These days, though, LeBlanc, the President of Hunt Forest Products, is working with a different kind of team in building what will be one of the major new sawmill projects in North America this year—the $240 million (U.S.) Bienville Lumber Company sawmill in Louisiana.
And there are Canadian players on that team, too, in the form of B.C. forest company Tolko Industries, and the B.C.-based BID Group, which is building the massive new mill on a turnkey basis.
In July 2022, Hunt Forest Products and Tolko announced they would build the state-of-the-art sawmill in Bienville Parish, near the town of Taylor, about 40 miles west of Shreveport, in northwestern Louisiana.
Construction started in 2022, and the new facility will employ approximately 60 people when operations begin later this year. The sawmill will employ approximately 130 people when it is operating at full capacity.
The mill will prioritize buying timber locally—it’s estimated the mill will require approximately 1.3 million tons of wood to produce approximately 320 million board feet of Southern Yellow Pine lumber annually. The facility is located on approximately 255 acres, including the former Taylor sawmill site and some adjacent timber land.
As of this summer, concrete was being poured for the new building foundations, and there were about 200 people on site building the new sawmill.
“There is a lot of activity at the site,” says LeBlanc. “We will start commissioning equipment in September, and are looking at going operational on the Number 1 sawline in October, and bringing the second sawline up sometime in December.”
They anticipate having the first shift of employees working during 2023, and the second shift coming on late in the second quarter of 2024.
During the construction process to date, they have had to deal with some severe weather, with hail, and “rain going straight sideways,” says Le Blanc, and the extreme heat that the region often experiences in summer. But they are working with the weather conditions, and moving steadily ahead with construction.
“One of the positive things for us with the Bienville sawmill is we’ve learned so many lessons from our experience building our LaSalle sawmill in 2018-2019,” says LeBlanc.
The sawmill in Bienville is the second project resulting from the collaboration of Hunt Forest Products and Tolko. The two companies partnered to develop the $115 million LaSalle Lumber Company mill in Urania, Louisiana, about 90 miles from Taylor, in 2018.
“We’ve employed a lot of the lessons learned from the LaSalle mill here in Bienville, so we anticipate having fewer challenges than we had on LaSalle,” explained LeBlanc.
The BID Group has been involved in building a number of sawmills on a turnkey basis in the U.S. South, including the LaSalle sawmill. Besides Bienville, BID also has several other sawmill projects in the U.S. southeast under construction now, including one for Canadian-based forest company Canfor, in Alabama.
Choosing to go with the BID Group for a second time on Bienville was a natural choice for Hunt Forest and Tolko, says LeBlanc.
The technology in the new Bienville mill is similar to LaSalle, but with improvements in some areas, such as controls, due to the continuing advancement of mill technology, says LeBlanc. The biggest difference is that the Bienville mill has two lines versus LaSalle’s one line.
The Bienville operation incorporates the full spectrum of BID’s best-in-class wood processing technologies including equipment, software, automation systems, Artificial Intelligence-enabled optimization, and plant-wide Industry 4.0 solution, Oper8, says BID.
As with LaSalle, the Bienville sawmill includes a Comact optimized log bucking system, followed by a Comact 22-inch debarker. PHL supplied chipping equipment with Andritz knives.
The Comact high recovery saw lines with profiling systems include a Comact OLI-CS3 overlength infeeder, and a Comact TBL-cant optimizer. Both mills rely on U.S. Blades in West Monroe, Louisiana, to handle the sharpening and reconditioning of their cutting tools.
The Bienville sawmill now under construction in Louisiana, which will have a production capacity of up to of 320 million board feet a year, is the second project resulting from the collaboration of Hunt Forest Products and B.C.-based Tolko Industries. The two companies partnered to develop the $115 million LaSalle Lumber Company mill in Urania, Louisiana, about 145 kilometres away, in 2018.
Lumber will be dried through natural-gas powered DelTech DPK dual path continuous kilns. The lumber will then be moved to sheds, where the mill will assemble the runs it needs for customers, and send the lumber through a high speed Miller 830E planer. The planer will also include Comact’s GradExpert 2.0 automated lumber grading system.
Comact, DelTech, PHL and Miller are all part of the BID Group family of companies.
The LaSalle and Bienville mills also include equipment from other companies, including Signode and Samuel equipment, as part of fully-automated lumber handling and stacking systems.
One major lesson learned from the LaSalle facility and applied at Bienville is the hiring of operations personnel early in the construction process.
“One thing we did differently with Bienville is we hired our key personnel earlier in the process,” explained LeBlanc. “In the summer, we had about 40 people hired, mainly in our electrical and maintenance group, and they were actually embedded with some of the BID Group subcontractors, so they will know the facility from the ground up, literally, and that creates a lot of personal ownership in the Bienville mill, from day one—they will have been fully engaged even before the start of operations.”
