INDEPENDENCE -- For a company representing the resurgence of Oregon's wood products industry, Elk Creek Forest Products isn't dressed for a party.
The lumberyard is ice-crusted mud and gravel. The office is a converted single-wide mobile home. Company executives wear jeans and sweatshirts. The protective paper wrapped around lumber shipments was purchased from a company that went broke and sold off its inventory. Rather than spend money on wrapping paper of its own, Elk Creek snapped it up and put it to use. As a result, some of the loads going down the road or across the ocean bear the failed company's label rather than its own.
None of which matters to Brett Slaughter, Elk Creek's founder and president.
"It's not a flashy business," he says. "It's important to me to have a blue-collar mentality."
Elk Creek began with Slaughter personally answering phones, filling orders and loading trucks. Working instead of sleeping, refusing to be out-hustled by competitors. "Flat determination," he describes it.
By all accounts Elk Creek has found a successful niche in what the timber industry calls "secondary manufacturing."
In Oregon, where recurring recessions, environmental restrictions and technological changes have whittled the wood products workforce and emptied mills for 35 years, that's saying something.
Wood products and logging employment combined sank from 81,376 people in 1978 to 33,274 in 2008, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
The latest recession didn't help. Using broader and more numerous employment categories, a report commissioned by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute said the industry lost 14,000 jobs from 2007 to 2011 alone. Elk Creek and other small, specialty mills alone won't do much to reverse those numbers, but they do seem to be holding their own.
Slaughter's company owns no timber itself, and doesn't bother competing with big mills that churn out construction two-by-fours or sheets of plywood.
Instead, Elk Creek buys rough-sawn material from sawmills and reprocesses it. It kiln-dries, resurfaces and custom-sizes beams and other wood used primarily in high-end homes and commercial buildings. Elk Creek fields inquiries from and sells to lumber wholesalers, who in turn supply contractors.
With the housing market showing recent signs of improvement, people in all facets of the wood products industry are allowing themselves a little optimism.
"Markets for wood seem to be picking up," says Tom Partin, president of the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, an industry advocacy group. "Dimension lumber and plywood are at levels we haven't seen for a couple of years."
Having ridden out the recession, Slaughter says his company is in an especially good position. "In 2005 and 2006 it was a great economy," he says. "I was catching crumbs off the side of the plate of the big guys and building clientele. When the recession came it didn't affect me as much."
The downturn created opportunity as well as difficulty, he says. Other companies curtailed product lines or went out of business, leaving customers in need. Experienced, competent wood products veterans also became available for hiring, and Slaughter assembled what he describes as an all-star crew.
Slaughter's father and grandfather were in the wood products business, and he started in 1993 as a green-chain grunt pulling and stacking freshly cut boards. He then spent six years with Forest Grove Lumber, going from the lumberyard to yard manager and to sales. He worked for his father for a time, then struck out on his own.
In 2007 he struck a partnership with Idaho Pacific Lumber Co., which provided capital and became the majority shareholder. Slaughter is an Idaho Pacific shareholder and sits on the board of directors these days. In 2011 he moved the business from the Eugene-Springfield area to Independence and set up operations in an abandoned mill that had operated in various incarnations since the 1940s. Slaughter graduated from Western Oregon University in nearby Monmouth and lived in McMinnville, and several key employees were commuting from the area, so the move made sense.
Shawn Irvine, the city's economic development director, says the impact of an Elk Creek-type business in a small town cannot be overstated.
"This one is really important," Irvine says. "The real big sexy project that brings in 500 jobs gets the press, but jobs like this are really the most important. These guys pay a good wage, they want to hire local people and they're growing."
Slaughter contends continued good times are ahead, despite the overall trend for mills.
Some wood the company has on hand is immense and nonstandard: 6 inches wide by 20 inches high, or 8 by 12, for example, and 20 to 40 feet long. Much of it is high-grade, tight-grained Douglas fir, straight and strong, suitable for use as exposed beams. Other grades are used in heavy timber-frame construction. Slaughter estimates his company remanufactures about 40 percent of the lumber that arrives in his yard. The rest it matches with orders and sends back out.
The company's strength is its inventory, which gives it the ability to quickly assemble and ship custom packages. Sitting in a warehouse, for example, is a beam 2 feet square and more than 25 feet long; Slaughter knows someone will need a beam that big at some point.
"They're able to put together packages for customers that we are not geared up to do," says Tim Hunt, sales manager at D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. in the southern Oregon town of Riddle. The sawmill sells lumber to Elk Creek, which remanufactures it to fill orders from wholesalers, who in turn supply contractors. It wouldn't be economical for D.R. Johnson to do the custom cutting itself.
"To ship to the East Coast we'd need a full truck or railcar to make it cost effective," Hunt says.
Elk Creek is filling a production niche the sawmills don't want to pursue, agrees Greg Chase, sales manager of Herbert Lumber Co., also in Riddle.
"We can't afford to do that, to interrupt our production schedules," Chase says. "His inventory is shippable for almost immediate delivery."
"It's not worth our time," agrees Scott Manke, secretary and sales manager of the Manke Lumber Co. sawmill in Tacoma. "He'll buy the lumber from me, and pull a fancy grade out of it; he's got the remanufacturing capability. And they get big money for it."
The lumber-trading business is known for its relationships. Deals involving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lumber are carried out over the phone, with not a piece of paper exchanging hands. Elk Creek and Slaughter thrive in that world.
"He's got a good reputation, he's a good guy. Very honest," Manke says. "In this business you know there's a few people you can deal with, and he's one of them."
Slaughter intends to keep it that way by operating in a "moral, ethical and honest" manner. Stay late, load at any hour, take care of the customer.
"If the answer is no," he says, "there'd better be a good reason we can't get it done for you."