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Mills Without Borders

Regular readers will know that I can be hard on parts of the US lumber industry, and its reliance on trade barriers to compete. Still, I try not to paint the entire and varied industry with the same brush. There are many innovative US sawmilling companies, and some real leaders, especially among the independents. Some have been featured before in this magazine – Robbins Lumber and Moose River in the east, F.H. Stolze and Roseburg in the west to name a few.

November 29, 2011  By  Scott Jamieson

Regular readers will know that I can be hard on parts of the US lumber industry

This issue I go even further, and feature an American sawmill owner on the cover. It’s only the first US sawmill owner, and second American ever to be on the cover of Canadian Wood Products, so maybe I’m going soft watching mills on both sides of the 49th parallel suffer. Our cover subject is Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber in Colville, WA. He and his father, Duane, are true “sawdust in the blood” sawmillers, and if it makes you feel any better, these guys are more Canadian than many Canadians I know. It’s a shame they were born a few miles too far south.

I dropped in on their operations in mid October. This issue features the first in a two part series on Vaagen Bros., starting with their flagship mill in Colville.  In the next issue we move to their latest acquisition, the small-log stud mill in Usk, WA they bought in 2007.

People Matters
Keeping on the neighbourly theme, I’ll also talk about another US sawmiller in this column – Joe Alborano. Joe joined the Vaagen’s only this year as plant manager, although I first met him and his wife Jennifer on a tour through Finnish sawmills in May 2007. A bear of a man, there are few mysteries with Joe. Ask him, and he’ll tell you. Don’t ask him, and he’ll still tell you. But he’ll give you the straight goods, along with a slap on the back that’ll test your vertebrae.

Yes, Joe is easy to get along with, but that’s not my point. My point is the importance of having the right people in the right place in this business, and now more than ever. Vaagen’s Colville mill is an impressive operation. Good layout, good equipment, cutting edge planer mill, a pioneering biomass co-gen plant, skilled log procurement people, well-connected sales staff (of one), low turnover by today’s standards, and passionate owners dedicated to their craft and the industry. What more could you want?


Well, Joe, or somebody like him. Someone with the time and drive to focus on the little and not-so-little things. Things like preventive maintenance and uptime, including defining the big goals and tracking all the little steps to get there. Things like teamwork, and getting production and maintenance working together on all those large and small goals. Getting rid of the “us-vs-them” attitude you still see in too many mills, especially when times get tough and survival is on the line. Getting people to grasp in a real way the bottom-line impact of all those small delays and inefficiencies that can creep into a busy operation.

Automation is great, but the fewer people you have, the more important each one is. The one system they do or don’t verify can mean the difference between making good lumber all day long, and choking the chipper with beefy trim blocks all day long. You need someone who takes nothing for granted, who assumes scanner heads burn out, log turners slip out of calibration, that machinery needs to be cleaned and cared for like clockwork. Someone who’ll watch the trim ends on the chipper infeed conveyor and track down the root cause when he doesn’t like what he sees. Someone who demands a lot, but the same from everyone.

In short, someone with the drive and experience to get the most out of every machine centre, and every employee, every day. To be successful year in, year out, every mill needs a Joe. If you don’t have one, now would be a good time to get one, with the number of mills down. Just don’t call Joe – he’s taken.   

Finally, mailed with this magazine is the second issue of Canadian Biomass, a magazine devoted to forest biomass and bioenergy, and all the issues surrounding this rapidly-developing and growing industry. Enjoy.


Scott Jamieson, Editor/Group Publisher

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