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Northern Alberta Cut Stock Maker Bounces Back Quickly Following Fire: Aspen Valley Relies on Baker, Pendu-Cornell, Newman-Whitney in Rebuilding
Cut stock manufacturer in northern Alberta bounces back quickly following devastating fire; Aspen Valley relies on equipment supplied by Pendu-Cornell, Newman-Whitney and Baker Products.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 2/1/2006
LA CRETE, Alberta — With Aspen Valley Lumber’s dedication to customer service, it is no surprise that Johnny Wieler was determined to rebuild quickly after his pallet cut stock operation burned to the ground in April 2005.
While his successful plant in northern Alberta originally had been largely equipped with custom fabricated machinery, in the aftermath of the fire he relied on major pallet equipment suppliers, such as Baker Products, Newman-Whitney, and Pendu-Cornell to help him get back into production in less than four months.
"Most of the equipment we have is brand new," Johnny said. "We pretty much lost all of our equipment in the fire. I didn’t have time to go out and rebuild."
Aspen Valley Lumber has built a solid reputation as a producer of quality aspen cut stock since Johnny and his wife Joyce launched the company in 1999. The remanufacturing facility is situated in La Crete, about 500 miles from Edmonton.
In recent years aspen has helped fill a void in the hardwood market in the Western U.S. While not as strong as alder, aspen is often used as deck board material, combined with alder or oak stringers to produce a hardwood pallet. Because aspen is a hardwood, it is exempt from the U.S. countervailing duties applied to softwood.
La Crete is in the northernmost farming region in Canada. Crops include wheat, oats, barely, canola and flax. The growing season is short, but the days are very long. "Once we hit mid-June, it never really gets dark," Johnny noted. "It just gets kind of half dark. On a nice clear night you could read a book outside at midnight."
While it is a region of farming and oil drilling, there is also plenty of logging activity. Several logging contractors plus numerous logging truck operators work out of the La Crete area. Many farmers turn to logging in the winter, and the logging helps support the farms.
Johnny grew up in La Crete and has worked in the forest industry his entire life. He was a log truck driver for seven winters while working as a heavy equipment operator in the summers. Then for 15 years he worked in the bulk fuel business, serving the logging and farming industries — half the time as an employee and half as part-owner.
Johnny has two sons and a daughter; both sons are employed in forest products industry — one at an oriented strand board mill and one in logging.
John is an active member of his church. In addition to teaching Sunday school, he serves as treasurer and is on the board of directors. His hobbies include hunting and camping when time permits.
Johnny works in sales and bookkeeping for Ridgeview Mills, a local sawmill, and has continued to work there since starting his business in 1999. He recognized an opportunity to process aspen locally. It was really a "win-win" situation, he suggested; by processing the wood locally, outbound freight was reduced.
"The freight is a real killer," Johnny noted. "The more we can finish the product here, the less tonnage we are shipping."
Aspen Valley Lumber is very much a team effort with Vandermeer Forest Products, which provides marketing services, and Ridgeview Mills, which supplies the aspen cants to Aspen Valley. "We always know where each other is at," Johnny said. As his company grows, they need to be. Annual production has increased steadily to a pace of 10 million board feet.
"I don’t get treated differently than any of his other customers," Johnny explained of his relationship with his employer. "I pay the same prices, so there is nothing different. My plant is only three miles away, so the cants are off the yard fast. Ridgeview gains from it, and the community has more employment."
In addition to the part-time efforts of Johnny and his wife, Joyce, Aspen Valley has six full-time employees. The company adds three workers in the summer to maintain the equipment.
Employee retention isn’t a problem at Aspen Valley Lumber. "We also make every effort to ensure that our employees are part of the team," Johnny said. "I tell them if they see something that could improve things and not cost a lot of money, then go ahead and do it. If it is going to cost a fair amount of money, then let’s sit down and talk about it."
The longest-serving employee has been with Aspen Valley for five years, another for four years, one for three years and one for two — matching the plant’s steady growth trajectory. "We usually don’t have a trouble with turnover," Johnny said.
Situated on about 40 acres, Aspen Valley Lumber’s remanufacturing shop is just over 11,000 square feet and is heated by natural gas. Another building houses a Nyle dehumidification dry kiln, one of the company’s first major investments.
"It does great," Johnny said of the kiln. "With hardwood you have to be slow. It does a beautiful job, and I’m very happy with it."
Johnny buys 4/4 1x4 and 1x6 from the local sawmill, dries the lumber, then sells the kiln-dried rough material on the export market. "It’s exported that way," he said. "I send it to Edmonton, where it is shipped by container overseas.
Before the fire, the shop was equipped with two Baker Products PAQ band resaws in addition to several pieces of equipment that were fabricated in-house, such as a five-head overhead trim saw. The company purchased and modified an old planer to be able to supply dressed lumber, although most customers bought rough lumber.
