Timber titans: Northland Group’s expansion
November 22, 2023 By Sarah Stotler
In a strategic move that echoed their shared values, Northland Group acquired Western Archrib in June 2021, creating a partnership with a focus on innovation and sustainability. The deal was years in the making and exemplifies the idea that from seed to structure, every step matters.
Building a legacy
In the early 1960s near Whitecourt, Alta., Roy and Bev Ewashko started their business with a portable sawmill. Their roots took hold in 1964 when the family relocated to Fort McMurray, Alta., along with the portable mill. Their path was not without challenges, but the Ewashkos persevered and officially founded Northland Forest Products in 1970.
In 1975, they built their first stationery mill just outside Fort McMurray. A fire in 1981 brought both challenges and opportunities, leading the Ewashkos to decide it was time for a permanent mill site. They leased 20 acres from the province of Alberta and established Northland Forest Products’ current location, 16 km north of Fort McMurray on the right-hand side of Highway 63.
In 1997, shortly after the installation of one of North America’s first HewSaw primary breakdown machines and integrated optimization at the trimmer and board edger, the mill was struck again by a devastating fire. Roy and Bev’s sons, Howie and Craig Ewashko, who had assumed management of the mill by this time, viewed these challenges through the lens of opportunity. They embarked on a mission to rebuild the mill into a state-of-the-art facility. Through the incorporation of new technology, they not only significantly boosted production, but also effectively minimized costs and wood waste. Howie explains, “We always believed that we need to continually upgrade our equipment and keep the mill moving forward.”
In 2001, Northland Forest Products built a new office, utilizing local wood as well as beautiful, laminated wood beams and posts supplied by Western Archrib. This would mark the beginning of a significant relationship between the two companies.
Northland Forest Products has since maintained its vision of a state-of-the-art facility and continues to move the mill forward. In 2008, the construction of a heat plant eliminated the need for natural gas in lumber drying and the building heating processes. Then in 2016, Northland acquired Millar Western’s nearby Boyle assets, which not only brought additional forest quota, but also secured Northland’s future. A year later, a new-generation HewSaw R200 A.1 was installed with full optimization and dual log turning.
Northland Forest Products’ mill process begins as logs enter the mill and are scanned to optimize utilization and value. Larger logs go to an Optimil four-sided canter, then to the board edger and gang saws. Smaller logs go to the HewSaw R200 A.1 single pass machine with a 2R Log Positioner complete with scanning and optimization from Quebec-based Prologic+. Any oversized logs are handled by the mill’s Kodiak wideband horizontal sawmill. Boards are scanned and sorted before being dried in one of two on-site kilns, which are run with oil heated by hogfuel at the facility’s heat plant. After drying, the boards make their way to be finished by a 1930s Stetson Ross Planer, extensively upgraded over the years for high-speed production. Then finally, they are sorted for bundling as dimensional lumber.
In addition to dimensional lumber, Northland Forest Products produces chips, shavings, hogfuel, sawdust, and trim blocks, ensuring that every part of the log is utilized. They produce around 400,000 board feet per day and employ around 75 full-time employees and up to 225 seasonal contractors.
Today, Howie is president of Northland Forest Products and Craig is the chief operating officer, overseeing the management and continuous improvement of the mill site. Northland Forest Products continues to thrive as a family-owned and operated sawmill under their stewardship. Additionally, a third generation has begun to take interest and become involved in the family business. This marks an opportunity to continue Northland Forest Products’ vision and legacy for many years to come.
Precision and innovation
Edmonton-based Western Archrib’s history goes back to 1951 when it was founded by Cecil Fargey. In 1952, Cecil’s son Jim joined the company. Recognized for their craftsmanship and commitment to quality, Western Archrib is dedicated to leading the mass timber industry. Following their original focus on applications such as farm buildings, hockey rinks, and storage facilities, they have evolved into a prominent player in construction projects across North America.
Jim Fargey was instrumental in moulding the company into what it is today. His strong commitment to recruiting top talent and pushing technological boundaries, along with his pivotal role in establishing manufacturing standards, highlighted his unwavering pursuit of excellence. Substantial investments in the company and its business yielded impressive results, enabling the creation of some of the widest and longest glulam beams in North America. Under Jim’s guidance, Western Archrib forged strong connections with organizations such as the Canadian Wood Council and the Canadian Standards Association, establishing its leadership role in the industry.
In 1987, Western Archrib expanded its operations with the purchase of a second facility in Boissevain, Man. During this period, Jim’s son, Kent also joined the company. In 2003, over 50 years after Cecil started the company, ownership was passed to the third generation, and Kent along with Jim’s daughter, Joan, took over Western Archrib.
Western Archrib’s glulam production process begins with pre-cut kiln-dried lumber. Each piece is inspected and assessed for quality, suitability, and moisture content. Adhesive is applied to the timber components, which are then carefully stacked, aligning the grain direction. Clamps secure everything in place and introduce curvature if required. The assembled timber components are heated with forced air to cure the adhesive. The glulam beams may undergo further cutting, shaping, and sanding processes using a Baljer & Zembrod CNC machine, catering to both aesthetic and structural demands. Connection hardware like brackets and plates may be added, along with protective coatings such as stains or sealants.
