From sawmills to hydrogen
Q&A with North American wood business magnate Brian Fehr
March 20, 2023 By Maria Church
We all know the name Brian Fehr – in part because he was the force behind BID Group (the B is for Brian), and in part because, after selling ownership of the billion-dollar sawmill manufacturing giant, he’s launched into numerous new ventures tied to the forestry world.
The Vanderhoof, B.C.-born entrepreneur will tell you BID outgrew him; he’s not a suit and city man. His new and future ventures are focused on small towns and First Nations – building capacity and economic independence, be it through forest products, bioenergy, or crypto mining.
In 2018, Fehr received the Order of B.C. – a nod to his contributions to the economic development of rural B.C. and the larger forest industry, as well as decades of sobriety to overcome an alcohol and drug addiction at a young age.
CFI sat down with Fehr to recap his career to date and to hear about what’s coming for the forestry magnate.
CFI: Can you give us a rundown of your BID days and how the company transformed over the decades?
BID Group started out as BID Construction Limited in 1983. The mill in my hometown was purchased by the NDP government and my dad refused to work for them, so he started BID – the B is Brian, I is Ike – my dad’s name, and D is David – my brother.
A couple years in, on a Monday morning, dad fell asleep driving home and hit a chip truck head on and died. My brother was in the vehicle and he lived. But the guy who was the reason it was founded, was gone. Serendipity is a funny thing though. My dad never wanted to grow. He didn’t believe in making money.
From then on, I would say there was a steady growth from $1 million to $10 million, to $40 million to $100 million. All that happened from 1985 to about 2000. We slowly became a dominant player in Western Canada in sawmill construction, mostly B.C. and Alberta.
Then, in 2010, we started getting quite big. But that year, my brother had a brain aneurysm and a stroke. So, it went from BID without dad, to BID without David. David is still alive today and he lives in the same town as I do and we see each other often, but he has never been able go back to work. David and I were 50-50 owners and best friends. When I bought out his shares, all of a sudden BID was Brian, and we were ready to grow.
I called some of my friends in Quebec – a company called Comact – and we started doing projects together. It didn’t take long and in 2013 we purchased Comact. That was a big deal – that was two companies that were doing $75 million each a year.
That year, with a $150-million combined income statement, I decided that we were going to move the office to the South, and that I was going to personally move there to South Carolina.
We set up shop in a little town called St. George.
Down there I would hear 1,000 times, “Brian you seem like a really nice guy, but you’re not from the South. That might work in British Columbia, but that would never work down here.” Once we built that first mill at Newton, Miss., it just opened the floodgates. We got busy.
During that time, I turned 59 years old. I remember that hitting me: that was the year my dad died, and I had passed it. I thought dad was old when he died. I had been working seven days a week, you know, every day and so I was tired. I decided to sell to private equity. It was a good time to sell.
I’m still very proud of what BID is and what BID did when I left at the end of 2017. We were the largest in North America. I would assume they’re now the largest in the world. From a little welder in grade 11 in Vanderhoof, B.C., to taking on North America. I’m very proud of what I’ve done to date.
During this time, we also hired Alistair Cook from Canfor as our CEO. This was a great move and Alistair is still CEO of BID today, 10 years later.
CFI: Your retirement from BID was short lived. What kept you in the forest industry?
I tell people, it was the worst three minutes of my life. It was not a retirement – maybe a week. Or maybe even before I had gone, I was working on something. Things were brewing for sure, so I didn’t really retire.
I had two priorities: No. 1, I wanted to set up base in Canada again, and, No. 2, I wanted to stay in the resource sector. I also wanted to focus on partnering with small towns and First Nations to promote economic development in areas that have been hit by changes to the forest products and other sectors.
March 21, 1997, is the most important date in my life: that’s 25.5 years ago when I ended up in Hazleden, the mothership of treatment centres, in treatment with Farrah Fawcett and Matthew Perry. I haven’t had a beer since. That makes a big difference when I walk into a reservation in Northern B.C. or Northern Alberta. Usually, the Chief or somebody on council comes out to me afterwards and makes a comment and immediately it opens another door of conversation. It’s a big part of my story.
I love building and developing new projects and new products and that’s kind of inherent to what I am. In part because of my recovery story, I decided I was going to work with First Nations. There are people who are fighting to get out of poverty. If I could spend the rest of my life doing those two things – working with First Nations and in the resources sector – in some way, that’s what I would do and that’s where I am today.
CFI: What’s the Coles Notes on your ventures since 2018?
