When you ask people what impact the Pacific Inland Resources (PIR) plant in West Fraser has had on Smithers, one word keeps coming up.
The timber industry has seen many ups and downs over the past 50 years, but PIR has weathered it all, with very little downtime to become and remain one of the largest and most stable contributors to the Smithers economy for half a century now.
Walt Wickson, one of the company’s original founders, attributed this success to a solid foundation that caught the eye of a much larger player, West Fraser.
Wickson recalled that although the plant was a growing concern and employed nearly 200 people, it was difficult in its early stages.
“I guess it was 1973 when we first started talking to West Fraser and it was just by accident because both companies used the same type of benefits,” Wickson said. “We were invited over to his (Vancouver) home for dinner, Denny Moore and I, and then the West Fraser principles came up and so we had a chat and Denny told them we were in pretty rough shape. And so they came and took a look and liked what they saw.
PIR is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Smithers factory this summer, but the company actually started a few years earlier in Telkwa.
In 1969, Northern Interior Forest Products, which operated the TF and N. factory in Telkwa, was in receivership. Denny Moore, with five miner partners and financial backing from a New York lumber broker acquired the mill at auction, Wickson recalled.
But Moore wanted to build a mill at Smithers. The original mill was built in 1972 without the planer. Before the planer was added to the Tatlow Road location in 1973, the company transported rough cuts to Telkwa for planing.
Wickson was an equipment vendor at this time and sold PIR the equipment for the new plant. When one of the mining partners dropped out, Moore offered Wickson the shares and a position as manager of the Smithers plant.
Bob Olsen, PIR’s longest-serving employee with 49 years, recalls a visit from the founders of West Fraser.
“What was funny to me was that when West Fraser first bought the place, we actually rubbed shoulders with all the guys who were originals,” Olsen said.
“And these guys came to the factory to see if they would buy it or not. And they were great guys. They walked into the factory, they introduced themselves, who they were and everything, what the ideas were. And then they asked each of us questions about how things were working and were we happy with the way things were going.
Olsen started out as a cleaning kid — a job that still exists at the PIR — sweeping floors, shoveling sawdust, picking up debris around the factory, and other odd jobs on the weekends. About three weeks later, however, he got the chance to start working on after-school maintenance lube machines.
“I started doing two hours a day and most of the time they were understaffed for a shift, so I ended up working a shift. So I was probably working doing three shifts a week plus I was doing every weekend and high school and doing 12th grade.
When he graduated, he signed a full-time piling contract, gained some seniority, and was able to successfully bid for a job driving an edger, which he got. But by the time West Fraser arrived, he was pretty much ready to pack it.
“They needed millwrights and welders, electricians and mechanics,” he said. “So I applied to become a millwright, I was accepted and the rest is history.”
He said it was a great career and a great company to work for. He plans to retire in September 2023 when he hits the 50-year mark.
It was 1975 when West Fraser exercised the call option it had acquired the previous year. At that time, West Fraser had annual sales of $47.8 million with plants in Hinton, Alberta, Quesnel and Atlin.
That year, the company also celebrated planting its millionth tree after hiring its first forester five years earlier.
Today, West Fraser operates 64 plants in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. In 2021, it had an annual turnover of 10.5 billion and employed more than 2,400 people.
Locally, the PIR has an annual economic impact on Smithers of approximately $120 million.
In 2020, the latest year for which figures are available, which included $51.6 million in log delivery costs, $24 million in lumber freight, $11.9 million in stumpage fees and rental of wood, $7.9 million in maintenance and operating expenses, $955,000 in capital construction, $2.9 million. for silviculture and $834,000 in property taxes.
Additionally, employee salaries and benefits were $20.4 million for the year, supporting 441 direct and indirect full-time employees and their families.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this city; it’s stability,” Wickson said.
Gladys Atrill, Mayor of Smithers, acknowledged the company’s contribution to the town, obviously economically, but also in other ways.
“Forestry, logging and milling have been part of community culture for decades,” she said. “It’s not the only thing that keeps us going, but it’s an important part. If I remember correctly, over 400 direct and indirect jobs is important, but what people think of forestry, logging and the mill over time is just as important.
“So I think we’re lucky to have a plant and an industrial plant that has lasted this long with the kind of contribution to the community that West Fraser and Pacific Inland Resources have made.”
Despite the external ownership, PIR remains a very community-based and even a bit family-run business.
“It was awesome,” Olsen said. “A lot of families have passed through here. My family at one time, my father, my two brothers, my sister, my brother-in-law and myself all worked here.
“There’s a young lady who works as an oiler at the planer, who (is) the granddaughter of one of the millwrights I worked with when I started, so I never thought that I would be one of the old ones.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, West Fraser is hosting a party at Bovill Square on August 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
It will offer a barbecue, entertainment and tours of the mill by appointment (250-847-2656).