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The Challenge

Weyerhaeuser’s new VP finds learning about Canadian culture and sawmilling is more challenging than being a woman in the male-dominated forest industry.

By Tony Kryzanowski

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Weyerhaeuser’s new vice-president Cathy Slater with industry colleagues at a recent forestry conference in Edmonton. "Even though I was familiar with the pulp industry before I came to Alberta, there are a lot of differences in how things are managed, especially managing forestlands," says Slater.

It was a balmy +23 Celsius when newly-appointed Weyerhaeuser vice-president Cathy Slater and her family said their goodbyes to Atlanta, Georgia, just after Christmas, enroute to their new home in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Weather-wise, they received quite a Canadian welcome—when they got off the plane, it was a bone-chilling –37 Celsius.

Slater is among the few women occupying prominent senior roles in Canada’s forest industry. She took on the role of vice-president of Weyerhaeuser operations in Grande Prairie and Grande Cache last January when Rick Maksymetz moved on to Weyerhaeuser’s recently-acquired operations in Dryden, Ontario.

Slater was appointed to the position after several years as assistant site manager of the company’s Flint River pulp mill in Oglethorpe, Georgia. That mill, as well as the one in Grande Prairie, are both former Procter and Gamble pulp mills.

"Many of the values and learnings from the Grande Prairie facility were implemented in the design of Flint River," Slater says, a fact that made her more comfortable with the thought of moving to Grande Prairie, having spent her entire life in the American southeast.

Weyerhaeuser, which will have more of a presence than ever in Canada with its recently announced takeover of MacMillan Bloedel, is looking to build its team here. "Weyerhaeuser chose Cathy Slater to lead these operations based on her strong leadership qualities and under-standing of the pulp business," said Bill Gaynor, president and chief executive officer of Weyerhaeuser Canada.

First on the to-do list is the implementation of the new company "roadmap" — designed to establish an environment and new behaviours among Weyerhaeuser employees so all of its operations act as one company, its staff works safely and decisions are made with speed, simplicity and decisiveness.

"My immediate and long-term goal is to help employees under-stand the roadmap and then begin building processes that support those new behaviors," says Slater. She hopes this leads to Grande Prairie and Grande Cache operations being recognized as a key component of Weyerhaeuser’s future success.

Slater refuses to see herself as a pioneer in the advancement of women to prominent management positions in industry. "There are so many women that I see being successful with all of the technology and globalization that is going on," she says, noting in particular the number of female astronauts and prominent women in political circles.

Her rise to an executive position at Weyerhaeuser probably had more to do with a career decision than a conscious choice to break through the so-called glass ceiling for women in the executive office. Slater has a degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Alabama, and was the only woman in her graduating class.

As an executive, she evaluates individuals based on their skills, interests, and knowledge. "My experience is that this is how people treat me," says Slater. "I’ve been the only woman in several work settings and technical situations before, but that is rapidly changing. I bring the skills that I have, and I don’t think about that aspect of it," she says, referring to her gender.

She must consider bigger challenges. For example, the Grande Prairie and Grande Cache operations employ a total of about 900 workers, which is more than double the number working at Flint River. Secondly, Alberta operations include a large sawmilling and woodlands component, while Slater’s background is primarily in the pulp industry.

"It’s a big change in responsibility," she says. "I’ve been on a steep learning curve since I got here. Even though I was familiar with the pulp industry before I came here, there are a lot of differences in how things are managed, especially managing forestlands. That part of the business is new to me." Slater must also tackle the sawmilling side of the business, but adds that she has been studying hard and regularly walks through Weyerhaeuser’s operations at both Grande Prairie and Grande Cache.

While expanding her knowledge of certain aspects of the forest industry, she and her family have had to learn a lot about Canada in general.

Although the company provided her with an intensive orientation to Canadian history and culture, there are many aspects of living here that have to be experienced. "We have a whole new vocabulary now," she says. "I’d never heard of a toque before. We never said the word ‘mitts’, as in ‘put on your mitts before you go outside’."

She and her family find it comical that they need to use the specialty food aisle at the grocery store to find grits, a common dish in the American southeast.

It is also hard to fathom how large Canada is, she adds, until you live here. Grande Prairie residents think nothing of getting in their vehicles and driving five hours to Edmonton. Compare this with her previous posting in Georgia, where Atlanta was only a 90-minute drive from where she lived. But she is getting used to the fact that driving long distances is a way of life here.

The family has optimistically embraced their new Canadian experience. "We thought, hey, this is a really neat adventure for our family," says Slater. The community is a good one to live in, they have adapt-ed to the new school system and their careers are on track.

Cathy’s husband, Mike, an architect, hasn’t lacked for opportunity either, having teamed up with a local structural engineer. Last winter, the Slaters tried downhill skiing and ice skating, and their nine-year-old son played hockey.

Seated among her conservatively-suited, mostly-male forest industry counterparts at the recent Alberta Forest Industry Conference in Edmonton and comfortable in the role of prominent industry spokesperson, Slater opened a few eyes when she noted "we shouldn’t let borders be barriers."

With Weyerhaeuser’s recently expanded presence in the Canadian forest industry, many industry participants—frustrated by the Canada/US Softwood Lumber Agreement—are hoping that view gains more acceptance south of the border.

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