Another lesson applied at Bienville is building an inventory of critical spare parts early on. Noting that the facility currently has more than 20 trucks a day of mill equipment arriving on site, LeBlanc said it’s vitally important to know where all the pieces are right from the get-go, including key spare parts.
“We are talking about critical parts for a $240 million mill with a production capacity of up to of 320 million board feet a year—we know from experience that it’s critical to be carrying a significant number of spare parts so that we can minimize downtime and maximize production,” LeBlanc says.
Improved construction sequencing is also a LaSalle lesson being applied at Bienville, including early completion of laydown yards and several buildings.
“We now know what to expect with BID and their schedule—they need a lot of laydown area, and it helps to get ahead of that, and to have completed buildings that can be used as staging areas for equipment assembly.”
And while no one can control the weather, especially in Louisiana, the experience at LaSalle yielded yet another lesson.
“We had rain almost every day with LaSalle,” says LeBlanc. “When you look back at the pictures, it was amazing we got LaSalle built in the time we did because it was a muddy mess.”
As a result, at Bienville, yard paving has been a priority so that BID and its contractors have dry areas to unload.
“We pretty much have an all-weather site now. That has been a huge benefit because of the sheer volume of equipment that is being delivered every day,” says LeBlanc.
While COVID is now pretty much in the rear view mirror for the forest industry, it was still present and an issue when planning was being done for the new mill.
“When we made the decision to build the mill, in late 2021, we were still knee deep in what was going on and COVID was still on everyone’s mind.”
But as construction has proceeded, it has, thankfully, become a non-issue and even initial COVID-related supply chain issues with equipment for Bienville were fairly minor.
The 255-acre Bienville site had been home to a Weyerhaeuser sawmill until 2009, when the company shuttered it due to the economic downturn. The site has a long history as a sawmill—Willamette Industries, which was bought by Weyerhaeuser, acquired the Taylor sawmill on this site, with its purchase of the Woodard-Walker Lumber Company in northern Louisiana in 1980.
Despite its prior uses, the site still required significant ground preparation and dirt work, LeBlanc says
“We had to bring approximately 500,000 cubic yards of dirt onto the site to deal with the local topography and ensure that we had a solid foundation,” explained LeBlanc.
The site also now has an improved road set up, thanks to construction of a new bridge and major road,
“I knew the site before and, for the main entrance, all the logging and lumber trucks had to cross over the KCS rail line that parallels the site,” he says. But one of the features that initially attracted us to the site was that the state had recently built a new bridge over the rail line, and a major highway, so now we don’t have to cross over any of that with our trucks. They can all enter the mill just to the south, over this bridge, a huge consideration when you’re talking about hundreds of trucks every week.”
The new sawmill will have a healthy appetite for timber, which can easily be met locally, says LeBlanc. Hunt Forest Products has some forestland in the region, which will be harvested for timber for the mill, but the majority of the timber will come from other landholders.
“There are a lot of folks locally, from those who own small 40-acre tracts to much larger timber holdings, who will now have another option with the Bienville mill for selling their timber, says LeBlanc.
“It’s an outstanding opportunity for them to capture value for their timber, right at their back door,” he says. “There is a raw material base here in northwest Louisiana that is very robust, and that we believe is sustainable over time, and that’s why we chose this particular site,” he added.
“The site is also just south of Interstate 20, and 60 miles to the Texas state line, so it is a natural gateway to the Texas building materials market, which is also certainly very attractive to us,” said LeBlanc.
In addition to shipping lumber by road, they will be building a rail siding and spur to link the mill to the CPKC (the new combined rail company, with CP Rail taking over Kansas City Southern this year) main rail line. The LaSalle mill is on the Union Pacific line, so they have diversification in rail transportation.
“I think we’re in really good shape from a rail standpoint,” LeBlanc said.
With construction well underway and proceeding smoothly at the Bienville site, the decision to go with a turnkey approach to building the mill with the BID Group has been reinforced as a good business move.
“One of the advantages of dealing with BID is that the equipment is tested and true—it’s established, proven technology,” says LeBlanc, adding that they consider BID a true partner on both the Bienville and LaSalle projects.
“They want us to succeed as much as we want to succeed, and we feel that’s a good way to do business,” he said. “We’ve had a very good experience with BID.”
Also working on the project, as the owner’s representative, is Louisiana-based project management and consulting firm, Hunt, Guillot & Associates (HGA).
