"We hope to make these rural communities that we love better by investing in the mills and the people who work here."
Based in Canada, Interfor has 18 world-class mills throughout North America, seven of those in Georgia, one in Thomaston. They employ roughly 1,100 people in the state, 140 of those at the Thomaston location.
In the early 2000s, the company's leadership decided to increase their presence by expanding. At that point, Interfor operated solely in coastal BC. By 2009, Interfor had purchased mills in the BC Interior, Washington and Oregon. Then the housing recession hit, pausing plans until 2009. It was a period for investing in lumber. During that period, Interfor focused on improving and upgrading the facilities in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, work that would prepare them for their big move to U.S Southeast. They were also facing some challenges in Canada around that time- 27 million acres of timber were lost to a pine beetle epidemic. To put that in perspective, Georgia has 24 million acres of timber land. This led them to really look to the Southeast, where they could achieve their goals of growing the company thanks to abundant natural resources.
Interfor's leaders looked to all of the United States, and the Southeast remained the most attractive to their business. Interfor purchased nine sawmills in the Southeast between 2013 and 2105. The Thomaston mill was purchased in 2014 and Interfor set out to maximize its functionality, product quality, and staff safety. Logging and timber production as well as ability to create products out of it had slowed down a lot until this point. Local companies weren't using many of the trees- but of course, the trees had continued to grow, making the region even more attractive.
Interfor has since grown across the South in Arkansas and South Carolina as well, but the footprint remains the strongest through acquisitions right here in Georgia. "Georgia is the number one forest industry state in the nation," explains VP Todd Mullis. Access to the Savannah port is a key factor in that success, but an even bigger one is the regional pulp paper industry. Interfor ships raw materials- wood chips, which eventually
become paper or related products. Even the absorbent material found in diapers comes from a wood product called 'fluff pulp', which is made from Southern yellow pine and supplied by Interfor- who knew? So, while the main product is those big, beautiful lengths of lumber for construction, Interfor makes use of every part of the trees that come in.
When it comes to replenishing timber, Interfor relies heavily on private landowners. They provide a good market for them, so it benefits everyone. "We are strong believers in the power of landowners making the best decision for their property," says Mullis.
The decision to come to Georgia has been profound for the company. "There's a pro-business environment here. Georgia does whatever they can to help support their companies. And the proximity to market is unbeatable." Interfor has invested or announced close to $300 million in investments in the state of Georgia. Much of that includes the recent announcement of the Thomaston location's upgraded, modernized equipment that will almost double the location's production.
The expansion will be done in stages- equipment is being made now, and installation and training will begin next year. A new planer mill will be constructed on the property. These modern innovations in the forestry industry will be fully implemented at Thomaston Interfor by 2021 which will lead to potential new customer bases and greater product offerings to existing customers. The upgrades will also impact another of Interfor's core values- safety. The newer equipment will mean less direct interaction with the machines, making them much safer to operate. "Coming to this company, the emphasis on safety is unlike any other I've seen" says Jody King, plant manager. "We make sure that if you're going to work on a machine, you go through the lock-out procedure, but you also have to have someone with you to check you in. Here, we watch everyone's back and make sure we do the work safely."
The company recently launched their Millwright Apprenticeship Program, where they select internal employees throughout their mills who want to grow their careers. "One of the things we focus on is training our internal employees to help them grow and to keep us on the right track as we continue to evolve our facilities. We had nearly 30 in the first class, and we just started second class this spring. After three years, they will have gone through classroom training, instructor training, and peer-to-peer training. Upon graduation, they are certified journeyman millwrights, recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. It's life changing. The investment in our people that Interfor makes means a lot to me personally," explains public affairs manager Tim Lowrimore.
Interfor has attracted talent by offering these types of training programs as well as their standards of quality and safety. Workers are coming from other regions to join Interfor in Georgia and to be a part of the industry here. "We hope to make these rural communities that we love better by investing in the mills and the people who work here," says Todd.
It remains clear that the Southeast is the perfect place for this business. "If you left Georgia grass uncut long enough, it's coming up in pine trees," laughs VP Todd Mullis. "The future's never been brighter for lumber."