In 2019 I started Brian Fehr Group (BFG), an investment platform focused on the forest products and construction industries. The first company we acquired was Prince George-based Formula Contractors, a bridge building company. Early on we also acquired two mass timber companies in the U.S. and combined them to form Smartlam North America, which today is the largest capacity mass timber company in the U.S.
In 2020, BFG began to build Peak Renewables, which today holds a portfolio of over 10 sites and businesses, primarily in B.C., including both forest products operations as well as development projects. One of Peak’s key aims is to acquire legacy forest products sites, often in partnership with local First Nations, that for one reason or another have become uneconomic, and to repurpose them. To date, we have acquired decommissioned sawmills, OSB plants and pulp mills.
Via Peak, crypto mining is a big thing that I’m involved in today. Iris Energy is a company out of Australia, and they were looking for investors and I was delving into crypto currency at a former sawmill in Canal Flats. They bought our assets, and I took a large amount of shares. Last year we listed on the NASDAQ.
The last company is Hydrogen Naturally, which was founded by Peak Renewables and North West Capital, and we’re just getting started with that.
Finally, for some fun, I also have invested in a lot of land, a couple of ranches and a couple of restaurants.
CFI: What’s behind those business decisions?
I’m really, really big on the development of small towns. I’m born and raised in Vanderhoof. I believe you should be able to go 60 miles in 60 minutes every time you drive. I live in Canal Flats, a town of maybe 700. I don’t like big cities. So I want to help small communities and we need industry.
I love the forest industry and I love the resource industry and I love the First Nations contacts that I’ve made. That’s a very honest picture of why I’m here today. With baby steps we can move forward and make changes.
You know, you never woke up in Vanderhoof, B.C., as a kid thinking I’m going to get the Order of B.C. or I’m going to build a company listed on the NASDAQ or a billion-dollar company. But I think I’m kind of halfway through all of this – that was all chapter one or maybe chapter two.
CFI: Peak Renewables and Hydrogen Naturally are both in the biomass/bioeconomy space. Do you see that as the future?
Peak Renewables is a company that was built to have ownership in forest products and bioenergy facilities – some of them will be 25, 35 or 45 per cent. The ones in Canada will all have First Nations ownership. We’re working on equity positions for First Nations in the towns that we work and we are very, very proud of that.
Getting into the bioenergy world led us to Hydrogen Naturally. We are working with Ian MacGregor, who has decades of experience in the energy industry, including hydrogen. We are going to take marginalized fibre – like the waste or slash that typically gets left behind in the bush, the fibre that may have gone to a pulp mill in the past, and milling residuals where we can get them – and we’re going to pelletize it and we’re going to gasify it to create green hydrogen.
There is far too much fibre left in the bush to be burned as slash or left to rot. Trees are burning in forest fires every year, and it’s getting worse. You can imagine when you burn fibre every bit of that carbon that has been stored is now gone right up into the atmosphere. With Hydrogen Naturally, we can turn it into a pellet and produce a fuel that is good for the economy. We can also capture and sequester the carbon that’s produced during the gasification. And then, on top of that we can replant those trees so they become productive trees instead of marginal trees. That makes the hydrogen we produce carbon negative. That’s a game changer as even green hydrogen is only carbon neutral. We think there’s a real story here and we think we’re on a path.
We’re looking at eight plants in the northern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba area. Alberta will be the first hub where we bring those pellets to gasify them. It’s taking the pellet industry that is right now shipping overseas, and turning it into a North American industry. And rather than burning the pellets in a power plant and emitting the CO2, we use the tree’s natural ability to capture and sequester the CO2.
We’re in really good shape to announce the project and get to FID state – final investment decision – in the next quarter. Ian and I are very excited. We think we’re on to something really big, and it’s all about bioenergy.
CFI: The B.C. public’s views on the forest sector seem to be growing more polarized – with some opposed to forestry full-stop. How do you see that playing out?
I’m born and raised in the forest industry. My dad built the Plateau mill and so I would say I’ve got 45 years of experience listening. And in that time, the whole time, I’ve heard this camp that says that the forest industry is a sunset industry in British Columbia. I would say there’s not a chance in hell that it’s a sunset industry. I would say it’s an industry that has to change.
I believe we will figure out a way through. I think there will be a much more of a of a First Nations slant to it no matter what happens, and we will figure out how to do things a bit differently.
I’m seeing the saviour might be the bioenergy field. We have to figure out how to use 100 per cent of the tree instead of slash burning in the bush and I think the pellet world and then turning the pellets into something in North America makes more sense than anything.
Those trees are the Crown’s, they’re not an individual companies’, and we owe it to them to do the right thing. Nobody tells the trees what to do and they keep growing.
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