Western Archrib’s projects range from small residential buildings to large multistory complexes or facilities. For some larger projects, Western Archrib is often one of the only manufacturers within North America that can fulfill the requirements due to the required beam length and specialized expertise.
Shared visions and values
On May 31, 2021, 70 years after Cecil founded Western Archrib and 20 years after the construction of Northland’s new office building, Howie and Craig added Western Archrib to the Northland Group. The acquisition of Western Archrib was a decision rooted in shared values and visions for innovation and quality. The two companies have a long-standing relationship, with Northland’s Fort McMurray mill supplying lumber for Western Archrib’s products.
Howie explains, “It took us two years to make sure we had the right deal. Joan and Kent Fargey are very good people to deal with and Western Archrib is a very interesting business that we were excited to learn about and be involved in. While we knew that there was some opportunity to sell our lumber to Western Archrib, it wasn’t the driving force behind our decision. It was simply a great opportunity to become more involved with mass timber and work with a product we loved. We also thought there was a real opportunity to expand on the foundation the Fargeys had already built and to be involved in producing more beautiful projects like our office space.”
Benjamin Gill, director of corporate development for Northland Group and Western Archrib, states, “There was an interest in Northland continuing to grow and gain new opportunities. We weren’t exactly sure what that opportunity was going to be, but then this one presented itself and we immediately gravitated towards it. It was a departure from Northland’s core business, but familiar enough that we felt comfortable taking that step. There was, and is, a tremendous amount to figure out and learn, but at least we have a foundation both in terms of values and knowledge of the wood manufacturing industry to build upon.”
Since the acquisition, Western Archrib has grown from 125 employees to 197 employees across the two locations. The majority are based at the Edmonton facility while the remainder are based in Boissevain. This growth is expected to continue with the Northland Group eyeing a further $82-million investment in a cutting-edge manufacturing facility in Sturgeon County, Alta., north of Edmonton. While a site has been secured, and planning and development have progressed significantly, startup is not expected until early 2026.
Howie highlights their focus on change management during the first year of ownership, and says this strategy has paid off. He explains, “We are very proud of the fact that we had very little turnover while we got our bearings during our first year. The second year, we felt comfortable enough to put forward an ambitious plan in terms of how we were going to further grow and develop the business, and employees have not only stuck with us but seem to be excited about the direction we’re going.”
Western Archrib has already experienced substantial growth since the acquisition. Their order book, once ranging from six to eight weeks in advance, now spans 12 to 18 months of lead time. Northland Group has a unique perspective when it comes to the future of the mass timber industry, Howie explains.
“We don’t see our peers as competition, we see them as integral parts of the ecosystem. We want them to be successful because we want mass timber to be successful and able to compete with the more traditional steel and concrete builds for more of the market share. We want to see more of the beauty and environmental benefits of mass timber within our communities,” he says.
From seed to structure
Like Northland Forest Products, environmental consciousness forms Western Archrib’s core as they narrate the journey from seed to structure, echoing the farm-to-table movement. They believe that mass timber is the answer to some of the questions that have recently been asked about sequestering carbon dioxide and building green. Their FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification signifies that their products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits and align with their vision of tracing a tree’s path from planting to the final application, whether that is part of building someone’s home or in community projects.
Western Archrib produces custom and standardized products. While traditionally their focus has been on delivering premium custom project solutions, they aspire to further lead the industry in providing more standardized solutions, ensuring a broader reach for mass timber beyond traditional markets.
According to Howie, the best thing about their decision to acquire Western Archrib is witnessing what can be done with lumber. “It starts out as a seed and ends up a part of these unbelievable buildings. It’s exciting to be making these beautiful structures with wood,” he says.
Navigating challenges, embracing opportunities
Recent years posed challenges for the wood industry and Northland Forest Products has felt the impact. Howie explains that 2022 was marked by trucking difficulties as availability hindered log transportation. In 2023, market-related challenges have persisted, making product sales challenging. However, Howie remains optimistic about future market trends. He disclosed ongoing efforts to enhance Northland’s forest tenure, capitalizing on their strong partnership with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. Collaborative efforts and reciprocal agreements in terms of harvesting and woodlands have benefited both companies and helped streamline their processes.
Western Archrib continues to thrive amid growing market attention and demand for mass timber. Wood is a key trend and many large businesses including mega companies such as Google and Facebook have incorporated it into their headquarters.
Benjamin emphasizes that the key for both companies is their culture and people. “Both entities boast a considerable number of dedicated employees with over 25 years of service. People are excited to be a part of these teams and these projects, it’s something special. There is a distinct sense of pride and appreciation for what we are producing here every day,” he says.
The acquisition of Western Archrib by Northland Group stands as a testament to the power of shared values and forward-thinking. As the mass timber industry gains traction in North America, it offers ample room for opportunities and there is considerable excitement surrounding its future potential. With Northland Group and Western Archrib collaborating to navigate any rising challenges, their philosophy of seed to structure resonates strongly, promising a vibrant and dynamic future for both companies.
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