After two years of cutting pallet stock outside under a roof, Aspen Valley Lumber built a 3,200 square-foot shop in 2001, and then added another 3,260 square feet in 2003. In 2004 Johnny’s maintenance staff built an eight-head custom resaw as well as a new kiln building separate from the shop.
"Then on April 25 of this year we had a wiener roast," Johnny joked wryly. "The kiln building was left standing, and we had two forklifts, so we were back to square one. We started the rebuilding process, and by August 22 we started up the saws and we were back running. Obviously, it wasn’t at the production (level) that we wanted to be, and we’re still not at where we want to be, but it takes time."
The new infeed system and tilt hoist were custom-built in Aspen Valley Lumber’s shop. The infeed system singulates cants and feeds them into a Newman-Whitney KM-16, five-head, heavy-duty multi-trim saw. "That thing works just perfect," Johnny said. "It is a machine that we have done basically nothing on, and it works great. I love it."
The cants, now cut to certain lengths, go directly through a Baker cant sizer and then through to a Baker resaw. After they run through the resaw, they drop onto a grading table; after grading, they go through unscramblers and then to the Pendu-Cornell stacker.
Staffing requirements are minimal. One person mans the infeed and Newman-Whitney KM-16 trim saw, another employee grades the boards produced from the Baker resaw, one operates the stacker, one drives the forklift and another straps lifts. Boards are graded to utility and better or expendable.
Finished packages of cut stock are removed from the building on an outfeed conveyor and then sorted outside. Aspen Valley relies on two forklifts, an 8,000 pound-rated Hyster and a 5,000 pound Caterpillar.
Circular saw blades for the multi-trim are serviced locally. Band blades for the resaws are disposable and are replaced when they are dull or break; they are purchased from a supplier in Edmonton.
All wood waste material goes through a Montgomery hog and then into a chip bin. Trucks take the grindings to La Crete Sawmill to be used for wood pellets or to Daishowa for its pulp mill and co-generation plant. "We have no waste in the yard," Johnny said proudly. "Material is 100 percent used."
Aspen Valley Lumber enjoys a successful relationship with Vandermeer
Aspen Valley Lumber is a member of both the Canadian Wood Pallet and Container Association and the Western Pallet Association. "We do our best to participate in both of those," Johnny said. "It allows us to meet other producers and some customers." After the WPA annual meeting in Palm Springs, California in 2005, the Wielers toured some California customers and watched their company’s lumber used in pallet production.
"What we do well is that we make every effort to treat our customers as number one," Johnny summarized. "We treat them with respect, and if there is a problem, we fix it. In the long run, that makes for a happier customer."
Already an integral part of this northern Alberta community, Aspen Valley Lumber has also quickly become a solid member of the North American pallet community that it serves.
‘We Had a Big Wiener Roast’
Up until April 25, 2005, Aspen Valley Lumber had been enjoying steady growth as a supplier of aspen pallet cut stock. That was the day, owner Johnny Wieler recalled wryly, “We had a big wiener roast.” Aspen Lumber Valley’s shop caught fire.
The day of the fire, Johnny’s phone rang in his office at Ridgeview Mills, where he is the sales manager and bookkeeper. The caller told him that Aspen Valley Lumber was on fire.
“I can see my shop from my office window at Ridgeview,” Johnny said. “I looked out the window but couldn’t see anything. I didn’t see any smoke.”
“The fire was above the electrical room in the attic,” Johnny explained. “It was where all of the main electrical supply came through.”
Johnny drove quickly to his plant. His employer at Ridgeview, who has a water truck at the mill, was right behind him. “The fire was very small at that point,” he explained. However, because the flames were in the area of the main electrical wiring, “we couldn’t pump water in there. We were standing there, watching.”
Two local fire trucks arrived within 10 minutes, but firefighters also were forced to watch and wait – until the electrical company arrived to shut off the power. The electrical workers arrived about another 10 minutes later.
“By then it was too late,” Johnny recalled. “The fire was in the attic of the big shop, and by then it was gone. There was no stopping it.”
A few days later, Johnny had a meeting with employees. “We said, ‘If you want to stay and work you can, because we are going to rebuild.’ ” A few employees took a little time off, but most of them stayed on. One of the part-time employees is a very good carpenter and used his skills to good advantage during the rebuilding.
Luckily, Johnny found a local building contractor with a little time between jobs. “Within a couple of weeks, we had the building standing,” he said. From that point, Johnny did his own general contracting, hiring the subcontractors he needed to complete the project. “The name of the game was ‘get it done,’ ” he emphasized.
While most of the original shop equipment had been custom fabricated, Johnny turned to major equipment suppliers for the rebuilding effort.
“I contacted the equipment suppliers,” Johnny said. “They bent over backwards to help us. They said, ‘Hey, you’ve had a fire, so tell us exactly when you need the equipment there, and we’ll have it there,’ and they lived up to that.”
As the building was completed, the equipment arrived and was installed. “Basically, in just under four months we were running,” Johnny.