It was D.J. Russell Jr.’s second official day on the job, but it wasn’t one he was unfamiliar with.
The longtime sawmill manager had just been recruited back to run West Fraser in Riegelwood, the very plant where he got his first job cleaning the bottom of the mill with a wheelbarrow and shovel in 1983 (he even remembers his first day: Dec. 21). When Russell got his start in the industry, operators had to make judgment calls when eyeing logs to determine how many and what kind of timber cuts could be squeezed out of each trunk.
“Now everything’s optimized and scanned,” Russell said. “It’s all about getting every board length you can out of that log you buy.”
Mill workers used to mark planed timber with crayons to assess the plank’s grade so each could be properly categorized for sale. “That was a tedious mental job,” Russell said. “Now everything’s machine graded.”
The advent of artificial intelligence allowed the lumber mill to optimize its performance, but manual labor is still critical to overseeing system operations. West Fraser employs 176 people at its Riegelwood outfit, one of 33 lumber mills operated by the global forestry company.
Located a couple miles from International Paper, the mill opened in 1975, originally to solely serve as a source of wood chips to support the paper plant. It later pivoted to producing lumber, and in 2007, West Fraser took over operations.
Not much material at the plant is wasted. West Fraser still supplies its residuals to International Paper for pulp, sells wood shavings to livestock farms and uses the moisture content from freshly cut logs to produce steam to dry lumber during the production process.
After an eight-year stint running sawmills in South Carolina, Russell returned to Riegelwood, where he had spent 31 years working and eventually running the lumber mill.
Some familiar faces had stuck around, but there were plenty of new hands to shake. One of those newcomers was sawmill superintendent Lyle Kindig, who started at West Fraser as a quality control intern in 2019 after graduating from Virginia Tech.
Kindig spent the past few years working nearly every job in the lumber mill, quickly rising the ranks in the void of more senior leadership.
“It’s not a big secret, but that is the success for mills, is developing people from the lower level all the way to the top,” Russell said. “It’s up to us to develop those people.”
Recent improvements in the mill’s base operator wage – up to $18 from $14 a few years ago – and a quicker-paced path to increase hourly rates in a matter of months are among changes the company implemented to recruit and retain a committed workforce. “When you come in to work here, you need to be career oriented,” Kindig said.
The mill specializes in No. 2 prime lumber, a high-grade product customers might see stocked on the shelves of Home Depot when shopping for what Russell calls “honey-do” projects. West Fraser supplies to big-box retailers and wholesalers, which purchase the mill’s supply of 2-by-4-inch to 2-by-12-inch cuts of Southern yellow pine.
Each year, the mill processes roughly 700,000 tons of logs and welcomes about 25,000 logging truck deliveries.
“We source all of our lumber within 100 miles of the mill,” Kindig said. “And it’s typically larger timbers.” Trucks make deliveries from 13 counties in North Carolina, supporting 45 logging crews.
During the height of the pandemic, the plant was slammed as lumber prices reached historic peaks, trading at $1,200 to $1,400 per 1,000 board feet. “I’ve never seen a spike like that in my career, that kind of pricing – nobody has. That wasn’t sustainable for anybody in this world,” Russell said.
Lumber is lately trading in the $400 to $450 per 1,000 board feet range, Russell said.
The wild fluctuations don’t phase West Fraser, he said. “We try to be the low-cost producer in our industry so we can run no matter what the market does,” he said. “We can run our mills and keep our team members here providing for their families because that’s what we all believe … The market doesn’t dictate how West Fraser runs their mill.”
361 State Road 1879, Riegelwood
No. of employees:
Began in Riegelwood in 2007
Top local official:
D.J. Russell Jr., general manager
West Fraser is a lumber mill that produces high-grade timber products from wood logged in the region.
Products made locally:
Specializing in No. 2 prime wood, the West Fraser mill produces high-quality cuts of Southern yellow pine.
West Fraser has a national customer base, a majority of which is retailers, like Home Depot and other department stores, wholesalers and treated wood plants.
What made the company decide to make its goods locally?
“We’re in a really good wood basket,” said superintendent Lyle Kindig referring to the proliferation of timber in the region.
What’s your target market?
“Retailers and wholesalers,” said Russell
What’s planned next?
The operation’s primary objective, Russell said, is to increase the breadth and depth of its talent pool. “It’s all about people development.”
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