Pacific Inland Resources Smithers mill celebrates 50th anniversary

Bob Olsen, Pacific Inland Resources’ longest-serving employee (49 years) at the planer mill outfeed and trimmer, July 21, 2022. (Thom Barker photo)Bob Olsen, Pacific Inland Resources’ longest-serving employee (49 years) at the planer mill outfeed and trimmer, July 21, 2022. (Thom Barker photo)
West Fraser staff at the location of the company’s 50 millionth seedling planted near 27 km on Babine Lake Road, McKendrick Pass in 1986. (West Fraser photo)West Fraser staff at the location of the company’s 50 millionth seedling planted near 27 km on Babine Lake Road, McKendrick Pass in 1986. (West Fraser photo)
West Fraser staff at the location of the company’s 50 millionth seedling planted near 27 km on Babine Lake Road, McKendrick Pass in 2015 showing 29 years of progress in reforestation. (West Fraser photo)West Fraser staff at the location of the company’s 50 millionth seedling planted near 27 km on Babine Lake Road, McKendrick Pass in 2015 showing 29 years of progress in reforestation. (West Fraser photo)
Pacific Inland Resources planer mill outfeed and trimmer in January 1974. (British Columbia Lumberman magazine photo)Pacific Inland Resources planer mill outfeed and trimmer in January 1974. (British Columbia Lumberman magazine photo)
Pacific Inland Resources Gate 1, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)Pacific Inland Resources Gate 1, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)
Pacific Inland Resources planer mill, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)Pacific Inland Resources planer mill, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)
Walt Wickson, one of the original founders of Pacific Inland Resources on a visit to The Interior News, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)Walt Wickson, one of the original founders of Pacific Inland Resources on a visit to The Interior News, July 2022. (Thom Barker photo)
Aerial view of the Pacific Inland resources mill and yard circa 1992 or 1993. (Bulkley Valley Museum archives).Aerial view of the Pacific Inland resources mill and yard circa 1992 or 1993. (Bulkley Valley Museum archives).

When you ask people what impact West Fraser’s Pacific Inland Resources (PIR) mill has had on Smithers, one word pops up over and over again.

Stability.

The lumber industry has seen a lot of ups and downs in the past 50 years, but PIR has weathered it all, with very little downtime growing into and remaining one of the largest and steadiest contributors to the Smithers economy for half a century now.

Walt Wickson, one of the original founders of the company attributed that success to a solid foundation that attracted the attention of a much bigger player, West Fraser.

Wickson recalled that while the mill was a growing concern and employed close to 200 people, it was tough going in those early days.

“I guess it was 1973 when we started talking to West Fraser and it was just by accident because both companies were using the same employee benefits guy,” Wickson said. “We were invited to his place (in Vancouver) for dinner, Denny Moore and I, and then the principles from West Fraser just happened to show up and so we got talking and Denny was telling them we were in pretty tough shape. And so they came up and had a look and liked what they saw.”

PIR is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Smithers mill this summer, but the company actually started a few years earlier in Telkwa.

In 1969, Northern Interior Forest Products, which operated the T. F. and N. mill in Telkwa, was in receivership. Denny Moore, along with five minor partners and some financial backing from a New York City lumber broker acquired the mill at auction, Wickson recalled.

But Moore wanted to put up a mill in Smithers. The original mill was built by 1972 minus the planer. Prior to the planer being added at the Tatlow Road location in 1973, the company transported rough cuts to Telkwa for planing.

Wickson was an equipment salesman in those days and sold PIR the equipment for the new mill. When one of the minor partners dropped out, Moore offered Wickson the shares and a job as the manager of the Smithers mill.

Bob Olsen, PIR’s longest-serving employee with 49 years of seniority, recalls the visit by the West Fraser founders .

“What was fun for me is that when West Fraser first bought the place, we actually rubbed elbows with all the guys that were originals,” Olsen said.

“And those guys actually came to the mill to have a look to see whether or not they would buy it. And they were great guys. They came into the mill, they introduced themselves, who they were and everything, what the ideas were. And then they asked each one of us questions about how things worked and were we happy with how things are.”

Olsen started as a cleanup kid — a job that still exists at PIR — sweeping floors, shovelling sawdust, picking up debris around the plant and other odd jobs on weekends. About three weeks in, though, he got a chance to start working maintenance lubricating machines after school.

“I started doing two hours a day and most of the time, they would be short-handed for a shift so I’d end up working a shift. So I was working probably doing three shifts a week plus I was doing all weekends and high school and doing Grade 12.”

When he graduated, he signed on full-time piling lumber, gained a little seniority and was able to successfully bid on a job running a bull edger, which he got. But by the time West Fraser came around he was just about ready to pack it in.

“They needed millwrights and welders, electricians and mechanics,” he said. “So I applied for millwrighting, I got accepted and the rest is history.”

He said it has been a great career and a great company to work for. He plans on retiring in September 2023 when he reaches the 50-year mark.

It was 1975 when West Fraser exercised the option to buy, it had acquired the year before. At that time, West Fraser had annual sales of $47.8 million with mills in Hinton, Alta., Quesnel and Atlin.

That year the company also celebrated planting its one-millionth tree having hired its first forester five years earlier.

Today, West Fraser operates 64 mills in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. In 2021, it had annual sales of 10.5 billion and employed more than 2,400 people.

Locally, PIR has an annual economic impact on Smithers of approximately $120 million.

In 2020, the last year for which numbers are available that included $51.6 million in log delivery costs, $24 million in lumber freight, $11.9 million in stumpage fees and timber rentals, $7.9 million in maintenance and operating expenses, $955,000 in capital construction, $2.9 million for silviculture and $834,000 in property taxes.

Furthermore, employee wages and benefits amounted to $20.4 million for the year supporting 441 full-time direct and indirect employees and their families.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to this town; it’s stability,” Wickson said.

Gladys Atrill, Smithers mayor acknowledged the contribution the company makes to the town, obviously economically, but in other ways as well.

“Forestry and logging and milling are a part of the community culture over decades,” she said. “It’s not the only thing that keeps us going but it’s a significant part. If my memory is right over 400 direct and indirect jobs is significant, but as important is how people feel about forestry and logging and the mill in our community over time.

“So, I think we’re lucky to have a mill and industrial plant that has lasted as long as it has with the type of contribution to the community West Fraser and Pacific Inland Resources have given.”

Despite the outside ownership, PIR remains a very community-oriented company and even a bit of a family affair.

“It’s been great,” Olsen said. “Lots of families have gone through here. My family at one point, my dad, two brothers, sister, brother-in-law and myself all worked here.

“There’s a young lady working as our oiler at the planer, who (is) the granddaughter of one of the millwrights I worked with when I first started so I never thought that I’d be one of the old guys.”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary, West Fraser is throwing a party at Bovill Square August 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It will feature a barbecue, entertainment and mill tours by appointment (250-847-2656).