By Treena Hein
Although Ben Hokum & Son Limited is situated on the north shore of Golden Lake, just outside the tiny village of Killaloe about two hours northwest of Ottawa, it is a bastion of forest industry technology in the Eastern Ontario region.
By Treena Hein
In 1997, the company spent $10 million constructing an automated small-log mill that was, for the time, state of the art. It included scanning, optimized trimming, a 60-bin sorter and a stacker. Ben Hokum & Son also added a speech-recognition grading system, integrated into a wireless network that allows software programs to process information in real time. All of this has allowed the company to maximize labour efficiencies and stay strong in the current challenging times.
|Dean Felhaber, president of Ben Hokum & Son Limited, which is located near Killaloe, Ont.|
But let’s back up. The company was started about 60 years ago when Ben Hokum Sr. and Ben Jr. built a small circular sawmill that produced about 2.5 million board feet of hardwood and softwood lumber each year. In 1965, Ben Jr. took the helm (later joined by two of his daughters, Loreen and Valerie, a son Jim, and his oldest grandson, Dean Felhaber, who is the company president today).
In 1972, the Hokums had the idea of establishing an associated company, North American Sawmills Machinery. “It specialized in fabricating sawmill equipment and providing steel, parts and machining/welding services for the sawmill industry, which at the time was very active here in the Ottawa Valley,” says Felhaber. “We still provide fabrication, repair and parts distribution for local farmers, sawmills and trucking companies.”
In 1973, Hokum & Son employed North American Sawmills Machinery to build a new band mill in nearby Shawville, Que., which had annual production of 11 million board feet. A fire destroyed the mill in 1987, and the Hokums chose not to rebuild it.
A year later, the company erected a new double-cut band mill to replace the circular operation at Killaloe, which continues as the large log line today and uses a carriage and resaw for its primary breakdown. In the early 1990s, however, it was clear that more operational change would be needed. The small log component of the mill’s raw materials intake was steadily increasing, and the Hokums decided to build a second sawmill incorporating a twin-band saw, bull-edger, re-saw and edger – conventional technology to get the job done. That year, Ben Jr. also approached Dean to see if he would be interested in joining the company, with the idea that he might run the operation someday. “I wanted challenges in my career, and I soon realized that there would be lots of challenges at our family lumber business,” smiles Felhaber.
By 1997, it was clear that the efficiency of the conventional small log mill was just not up to par. “We began researching alternatives and saw that we should make full use of available technology and automation,” Felhaber remembers. “We decided to build a new high-production automated small log mill, based on similar systems in Quebec and northern Ontario, but scaled down. Our mill manager, Ernst Weinert, laid out the plans and we sourced equipment from various suppliers, and had the building put up and electrical work done at the same time we installed and set everything up.” They went with a Carbotech optimized trimmer, the 60-bin sorter and the stacker, which is still in use today. The main sawline, purchased from another supplier was not functioning as promised on startup. A four-headed canter curve sawing line was switched to a three-headed canter twin line doing straight sawing.
“North American Sawmills built the conveyors, framework under the equipment and log infeed decks,” says Felhaber. “It was a real plus to have the same employees helping to build the mill who would later work it. They could see how the system would function and were a part of it.” The investment boosted lumber output from 28 million board feet to 40 million board feet annually, but Ben Hokum & Son was able to maintain its 125 employees by shifting people from production to shipping and grading the increased volume. Recently, production has been cut to some extent and employees now number around 80. “The small log mill now turns out anywhere from 85,000 to 100,000 board feet in a nine-hour shift with 15 people,” says Felhaber. “That’s between 4,000 and 5,000 logs, 5-10 inches in diameter and heavily to 8 and 10 feet long.”
|Ben Hokum & Son uses technology wherever possible in order to increase productivity.|
In 2003, Felhaber installed the speech recognition grading system. “We went from having a man tallying for each grader to the graders wearing headsets with microphones, and so cost-return was achieved very quickly,” he says. “It took a few months to get all the kinks worked out but we still use it today. It works very well, and is not affected by ambient noise.” There were originally eight graders using it, and now three do, all on pine.
In addition to the labour savings, speech recognition grading provides other benefits as well. “Having this information added and available in our computer system in real time means that the employee who’s handling shipping can see the up-to-date tally for bundles in inventory,” notes Felhaber. “The computer gives each bundle a tag number, which we then put on the physical tag. When the bundle is shipped, the numbers along with the number of pieces of various lengths and widths, type of wood, etc., are automatically turned into a computer-generated report, which goes to the customer, and our inventory is automatically adjusted.”
Company log scalers also use the headsets. “A load of logs is weighed and the lot number, log seller, type of wood, and whether it is Crown or private, is entered manually into the system at the weigh scales,” says Felhaber. “The scaler scales using the Talkman, then the computer creates a report, and payment information is generated automatically.”
Ben Hokum & Son has extended the wireless network system to the maintenance garage, allowing workers there to do things like research and order parts as needed. “I, and a few others, have BlackBerrys too,” says Felhaber. “It’s very important to be available, because you can easily lose the order if you’re not. No one can afford that these days.”
Hokum’s large log and small log mills consume a mix of white, red and jack pine, as well as aspen (poplar) and a small amount of mixed hardwoods. “Our major commodity is white pine lumber in a wide variety of sizes, which goes to wholesalers,” Felhaber explains. “We also do a large amount of plantation red pine. We are the biggest supplier of red pine squares to the RONA chain and to my knowledge we’re also the largest producer of this product in Ontario.” The low-grade aspen lumber goes for industrial applications like pallets and the better quality material goes to a kiln in Montreal and then is made into products such as mouldings, caskets and hockey sticks. Ben Hokum & Son also sells wood chips, sawdust, and bark, much of the first two being made into pellets at a nearby plant in Quebec.
Two years ago, the company pursued Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. “Most mills in the area also did it around that time,” says Felhaber. “There was pressure from RONA for all their suppliers to be certified. It’s a way of demonstrating to our customers that we’re responsible stewards of the forest, although we’ve always had sustainability as an important part of our operation.” In terms of getting log suppliers “on board,” Felhaber says it wasn’t a problem. “A lot of our red pine logs come from private plantations, and some of these were already certified,” he notes. “Soon after, the forests owned by the County of Renfrew were certified and then licences were obtained through Ottawa Valley Forestry Inc. – a group of local lumber companies with timber licences, to which we belong.” This meant that any loggers contracted to cut on these licences were automatically certified. “We deal in about 80% certified wood, and for the other 20%, we do our due diligence on the location and practices used, to ensure that the logging was done sustainably,” says Felhaber.
|The large log mill at the Hokum & Son site, which is located about two hours northwest of Ottawa.|
While certification may not have brought new customers, it was a necessity in keeping the customers the company had. Felhaber has some concerns that retailers make it appear that they sell all or a substantial amount of certified wood (see sidebar) when they may not be doing so, but he says a greater concern is why retailers aren’t buying a lot more Canadian wood. “They’re buying red pine squares and white pine lumber from mills in Maine and Michigan, operations that are dumping material on the Canadian market at a very low price,” he says. “They’re getting the same price that I’m paying for logs. The U.S. gets to regulate us in terms of quotas and paying duty if we ship there, but it doesn’t work the other way around and it’s frustrating.”
Felhaber says he’d like to see Canada supplying the entire Canadian retail market in white and red pine. “The fact is, we are being flooded out by volumes of underpriced American white and red pine lumber and timbers,” he notes. “Yes, our dollar is at par with the U.S. greenback, and making it near impossible to export our products. So, that draws many questions to mind: when our dollar is at par, and the currency is no longer a factor, how do these American border mills ship lumber and squares into our Canadian market at these prices? This has directly caused the loss of a few thousand jobs in the Canadian pine industry, and it will continue to cause injury to producers if this unfairness is not dealt with. We have attempted to create an awareness of this serious situation to our local politicians and have recently met with the minister of international trade.”
Despite current challenges, Felhaber believes the market will improve. “The economy won’t stay down forever,” he says. “It is difficult many days, but you have to have the optimism that things will change. We are lucky to have been able to hold on and we hope to be here when things pick up.”