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How Two Operations Battled Their Way Back

How Two Operations Battled Their Way Back

Story by Rich Donnell,

We didn’t intend for this issue to have the theme of “comebacks,” but that’s how it worked out. The two main mill operation articles—on Tolko Industries OSB in Slave Lake, Alberta, and the Omak Wood Products plywood plant in Omak, Wash.—certainly fall into this category. However, they bring quite different stories to the table.

The beginnings of the Tolko OSB plant at Slave Lake, also called the Athabasca OSB operation, go back to 2005 when the company announced it was building the plant and putting in the world’s longest continuous press at more than 230 ft. The timing, however, turned out to be impeccably bad. Just as the plant was coming up, the building market was crashing, and after a short period of production, the plant shut down in February 2009.

The article that begins on page 20 goes into some detail on how the OSB operation lived to fight another day, with a newly hired work force, and with some equipment and product tweaking. It resumed production last December. It’s a feel-good story, written by Andrew Macklin.

I’m not sure “feel-good” is the correct description of the re-startup of the Omak Wood Products plywood plant. The word “historical” comes more to mind.

Does anybody out there remember Biles-Coleman Lumber Company? J.C. Biles and Nate Coleman were the partners who in 1921 bought a sawmill and timber harvesting rights from the Omak Fruit Growers Inc. on the slopes of Omak Mountain and a box plant in Omak. In 1924, Biles-Coleman built a new sawmill in Omak, and this is really the roots of today’s Omak Wood Products.

Coleman left the business fairly early on, but the company stuck, and so did Biles, who led the development of a large lumber business and extensive logging and railroad infrastructure.

The company continued to prosper with multiple sawmills and then built a plywood mill in 1971.

Then the Omak site began a long roller coaster ride, starting when Crown Zellerbach purchased Biles-Coleman in 1974. In 1985, British financier Sir James Goldsmith won control of the forest products portion of Crown Zellerbach, including the Omak operation, and operated it as part of Cavenham Forest Industries.

Many of us remember, in late 1988, when the 635 union members of Omak Wood Products purchased the sawmill, plywood mill and 47,000 acres from Goldsmith, and formed an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan). That’s how the business ran until 1997 when it filed for bankruptcy and was subsequently purchased by Quality Veneer & Lumber. But that entity experienced financial stress as well, and in 2001 the Confederated Colville tribes purchased the Omak operation and operated it as Colville Indian Power and Veneer.

The tribes operated the plant until 2009, when the recession forced its closure. It sat in silence until 2013 when New Wood Resources of Atlas Holdings signed a long-term lease agreement with the Colville tribes to manage the operation.

Talk about staying power. Our writer, Dan Shell, picks up the story from there beginning on page 10.

Tolko Slave Lake and Omak Wood Products are back in business. That’s good news for the workers and their families, their communities, and for our industry.

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