Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Covering Dallas, Monmouth, Independence, Falls City and surrounding areas since 1868

Finding its niche

INDEPENDENCE -- Brett Slaughter's first career move after graduating from Western Oregon University was in the yard of a Philomath lumber mill, pulling green chain.

Gordon Stone, of McMinnville, prepares to resaw a piece of Douglas fir at Elk Creek Forest Products' warehouse.

Photo by Pete Strong

Gordon Stone, of McMinnville, prepares to resaw a piece of Douglas fir at Elk Creek Forest Products' warehouse.

October 11, 2011

INDEPENDENCE -- Brett Slaughter's first career move after graduating from Western Oregon University was in the yard of a Philomath lumber mill, pulling green chain.

The task -- sorting and separating heavy fresh-cut lumber from a conveyor -- is hot, dirty and exhausting. The fact that Slaughter had a science degree made him a curiosity among fellow employees.

"`You spent all that money going to school and you're here?'" Slaughter, now 41, recalls them saying. "`You should be able to get a better job.'"

But "before I ever got into selling or distributing something, I wanted to see where it came from and how it got to be lumber," added Slaughter, president and co-owner of Elk Creek Forest Products.

Slaughter walks past forklift drivers filling orders at his recently opened yard off Ninth Street in Independence and into the warehouse. Above the racket of a resaw machine, he describes where a timber sizer he's anxiously awaiting for large planing orders will go.

The entirety of the building will be filled with machinery, he said. There's even a station set aside for a green chain line.

"I would love to do that again, if somebody else would do all the management stuff," he said with a laugh.

McMinnville-based Elk Creek is still relocating equipment and personnel from its Lane County lumber yard to its new digs, the former Mountain Fir plywood mill.

Elk Creek Forest Products president and co-owner Brett Slaughter describes where pieces of equipment will go in the warehouse at Elk Creek

Photo by Pete Strong

Elk Creek Forest Products president and co-owner Brett Slaughter describes where pieces of equipment will go in the warehouse at Elk Creek's mill in Independence.

It seems contrary during this recession, as lumber industry news tends to involve a mill closing its doors rather than opening them, said Don Stanwood, plant manager and a Dallas resident.

"That we're taking over an empty mill, that makes me feel really good," Stanwood said.

Elk Creek benefits from its niche. Rather than just selling logs, the company buys structural beams, joists and large lumber -- mostly fir -- and resurfaces and regrades it for an exposed texture finish.

The business also deals in kiln-dried wood, does custom sizing and surfacing and other services. The results are products that end up mainly in high-end housing and commercial, industrial and government projects.

"We've had some lumber go into wetland restoration, to schools and fire stations ... we sell a lot to resort areas," Slaughter said, noting lodges in Aspen, Colo., Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood as past customers.

Slaughter didn't grow up thinking he would work in forest products. He contemplated becoming a geologist while at WOU. But he had tradition to contend with.

Slaughter's grandfather drove log trucks and worked in a veneer mill. His father worked in management in mills in Lane and Yamhill counties until starting his own business, Elk Creek Sales, in 1996.

"I remember doing inventories with dad as a kid on Saturdays," he said. "It was second nature to be around."

Slaughter spent 15 years working at Forest Grove Lumber in McMinnville before joining a new division of his father's firm in 2001.

The idea was regrading and surfacing lumber and accommodating unique requests for different construction. Elk Creek also began selling kiln-dried timbers that have lower moisture content than the industry standard 19 percent to reduce twisting and splitting.

"We knew we didn't want to just treat car loads of 2 x 4s," he said. "We wanted to do something we could put our hands on and put a little character into."

The operation grew quickly and Slaughter sought outside ownership to expand. In 2007, Idaho Pacific Lumber Co. became a partner.

Elk Creek Forest Products

Photo by Pete Strong

Elk Creek Forest Products' warehouse in Independence has the space to hold a variety of milling equipment in addition to wood storage and the resaw seen here.

Elk Creek is selling about 2 million to 2.5 million board feet a month, which translates into roughly $1 million in sales, Slaughter said.

Elk Creek had been searching for a new lumber yard for the past two years to be closer to its headquarters in McMinnville. Independence was selected because of the availability of the former Mountain Fir site and proximity to Interstate 5, Slaughter said.

The company has 18 employees here right now and will have close to 30 by the time the move is finished, Slaughter said. The hope is to double the work force within the next two years and possibly bring the main office to the city, he said.

"We have a good demand for this product and a lot of orders compared to sawmills producing run-of-the mill lumber right now," said Stanwood, a forest-product industry veteran of 25 years. "Companies that can find a niche, those are the ones that will last."

Order photos
Drupal 6 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux