mill had several different managers, with labour-management rapport, communication and worker confidence suffering as a result. "We would have equipment just show up, and no one even knew it was coming," says union steward and electrical apprentice Les McCaig.

With no capital investment at the plant between 1989 and 1994, employees drew up a list of what they felt was needed to keep the mill competitive. White River manufactures dimensional lumber from a fibre source consisting of about 70 per cent jackpine, and 30 per cent white and black spruce. Employees worried about the future, however, as the supply of larger, overmature and mature wood available in the area diminshed. Also in 1994, Domtar conducted a complete facility analysis, aided by a $75,000 grant provided by the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. It confirmed that the mill was ill-equipped to produce lumber from smaller-dimension wood. It needed a smaller log line and optimizing equipment to enhance recovery.

Domtar In response, Domtar launched its Recovery Improvement Program, to be undertaken in two phases.

Phase one resulted in the installation of a fully optimized double-length infeed system, on an existing large-diameter Mark II chip-n-saw line supplied by Optimil Machinery and MPM Engineering.

"We are actually optimizing the infeed so that we are reproducing the true shape of the log," says Jones, "and from that, we are allowing the heads to do the profile sets automatically."

They also installed a 16' trimmer scanning optimizer supplied by Newnes, a Newnes 10-saw optimizing trimmer complete with a three-stage positioning infeed fence and smart gate outfeed, a Newnes 32-bin J-Bar sorting system capable of operating at 125 lugs per minute, a Newnes high-speed crib stacker, and a 15-ton overhead crane system for crib stacking from Oakville's Mannesmann Demac Corp. This line started up on schedule in September, 1995.

The phase two equipment began arriving last April. It consists of log-sorting bins constructed by Paul Dallaire Welding complete with Linden 8' step feeders, and an Optimil high-speed, four-head, small-log sawing line, complete with double-length infeed and operating at 450' per minute.

It is processing logs from 3'' to 9'' diameter and 7' to 16' long. Phase two was completed as the mill continued to operate. "We are capable now of going to a 3''-diameter log and producing lumber from it," says Jones. "Before, anything under 4.5'' was rejected into a whole log chipper."

Recovery levels have increased by 20 per cent. The sawmill's annual production exceeds 125 million board feet (mbf). It consumes about 600,000 m3 per year, about two-thirds from their own sources, and one-third from other purchases. The vast majority is tree-length.

Manager Jones adds they have also increased their product mix. They used to only produce random-length 2X4s and 2X6s. They now produce 1X4s, 1X6s, 2X3s, 2X4s and 2X6s in lengths from 6' to 16' long.

Generally, the use of advanced technology in the forest industry has meant the necessity for fewer workers. Union steward McCaig says that has not been the case at White River. "Just the opposite happened here. We went from struggling with a one-shift operation and 120 employees to two shifts with 170 unionized employees. The number of employees is the highest it's ever been, and it doesn't look like it's going to slow down."

Always on the lookout for more opportunities, Domtar White River has entered into an arrangement with Haavaldsrud Timber Mill located in nearby Horne Payne. Domtar dries and dresses lumber from Haavaldsrud timber, and shares the profits 50-50. It started kiln drying Haavaldsrud timber a few years ago, and the arrangement is now a key component of Domtar's future plans.

"We had two kilns here and were only using one of them," says Jones. "So we started entering their fibre into our process. Obviously, kiln-dried sells for a higher price." The company is now making arrangements for a third kiln to start operating this October.

Because of higher production, Domtar will now spend an additional $3.5 million by the end of 1996 to increase its planer speed from 1,200 fpm to 2,000 fpm, and will also increase the sorting capacity of its dry sorter. White River has a long history of finding extra value, sometimes doing so out of necessity.

"We are looking at MSR very seriously," Jones says, as the next logical step in the hunt for more value. Company officials want to measure the strength of their white spruce resource, thereby proving its extra value. As you enter the mill site, there is a striking stockpile of bark. Jones says they have plans for that as well. Only about 30 percent of the company's bark waste is consumed now; plans are in the works to build a co-gen plant to consume the remainder.

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