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Canfor Corporation’s Mill Operations in Prince George With Brett Robinson at the Helm

Canfor Corporation is a leading integrated forest products company, with head offices located in Vancouver, and with operations in three provinces, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. The company is the largest producer of softwood lumber and on...


November 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Canfor Corporation is a leading integrated forest products company, with head offices located in Vancouver, and with operations in three provinces, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. The company is the largest producer of softwood lumber and one of the largest producers of northern softwood kraft pulp in Canada. The company produces both kraft pulp and paper, plywood, remanufactured lumber products, oriented strand board (OSB), hardboard panelling and a range of specialized wood products that include baled fibre and fibre mat. Employing 10,290 people, (8,100 directly, with an additional 2,190 through affiliated companies and contractors), Canfor operates 34 facilities predominately in the west. The firm has an annual production capacity of approximately 5.2 billion board feet of lumber, 950 million square feet of plywood and OSB, 1.2 million tonnes of pulp and 142,000 tonnes of kraft paper.

Canfor’s historic roots date back to the late 1930s, when two entrepreneurs left their native Austria to settle on Canada’s west coast. Only months after arriving in Vancouver, John G. Prentice and L.L.G. “Poldi” Bentley formed a small furniture and panelling veneer company aptly called Pacific Veneer. Initially they employed 28 people in a small mill on the banks of the Fraser River, in New Westminster, BC. By 1939, with contracts to supply plywood for aviation and marine applications, the company grew to employ 1,000 people. Within the first three years of operation, Prentice and Bentley had laid the foundations for a company that we now know as Canfor. The name comes from Canadian Forest Products Limited, a name that stuck a chord with the immigrant founders, who adopted its use in 1947. Four years later, reaching for new business opportunities, the company acquired its first pulp mill at Port Mellon. The Howe Sound Pulp Company Limited was closed when it was acquired in 1951 and had operated as a small unbleached kraft mill. Under its new owners, expansion and upgrading to the production of bleached pulp soon followed. In the early fifties, the stage was set for further expansion into the field of pulp and paper production and Prince George, BC, was to become home to three Canfor operated mills: Northwood, Intercontinental and Prince George Pulp & Paper.

The Prince George Pulp & Paper mill began operations in 1966 as a joint venture of Canfor and Reed Paper of the UK. Two years later, in 1968, its sister mill, Intercontinental Pulp, was built by Canfor, Reed, and Feldmuhle of Germany. A decade passed and in 1978 Canfor bought out Reed’s stake in both operations. In 1985 it also purchased the Feldmuhle share, creating the Prince George Pulp and Paper Mills a year later. In November 1999, following the purchase of the Northwood Operations, the Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill (PGPPM) became the sole mill of the Specialty Pulp & Paper Division. Northwood and Intercontinental comprise the mills within the Premium Pulp Division. Today they are operated under common management and share many nature resources common to the area.

It is here that 38 year-old Brett Robinson enters the picture, serving as general manger and mill manager for both PGPPM and Intercontinental Pulp. At a relatively young age, Robinson stands out not only a respected leader but as an outspoken manger whose “people skills” are applauded throughout the operation.

All of the Prince George mills have sophisticated distributed control systems, Kamyr continuous digesters and modern bleaching and screening. Bleaching is accomplished with chlorine dioxide, oxygen and hydrogen peroxide, resulting in superior ECF pulps.

Over 90% of the chips used in the three mills are derived from sawmill residuals.

The fibre supply is predominantly lodgepole pine and white spruce, species that develop long slender thin-walled fibres. It is these fibre properties which create the excellent tensile qualities and printability that Canfor pulp is noted for. “I see the Canadian fibre that we have here as the strongest in the world, and it is important for us to protect it,” said Robinson.

Brett Robinson was born in Winnipeg, MB, but looks to the rural outdoors as his natural home. Spending many years in his youth at the family hide-away outside of Kenora, ON, created both a passion and a respect for the forests, qualities he brings to his job even today.

“I feel very comfortable in the natural wilderness and I am not much of a big city person,” he added, which explains his affinity to Prince George, BC. With 15 years of expertise in the pulp and paper industry and a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Manitoba, Robinson is perfectly suited for role of mill manager for both the Prince George Pulp and Pulp Mill, and its sister operation, the Intercontinental Pulp Mill. Jokingly, he mentioned that he has held more positions in the industry than years spent in the industry. “I recall one of my favourite positions was that of a shift supervisor, where you got to lead a group of people, get your hands dirty, and have an immediate impact on the results.” Robinson is still doing that today, but on a much higher level.

Prince George Pulp and Paper manufactures top quality bleached, semi-bleached, and unbleached pulps. The mill was designed to produce approximately 300 short tonnes of pulp per day. At start-up, the mill produced only unbleached kraft paper. Since 1996, the mill has expanded to produce bleached kraft paper, called Polar, which currently accounts for 40% of the paper production. The bleached paper grade mix was further expanded through the years 1998 and 1999 to include coloured paper, and high performance paper, with specific properties for specialty end uses. The sister mill, Intercontinental Pulp, manufactures market quality bleached pulp, but in the past has produced semi bleach, brown and run some TCF trial pulps. The mill was designed to produce approximately 540 metric tonnes of pulp per day.

“We are coming off one of the best years ever, and I am particularly proud of the successes of the PGPPM,” said Robinson. His involvement in both mills is unquestionably at the root of these successes. “My motto has always been to get involved and, in the process, learn.” It is this open attitude, combined with his manner of treating people, which makes Robinson special.

“His mechanical engineering skills are solid and as a person, he is efficient and extremely well-organized,” said Sandra Morrison, assistant mill manager, Prince George and Intercontinental Mills. “But it is his unique understanding of people that is his greatest asset, and I’ve been in this business for almost 30 years.”

Dan Brinson, general manager of Northwood, concurred. “His natural skill with people is not just a quality that he was born with,” Brinson said. “He has honed it to be able to motivate people, which is quite a feat for a man as young as he is.”

Robinson said, “It is simply a question of being challenged everyday.” And that he is, with production costs, product quality, safety, and environmental considerations on his daily agenda. “I have a strong young management team who bring energy and passion to their jobs and, with their leadership, we have gained the trust of all the employees, and it is from them that all the ideas generally come. It is one of the most important aspects of managing the business.”

Morrison added, “Everybody always wants his opinion” and explained that Robinson always has the time for listening to them. Chuck Walls, fiberline manager at Prince George and Intercontinental Mills, said of Robinson, “He has an effect not only on the floor, but on higher levels of the Corporation. He convinced the Board of Directors to spend funds on improvement at the PGPPM during difficult financial times.”

Brett Robinson has arrived at a point in his career, where he might not get his hands as dirty as before, but where daily challenges present themselves allowing him to get continually involved, a must for him. He has also arrived at a spot in British Columbia that satisfies his taste for the wilderness. He lives in a house, a 40 minute dr
ive from the mill, that he and his wife built for themselves. The ultimate getaway is a walk along the forest trails.