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Forest Industry Legend Revives Shuttered Ontario Mill, Looks to Position as Low Cost Producer
Mill Revitalization: A shuttered Canadian mill is given a new chance at life after a massive improvement project featuring a new Comact line and upgrades to one of its HewSaw lines. This could be a model for future programs to reopen sawmills with strong timber licenses.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 9/1/2015
A shuttered Canadian mill is given a new chance at life after a massive improvement project featuring a new Comact line and upgrades to one of its HewSaw lines. This could be a model for future programs.
At an age when many people are retiring, Frank Dottori is reviving a shuttered sawmill and speaking boldly about the future of his new operation, White River Forest Products. This 76 year old has become a legend in the Canadian forest product industry.
His most recent venture involves reopening and upgrading White River Forest Products, which came back into production in 2013. A number of improvements have been made including a $15 million Comact saw line, which Dottori asserts will make White River one of the lowest cost producers in Eastern Canada – boosting productivity and lumber recovery alike.
Dottori received the Order of Canada and was the subject of a Canadian National Film Board feature on Temiscaming, Quebec, a mill town he was instrumental in helping to save over 40 years ago. He later went on to become the president of Tembec.
Rebirth of a Sawmill
Familiar with the White River facility during his days as a consultant, Dottori saw an opportunity in the plant. In 2007, Domtar looked to divest that plant and sold it to the Pic Mobert First Nation and the Township of White River. The new owners collectively purchased the assets and maintained the mill’s valuable forest license from Domtar. The new owners identified the potential for a major win by bringing in private investment and expertise.
Today, a 49.8% ownership stake in the mill is now held by Dottori’s company, Fadco Consulting, with the town of White River and Pic Mobert First Nation also holding an ownership stake. “Both groups deserve recognition for the role they played in saving the mill,” Dottori stated. He also expressed gratitude to the Ontario government, which he said has been very supportive of their efforts.
Dottori described the mill, constructed of concrete and steel, as being three times larger than a normal mill. “It was built more to the size of a pulp mill,” Dottori explained. As a result, much of the loading and storage can take place in the facility, sheltered from the elements during winter months.
Although Dottori commented that the mill was shut down in such a manner that it was anticipated to be reopened, there were none the less several challenges associated with firing the mill up in 2013. For example, software had become obsolete, and a number of suppliers no longer existed. All in all, getting back into production proved successful. Dottori was appreciative of generous support the company received from vendors such as Samuel Strapping and HewSaw.
Process of Restarting a Sawmill
Early moves for White River included updating one of the mill’s three existing saw lines, its HewSaw small log line, which can take 8-foot lengths up to a 12-inch diameter. Optimization equipment from ProLogic+, a HewSaw partner, has been added to the system. Another addition has been a VAB planer optimizer, which the supplier emphasizes is noted for its small footprint and ease to integrate into existing production lines. Benefits include increased production speed as graders need less time to analyze boards, decreased trim loss and improved recovery.
The big push, however, has been in Frank Dottori’s success in raising millions of dollars needed to finance major mill improvements. At first, Dottori reported, raising capital proved daunting, joking that it was provided by the “Bank of Frank.” This year, however, he was finally successful in securing $20 million in financing through a deal including Scotiabank, RoyNat and Comerica.
The big ticket item on Dottori’s shopping list was a new high speed Comact line, which translates into a $15 million investment. “It is a turnkey arrangement for their latest TBL3 system,” said Dottori. The system utilizes 14 scanners in its optimization process. He added, “It has all of the bells and whistles.”
This investment is at the heart of White River’s strategy to become a low-cost producer. To make room for it, the company has removed two of the three existing saw lines, which Dottori described as dated. Scheduled for initial testing in September and commercial production in October, Dottori anticipates that it may take up to six months to “get up to speed.” When fully functional, the new line will have a 20% greater capacity than the three previous lines combined, pushing production from 110 million cubic meters of board feet to more than 150 million, while significantly improving yield in the process, translating into more lumber, and fewer chips. The mill produces mainly SPF 2x4 and 2x6 material.
While the strategy for White River revolves largely on equipment upgrade, it becomes quickly clear that Dottori would much rather talk about the importance of his workforce, and relationships with other stakeholders in the project, an approach that has been critical to his successful career as a forest products executive.
“People say it is the equipment,” he stated. “I ask them if they were driving a Ferrari, and they were racing against Michael Schumacher who was driving the exact same model, who do you think would win? And they say, that’s silly. Of course Schumacher would win. So it is really the same thing.” He added that it all comes down to training, skill and motivation of the workforce.
Dottori stated that with the Comact line nearing completion, the mill will launch a “massive” training program. “We have a new workforce,” he commented. “It will take time.” Key to the partnership has been the involvement with the Pict Morbert. Currently, around 35 Pic Mobert members work at the mill, out of roughly 140 total full-time employees, while others are employed in log harvesting operations.
Dottori said that he values the importance of creating opportunity for people to succeed through full-time employment in a low cost, quality conscious operation. He stresses the importance of full-time jobs versus the current trend of employers only offering part-time employment.
There are other equipment upgrades still in the works for the mill, including plans for new debarkers and an upgraded infeed system into the Coastal planer. Moreover, once capacity takes the anticipated jump, the owners will need to build a fourth dry kiln. Also sitting idle is a 7.5 MW cogeneration plant left over from the Domtar era, which White River hopes to eventually fire up, once funds permit.
Equipment and skilled workforce aside, Dottori stresses that a key competitive advantage itself is the sizable forest license, its wood resource, and the position of the mill within it. “We are right in the middle of the forest,” Dottori said. With an allowable cut of 620,000 cubic meters, material is never sourced from more than 100 km away.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished,” Dottori concluded, citing the 140 jobs created to date, as well as the partnership with the community of White River and the Pict Moract First Nation, one that has provided opportunities through the success of the mill. Over 40 years since the struggle to save Temiscaming, his collaborative leadership approach is still paying dividends.
Legendary Figure for Work in the Canadian Forest Sector
Throughout his career, Dottori has developed a reputation for finding solutions that favor both workers and management and owners. He was a young engineer in 1973, when he became one of four plant executives who worked with a tenacious workforce and community to prevent the closure of a plant in Temiscaming, Quebec through forging an alliance with union, community and government. This became the basis of Tembec, which under Dottori’s guidance as president grew to comprise 55 mills across North America, Europe and South America, at the time of his retirement in 2006. Noteworthy of his tenure at Tembec, he was a pioneer in forest sustainability (FSC) certification, moving in this direction at the request of The Home Depot.
After his departure from Tembec, Dottori became an industry consultant, where one assignment led him back to White River to evaluate that mill with which he was already familiar. While still at Tembec in 2000, a merger with Domtar, then the owner of the mill, had been contemplated. As part of his due diligence he reviewed the White River operation. Flash forward to his consulting assignment, while his clients walked away from a potential deal to purchase the plant, Dottori did not.
And the rest of the story has led to rebirth of this once shuttered mill. The story is still being written and with new equipment and the right workforce, Dottori believes the mill can be a model of what is possible in future sawmill revitalization projects.