In addition to the equipment that BID has under their umbrella—such as Comact, Miller, and DelTech—the company also has strategic partners. These include B.C.-based companies, such as BM&M Screening Solutions, and more North America-wide firms such as Rockwell Automation, Timken, data solutions platforms company PTC, and industrial robotics company, Yaskawa.
BID Group has, in fact has entered into a strategic partnership with Yaskawa America’s Motoman Robotics Division. The focus of the partnership is to implement robotic systems into BID’s operations and develop new wood processing innovations.
Another difference between the LaSalle and Bienville mills is that Bienville opted for higher capacity Serco cranes in the millyard versus the Deshazo cranes at LaSalle.
“We just felt that two Serco cranes would serve us better at Bienville, for providing raw material to the mill,” Le Blanc said. The Serco cranes are able to unload a logging truck in a single bite.
“We think it’s important to keep the logging trucks moving, and be able to deliver the maximum number of loads per day,” says LeBlanc. “At LaSalle, we average 12 to 14 minutes from scale to scale, and we’re looking to replicate that at Bienville—making more loads keeps everybody happy.”
LeBlanc also noted that in building Bienville, they have been very fortunate to call on the people and experience of LaSalle Lumber. “We’re assembling a really strong team at Bienville, including some Bienville employees who are working at LaSalle now, in advance of the Bienville start-up. Because we’ve got a whole other operation at LaSalle, we can call on their experience and knowledge base and create synergies between the two facilities.” For example, the Bienville manager, Scott Walker, was the plant superintendent at La Salle.
And importantly, the learnings between the two mills will be flowing in both directions.
“We made major strides forward with technology at the LaSalle sawmill,” LeBlanc says. “But we’re still looking at how we can enhance the LaSalle operation with the technology we will employ at Bienville—it’s a great opportunity to further improve operations at LaSalle.”
Overall, LeBlanc is feeling positive about the huge Bienville project. “Our expectations are high—this is not our first rodeo with a BID Group-built sawmill,” he notes. “I’d like to see our run rates at the mill at acceptable levels more quickly than we had at La Salle because of the experience we now have under our belt.”
Like the baseball teams LeBlanc used to play on, everyone involved with the new project knows what their role is—and they are determined to succeed.
New mill off to a FastStart thanks to workforce development program
The Louisiana Department of Economic Development (LED) has worked closely with Hunt Forest Products and Tolko Industries on the new Bienville sawmill.
To secure the project, the State of Louisiana offered the companies a competitive incentive package that includes the comprehensive services of LED FastStart—which is said to be ranked the No. 1 workforce development program in the U.S. for the past 11 years.
FastStart is working in coordination with Bossier Parish Community College to build and equip the local workforce with the skills required for the new state-of the-art sawmill. The involvement of LED and the local community college is seen by the companies as a significant advantage, considering the tight labour situation in the U.S.
The state package also includes a performance-based grant of $2 million, subject to the companies reaching specified investment and payroll benchmarks. The companies are expected to utilize the state’s Quality Jobs and Industrial Tax Exemption programs for the sawmill
William “Bill” Sims, president of the Bienville Parish Police Jury, the governing body of the parish, said Hunt Forest Products is working with the parish community to coordinate services for the new mill, and to identify and address potential infrastructure issues.
“The forestry industry has been a vital part of the Bienville Parish and regional economy for more than 100 years, so we’re very pleased to be working with Hunt Forest Products and Tolko to bring a new and significant economic engine to our community,” Sims said.
Bienville not the first sawmill rodeo for Hunt/Tolko
To borrow a popular phrase, this is not the first rodeo for the joint venture partners involved in the Bienville sawmill.
Tolko Industries, a 60-year-old family-owned Canadian forest industry company based in Vernon, B.C., partnered with Hunt Forest Products to build the LaSalle sawmill in Urania, Louisiana, which began operations in 2018.
Similar to the Urania sawmill, Tolko will own a 50 percent share, and the Bienville mill will be managed and operated by Hunt on a day-to-day basis.
“Our first venture into the U.S. was in partnership with Hunt Forest Products, a family-owned company like ours, and that has been very successful,” said Brad Thorlakson, Tolko president and CEO, of the project. “So, we are looking forward to working with the Hunt family again to bring another state-of-the-art sawmill, and jobs, to Louisiana.”
“This sawmill will provide a local outlet for the massive inventory of Southern Yellow Pine that exists in this state,” said James D. Hunt, co-owner and vice chairman of the Board of Directors of Hunt Forest Products. “It will boost the local economy, bring a new generation of sawmill technology and provide another outlet for regional Louisiana timber. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the state strongly supports the project and is particularly pleased that the facility will be in Bienville Parish. The project is a great economic boost to the northwest part of the state, strategically located to have access to the heart of Louisiana’s historic timber industry, he said.