Wood Business

Full circle: Q&A with Western Forest Products CEO Steven Hofer

June 22, 2023  By  Maria Church

Steven Hofer (right) with Western’s general manager of manufacturing, Derek Haupt (left) at a recent safety celebration, serving up a steak lunch for the Chemainus sawmill employees to mark six months recordable incident free.

Steven Hofer’s decision to take the reins as president and CEO of Vancouver-headquartered Western Forest Products last September was a full circle move for him. 

Hofer traces his sector roots to 1993 when he got a management trainee job at a sawmill in Nanaimo, B.C. There he learned all aspects of lumber manufacturing, and it launched a life-long passion for the industry. 

Today, he’s steering Western into a new era of forestry where in companies carefully consider the full climate solution of their products, long-term land stewardship, and inclusive partnerships.

CFI: You’ve held a number of positions with forest industry companies over the years. What drew you to forestry initially, and what kept you in it? 


The very beginning for me was in 1993. I was a management trainee with Pacific Forest Products. They had private timberland and sawmill manufacturing complexes on Vancouver Island, primarily focused on the export market. As a trainee, it was everything from quality control, planer and sawmill supervisor, log buyer – it was an outstanding formative experience. I was fortunate to have some really good mentors. That was the launching pad for my career. 

Pacific was later sold off to Doman Industries (the sawmills) and TimberWest (timberlands). Today those timberlands are Mosaic Forest Management and, the only sawmill left, is Western’s Saltair division. 

Each career choice after that was pretty strategic. I stayed in the industry because I found it let me explore all of the career aspirations that I could ever imagine – whether it was on the international marketing side, the product development side, the operational side, or the technology and leading-edge initiatives that normally you wouldn’t see in a traditional industry. 

I’m coming up to 30 years and it’s a really unique opportunity to think about how the industry has evolved. Thirty years ago, I don’t think anybody understood carbon sequestration and the role of a healthy working forest when it comes to climate change and wood’s ability to sequester carbon into the most beautiful building products in the world. Here we are today with a much more enhanced value proposition to all the different stakeholders. 

CFI: What appealed to you about taking the reins of Western Forest Products? 

I was at BID Group before Western. We were doing really fun, exciting work on the other side of the business, providing leading edge equipment, technology and construction services to the industry. When I got the call from Western asking if I would be interested, I immediately thought back to the fact that this is where my career started. 

I don’t say it lightly, but it was something I felt I needed to do to ensure that the company would be able to position itself for continued long-term success in the communities that I know really well – families and customers I have known for 30 years. It was a calling to come back and help position this business for the next generation of leaders. We are one of the largest employers on the coast. It’s meaningful for these communities, families, schools and health care facilities that we’re successful, profitable and engaged with the community. 

The work that Western is doing working with our Indigenous partners I would call at the leading edge. We’re really defining a new era of sustainability and stewardship in the forest sector. We’re finding a way to create economic opportunities for everyone. One of the themes I’m hearing from the First Nations Chiefs that I interface with is, how can Western help break the cycle of poverty in these communities. We don’t have all the answers today, but we’re going to be able to do that by creating new opportunities. It comes from a different business model than what we’ve had in the past. 

CFI: What are your goals for the company as you continue to settle into the role?

For me, the first few months were about onboarding and understanding the people, roles, and culture and cadence of the company. I spent the first three months getting out to visit all of our operations. The last four months were about laying out our strategic priorities as we think about how we transform our business. 

At our core is a culture around safety. It’s really about understanding our risks and how you mitigate that. Our manufacturing facilities are older so they’re not as automated as other mills. We still have people touching lumber. So we’re mitigating those risks and ensuring that at every level they know that safety is critical. 

We’re also doing some unique work around diversity and inclusion. We operate in unique communities and it’s about providing opportunities – whether it’s for women, minorities, First Nations, we’re letting them know that the door is open. We have exciting opportunities for a career with personal and professional development. 

The next piece is about environmental stewardship. This is a really unique piece of Western’s story – we’re taking a different approach to developing Integrated Resource Management Plans. This is looking at our timberlands in consultation with the respective First Nations on whose traditional territories we are operating. We’re working side-by-side with the Nations to develop a forest landscape plan that looks out 250 plus years. 

