The biggest company in Prince George is also one of the region's oldest.
Canfor turns 75 this year, and the forestry giant held a party in Prince George Thursday for about 200 of their staff and supporters. More festivities will come throughout the year.
Had this benchmark been reached three years ago, the mood might not be so festive, but 2013 is a new era compared to the global economic downturn - a crash that pushed down especially hard on the U.S. construction industry and the Canadian lumber that it uses.
Canfor CEO Don Kayne was in Prince George on Thursday, to speak at the Association of BC Forestry Professionals and attend the anniversary party. Both occasions were remarkable for their renewed energy and optimism.
He said "it is remarkable for any company to last as long as 75 years - a real tribute to our founding families the Bentleys and the Prentices," and remarkable also to see the world lining up to buy B.C.'s wood like has never been seen before. It is a reboot time for Canfor, and the next 75 years is a pleasant goal to set.
"Without question, the lumber prices we have today have surpassed what we'd expect for this time of year, and it is a couple of years early, based on our supply/demand projections," he said. "Despite the cynics and the doubters, the Asian market is buying our wood eagerly. Asia is impressing us - Japan and China in particular. The market in Japan we expected to drop off [after their set of tsunami-related disasters] but they have sustained and they are looking to increase their relationships with us. And China, yes there has been a slowdown in the last quarter there, but it is a market that has increased significantly for us and shows very positive signs."
Especially important to Canfor, in regard to Asia, is the ever-increasing demand for high-end wood products. Japan has long been the standard-setter for demanding the best of wood. China was taking a lot of low-grade wood especially for expendable products like concrete forms, but now, said Kayne, they have an appetite for better grades and more diverse wood products.
"The other surprise is the U.S.," he said, looking ahead. "They're in for about 900,000 housing starts this year, and that's a long ways off where they peaked [about 2 million in 2005], it is a really significant comeback [from about 550,000 in 2009 and '10], and quicker than it was expected."
Helping matters is the stable supply of wood. There is only so much that mills can produce, and with China taking about 3 billion board-feet of that finite amount, there is a bit of a bidding war going on. Mills can't rush through more lumber - there isn't any more - and the buyers know it, so to get their buildings built, they have to pay a premium.
This supply and demand pressure is almost certainly going to carry on into the foreseeable future, Kayne said.
To take full advantage of the forestry momentum, and to set Canfor up for its next 75 years, he said, several corporate initiatives are underway. This year, Canfor split up its pulp and paper ventures from its lumber ventures, to streamline those businesses.
New fiber and milling assets were acquired and improved in B.C. "We have spent $600 million in B.C. through the recession, so we are definitely committed to the province of British Columbia," he explained, but the company is interested in added a United States element to its holdings, and put more face-time in in both Europe and Asia to deepen sales relationships there.
"We want to be a first class, high value, customer focused, environmentally sound company," he said. "We are still concerned about debt in the United States and we are still concerned about economic conditions in Europe, but in my 34 years with the company, rarely have we been so proud of who we are and so excited about where we are going as a company."
CELEBRATING 75 CANFOR YEARS
According to Canfor's historians, In 1938, brothers-in-law John Prentice and Poldi Bentley formed a furniture and paneling veneer company called Pacific Veneer, first employing 28 people. It was on the banks of the Fraser River in New Westminster.
In 1939, Pacific Veneer wins major aviation and marine contracts supplying plywood. Within a year, the employee pool swelled to 1,000 people.
Their expansion ventures brought them into Prince George in 1962 first for pulp and then later for sawmilling. Canfor's combined holdings, and the spinoff industries supplying those venutres, accounts for the largest single private sector employment pool in the city and region.
- The company's first official anniversary event was Thursday, with a party for select staff in Prince George.
- A YouTube video campaign was launched on Thursday - a long, humour-based ad (it involves a mermaid) for "Canfor red," to bring a fresh attitude to their lumber branding. More videos are slated to follow.
- A new set of scholarships was announced on Thursday in commemoration of Canfor's anniversary. Six of them are for forestry-related professional studies, and two others are for the same education stream but (in partnership with the New Relationship Trust) specifically for aboriginal students.
- The company will centre on Prince George again on May 1 for a pair of Annual General Meetings - one for the pulp/paper side and one for the lumber side of the corporation.
- A Vancouver-based event later in the year will focus on the two founding families of Canfor, the Bentleys (Peter Bentley, son of the founders, is still on the Canfor board) and the Prentices.
- A series of anniversary open houses will be held in the communities where Canfor has base operations, including Mackenzie, Quesnel, Vanderhoof, etc.
- International receptions will be held in cities like Tokyo and Shanghai to celebrate the occasion with the company's global partners.
- Canfor will be the title sponsor of the July 1 fireworks at Canada Day In Fort George Park.