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New boss to fine tune White River, Hornepayne sawmills

Frank Dottori turns attention to cross-laminated timber project
White River Forest Products' sawmill.

Retirement isn’t a word that’s usually associated with Frank Dottori.

That’s why it was surprising when the forest industry legend announced in early January that he was stepping down as president and chief executive of WRC Timber, and that his successor was already on the job.

In his place was named Tony Wyszkowski, a 19-year veteran of Parker Hannifin, a Cleveland-headquartered industrial manufacturing firm and Fortune 250 global company that provides motion and control components and systems.

Jan.2 was his first day on the job. 

WRC is the parent company that runs sawmills in White River and Hornepayne.

"I’m retiring from the White River group,” said Dottori, who will serve in a chairman-type role, overseeing the northwestern Ontario operations from afar. “I’m going to tinker with a few other things.”

Age played a factor in his decision to step down, he said. He’ll be 80 shortly.

The White River mill had been operating without a manager, and Dottori was averaging 25 days a month running the day-to-day operations on the shop floor.

Flying into Sault Ste. Marie from his Temiscaming, Que. home and driving north on Highway 17, along the eastern shore of Lake Superior, to White River was gradually taking its toll. A collision with a moose last year totaled his car.

With 300 millworkers at the White River and Hornepayne mills depending on him, plus another 100 to 150 working as harvesters and truckers, Dottori said it was time for new blood and a new perspective.

“The place needs a full-time presence and we want to secure its future and ensure there’s continuity there. I don’t intend to stop working, no, I’d just like to pass the mantle to someone else to ensure what we’ve got keeps on going.”

Best known as the founder of Tembec, Dottori grew the forest products giant from one closed-up mill in Temiscaming to 55 operations in Canada, U.S., Europe and South America over a 33-year span before resigning as chief executive in 2005.

In building on his reputation as a company builder and innovator, Dottori worked with the Township of White River and Pic Mobert First Nation to revive a shutdown former Domtar mill into White River Forest Products in 2013.

In 2016, he acquired the bankrupt Haavaldsrud Timber Company, just to the north in Hornepayne, and its co-generation plant, rebranding it as Hornepayne Lumber GP and Hornepayne Power.

Dottori said it was always his intent to restart both mills and put them on solid footing before backing away to pursue other opportunities. He’ll still retain ownership as he assists Wyszkowski through a transition period.

“Let me put it this way, I have a strong financial interest in its success,” he chuckles.

Thus far, his ownership group has invested $35 million in new equipment and production line upgrades, mostly in the flagship White River operation, with plans afoot to expand production.

Dottori’s next project is the pursuit of a cross-laminated timber plant (CLT) for Ontario.

His group is collaborating with Element5, a Toronto and Montreal-based design, engineering and fabrication group specializing in mass timber buildings. The firm has a small CLT plant running in Ripon,Que.

The likely site will be in southern Ontario to be closer to customers and major markets. The aim is to be in operation by August 2020.

“This one would probably be the biggest industrial fabricator of CLT in North America," said Dottori.

With lumber prices crashing by 50 per cent in the second half of 2018 and his sawmills being hammered by U.S. softwood lumber duties – to the tune of $10 million since November 2017 – a value-added CLT facility is exactly the kind of downstream spinoff remedy needed for the two mills. 

“One of the reasons we’re looking at CLT is that it needs a superior-type product if want to meet the new standards. We have the mill (in White River) that can do that. With our new line, we can do specialty products.”

Dottori is also eyeballing development of new products using aspen, an underutilized species that makes up 30 per cent of the forest.

Despite the industry’s struggles, Dottori has no intention of curtailing production.

His ambition is to find efficiencies to make those two mills among the lowest cost operators in eastern Canada, while boosting production at White River from 130-million board feet annually to 170-million board feet, and at Hornepayne from 70 million to 100 million.

“We’ve got a great mill supply, got good dedicated people, and with Tony providing some leadership, if we can complete some capital investments, I think that mill has got some good long-term solid future,” said Dottori.

With Wyszkowski, he’s selecting a forest industry neophyte.

“Sawmilling is a materials handling and a manufacturing process,” explained Dottori.

“Our industry needs a little bit of creativity and a new way of doing things. It’s not a complicated manufacturing process, but it is becoming highly automated. He comes from an industry that is highly automated so he may bring some new and creative ideas as well.”

The South African-trained mechanical engineer, who immigrated to Canada in 1994, recently spent a four-year hitch with Parker Hannifin’s high-tech instrumentation division in Alabama, supplying the oil, gas and power sectors along the Gulf Coast.

“I’m excited. It’s a great opportunity,” said Wyszkowski, who’s recently relocated to White River from the GTA.

“It’s a sector that I don’t know anything about, but it all comes down to operating disciplines and people. I look forward to pulling as much information out of Frank’s head as possible. He’s just an industry giant.”

He relishes the opportunity to apply his expertise in Lean Manufacturing and his fundamental belief in employment empowerment to get the best out of the two operations.

“I think those skills are transferrable across any industry.”

He praised Dottori for being willing to look outside his own sector to bring in a fresh perspective.

“In a commodity market like this, you’ve just got to get your costs down. Some of the discipline and previous experience that I’ve had is applicable across this industry. It’s all about productivity and automation.

“Automate where you can and utilize the skill set at a higher support level in directing operations. The basic repetitive tasks, leave it up to automation and use your people to use their skills where you can’t automate.”

Wyszkowski hadn’t met Dottori until the interview process but came away impressed with his depth of knowledge and his staunch commitments to the community, his First Nation business partners, and the company's environmental policies.

At White River and Hornepayne, Wyszkowski is walking into a vibrant workplace culture already established by Dottori.

“Now it’s about making sure that we get everybody directing that passion in the same direction and pulling together so we can make things happen,” said Wyszkowski.