Another piece is looking at how we position our manufacturing business to become world-class in terms of its operating structure. We’re moving forward with a manufacturing optimization plan to address that, to extract higher-value building products. That ties to our growth in engineered wood and participating in the mass timber space. We’re going to continue to invest in that. 

Lasty, it’s arecognition around alternative revenue streams. We’re just getting started identifying how we can extract more revenue from our residuals. That might be waste leftover on timberlands, or residuals from operations. We’re also looking at how we can participate in the overall carbon credit trading market.

CFI: What do you see as the biggest challenges for B.C.’s coastal forest sector today, and in the future? 

Certainly the softwood lumber dispute is a long-standing issue and we in industry believe there is an opportunity here, perhaps in the short-term, to see a settlement. In my view, this one has gone on too long. There’s over $9 billion now on deposit. We need to resolve it. There is always going to be a need for lumber imports into the U.S. to satisfy their overall demand and today a lot of that is coming from Europe without any trade mechanism in place for European wood. It’s time for us to figure out a path forward. 

There is a significant shortage of labour and skills available to our industry so there is this whole question around how we attract more people and promote these great opportunities. We’re fostering greater inclusion and looking at how we can support kids coming up through high school and thinking about their careers. You don’t need a four-year university degree for a rewarding career.

And one that will be no surprise is the uncertainty around fibre supply. When we think about recapitalization of our assets in B.C., the No. 1 question I ask, our board asks, our shareholders ask: do you have confidence around fibre supply. Our proactive engagement with First Nations is addressing that, working in a unique environment where you lay out a collective vision of what the land base will look like 150 years, and how that can become an annual operating plan. That creates certainty of supply and, if you do it in the right way, I honestly believe for the first time in the last 20 years on the B.C. Coast, you will have certainty of supply. But it’s going to take that type of commitment to build plans from the ground up. It takes time. 

CFI: We talk about social license a lot in the forest industry. What’s your take on it personally and as a company?

From a personal side, I believe that social license is about doing the right things at every level. The basics are how you treat people, how you talk to people, your professionalism, integrity, and honesty. You earn it everyday by doing the right things. 

Thinking about the company and the communities that we operate in, it’s about respecting their rights. We try to build that into every engagement, every opportunity for collaboration as we think about these long-term plans. These resource management plans we’re doing don’t start in Victoria or Vancouver – they start in the small community of Woss, or Port McNeil, or Port Hardy. I think you get awarded social license when you have that level of community commitment. We have to have a listening mindset. We don’t get to dictate the terms, it’s highly co-operative based on mutual respect. 

I believe in transparency and reporting. We have strong accountability in our governance practices. We have a well-resourced whistle-blower policy. If someone sees something they don’t feel is in accordance with our core values or is illegal or not right from an environmental standpoint, if they don’t feel they’re being listened to by their peers, supervisor or anyone, including the CEO, call in the whistler-blower line. It goes directly to the chair of our board’s audit committee. We think that’s an important piece about our social license inside our company. 

CFI: Where do you draw inspiration from as a leader in the forest sector? 

What I really love about our industry and our company here at Western are the people. We have exceptional people, really passionate subject matter experts, committed to their communities. They want to do what’s right. They believe in our opportunity to be a part of the communities, that new working relationship with First Nations, and to be a part of the climate solution. 

When I wake up in the morning I think about how I can, as the CEO of Western, continue to lead and motivate and encourage our people to do the right things, to do them safely, and based on the solutions we know we need to be focused on. My role is to coach and lead. I’m here to share a vision and articulate what that vision is and what those steps are. And then to have a little fun as well. 

We all work really hard, and in some difficult environments. When I think about those people who get up at 4 a.m. to be on the side of a mountain with a chainsaw, that’s not easy work. They need to know that their CEO is aware, is grateful, and is supporting them in the work that they’re doing everyday. 

For me, when I think about where I see the potential of Western, I want to be a part of that. I want to play a small role in helping transform this business. 

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