In 1913, Europe was edging ever closer to a war that soon would become referred to, optimistically, as “the war to end all wars.” In Wynndel, Monrad Wigen was taking delivery of a small portable sawmill.
In the summers, he would use it to make thin boards with which to construct wooden boxes. Wynndel was, after all, a major producer of strawberries and boxes and crates were needed to hold the fruit, which went to market by train. When demand for boxes slipped with the completion of harvest each year, Monrad moved his mill closer to the timber supply. Out in the forest, he would cut railroad ties.
By the 1920s, Monrad was producing boxes for apples, pears, peaches and apricots, and shallower crates to hold strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. Each type of produce required a different size box or crate and specialized machinery was made to produce them. The business was incorporated in 1924 and has since been known as Wynndel Box and Lumber Ltd.
During the Depression, the economy demanded creativity and WBL weathered the lean years by growing strawberries and asparagus.
In the 1950s, with the birth rate and economy booming, WBL had grown to the point where the planer mill had its own steam power. The sawmill consisted of a circle head rig, a Linck sash gang saw (which slices logs into boards in one pass) and an edger to square up boards. The number of products grew and a second planer was added to meet the growing demand for patterned stock.
Late in his life, Jack Wigen would describe the clever structure that Monrad created to ensure the business could be sustained without creating a rift between his two sons, Jack and Bob. The company was organized into three divisions — forest operations, the sawmill and lumber sales. When Monrad passed on, Jack and Bob each ran one division independently, but shared in the operation of the third.
“Dad’s plan was to make sure we had a vested interest in co-operating,” Jack said. “And it worked.”
Each brother had sons (Michael and David) who would go on to make their careers at WBL. Sons and daughters continue to be involved as the company’s directors.
In 1992 a new and larger sash gang saw (again a Linck) was installed to maintain the boards’ unique rough-sawn appearance.
With the turn of a new millennium, change became the order of the day and a complete overhaul of the sawmill was undertaken. A Finnish HewSaw was imported to process smaller logs more efficiently. A double arbour circular edger was added to break down larger logs. The addition of an optimizing edger, optimizing trim line and drop sorter assembly readied the mill to compete in the 21st century.
In 2008, WBL unveiled its most ambitious project. The aptly named SuperThundermac high-speed planer-moulder was imported. It runs at 1,000 feet per minute, producing the continent’s highest quality planed products.
Late in 2011, WBL began a restructuring, with family members who form the board of directors naming Michael Combs as chief executive officer. Combs, whose wife sits on the board, was a happily retired lawyer and businessman in California when he accepted the challenge to create a new, sustainable business model. At stake were the jobs of 100-plus employees and the economic stability of the Creston Valley.
“At the end of 2011 we decided we needed to change our business and restructure,” Combs said. “It was necessary to change our product mix — we had too many products and we were trying to be all things to all people. We focused on what we did best. We decided to downsize because wood is a limited resource.”
A workforce of about 130 was gradually winnowed and a number of management changes were undertaken.
“We decided we would maintain and improve our quality of customer service while downsizing within what the fibre basket (wood supply) would be. And that’s what we’ve done,” he said. “We have made major progress — our customer service had never been better. We just did a customer survey and the results were very, very good. Our quality has never been better.”
It is important to remember, Combs said, that WBL is not a commodity mill, producing mass-market lines like two-by-fours.
“That would be most difficult for a small mill like us to compete with, so we don’t. And we don’t make that product. We are a boutique or niche player and we make the highest quality board that you can buy anyplace.
“There are only a couple of mills that do that and we are known worldwide. We have customers in Asia and, obviously, throughout the United States, so that’s what we have focused on, and the pillars of our success are quality and customer service
“Of course, we’re a business and we have to be profitable in order to be viable. We have made a lot of changes in that regard and it’s been very difficult for a 100-year-old company to restructure.”
Only a few years ago, rumours of the mill’s demise swirled through the Creston Valley, and employees were wondering if they had a future with the company.
“I’m never going to say we’re there yet — I always say we’re getting there. Primarily the reason it has succeeded is our people, and our people have really stepped up,” Combs said. “We have pulled back the curtains and told them what we’re going to do and how we’re going to get there, that we can only do it if we’re together.
“So really the journey began in 2012 and at this point we are on track. It appears that we may be at the beginning of an upward market cycle. If that happens it should allow us to take care of a lot of unfinished business in our restructuring and make this company, hopefully, more solid than it’s been in a long time.”
In an interview in 2012, Combs spoke about meeting with employees and emerging with an appreciation for WBL’s importance as an employer and economic driver in the Creston Valley. He said at that time that he and the Wigen family members were committed to putting the operation on a solid footing and maintaining the company’s presence long into the future.
“I think morale is very good right now,” he said during the employees’ 100th anniversary picnic at Wynndel Hall on Sept. 7. “Our people see the results. We told them we’re not going to over-promise, that they will have to judge us by our actions. We told our people that we intend to be here today a couple of years ago, so part of our mission has been accomplished.
“We have regular crew talks with our people — we bring in pizza and we talk to them and they have the opportunity to ask questions.
“We are producing more with our 100 employees that we were with a higher number. Our productivity per employee has gone up significantly. That’s with no capital infusion — we did that simply by changing some things around, not constantly shutting down and changing products, just some common sense things that our managers have come up with that have made us much more efficient now. Our overhead is much less than it was.”
While internal changes have contributed to putting WBL on a more solid footing, external forces have helped, too. Lumber prices have risen and demand has increased with the jump in U.S. housing starts this year. A feature built into the softwood lumber tax has also contributed. When prices rise to a certain level, the export duty is not imposed. Higher prices and no export duties give the mill a double benefit, Combs said.
Productivity is also a key competitiveness factor.
“In the last year we have broken a number of records, both in our sawmill and our moulder, for production,” he said. “We are very proud of our people. But it’s so much more than just production — we need high efficiency but also to make sure we don’t bring quality down. We’re sticklers on that.”
Combs ended the conversation with another nod to the value of WBL employees.
“Part of our philosophy is to be more transparent to our employees than we have been in the past and the other part is to engage our people. We want them to know what’s going on and we want them to be involved. We want them to know that from each log to the time that the product is shipped that each link in the chain is vitally important.”