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Specialty wood product mill rises from ashes (9/02)

Nov. 17, 2000 will be a date forever seared in Steve Bougie’s memory. A devastating fire completely destroyed his sawmill operation, Cheminis Lumber Inc.

Nov. 17, 2000 will be a date forever seared in Steve Bougie’s memory.

A devastating fire completely destroyed his sawmill operation, Cheminis Lumber Inc., (pronounced Shem-i-nus), an independent producer of specialty spruce and fir forest products in Larder Lake.

The blaze started when one of the wheel motors shorted out overnight in the garage, which was attached to the mill. Wind fanned the flames, burning the garage and carrying the whole sawmill with it, resulting in about $2.5 million in damages.

“We came to work the next morning and everything was gone,” says Bougie, the company president, who acquired the mill in 1995 with his business partner, Rick Nychuk, the vice-president.

“There was fire shooting out both ends by the time we got here.”

The stand-alone office and planing mill were spared, but aside from a few beams, not much else from the metal-clad main sawmill building was salvageable.

The maker of dimensional and dressed lumber had carved out a niche market for itself as a cut-to-order mill catering to the mining industry in northeastern Quebec in its earliest days. The company then began catering to the industrial and homebuilding market in southern Ontario, where the bulk of their product is now shipped.

However, the setback was only temporary.

Over the Christmas holidays, the 22-employees began dismantling the ruins and started pouring cement in January to begin reconstruction. By April, they were sawing again, and back in full production by June, using portable mills over the winter to keep customers supplied.

“It was an incredible task really,” says Bougie.

The thought of cashing in on the insurance money and walking away never entered his mind.

“We could have easily done that, but we were committed to our people, our customers and the local community.

“The offer was on the table from the insurance company and we didn’t accept it

“That was the whole idea behind going ahead a lot of our customers depend on our products down south and much of what we make you can’t get anywhere else and they’re very loyal to us.”

Currently rebuilt with $3 million in capital upgrades and reconditioned equipment, Cheminis is back in business with two sawlines again, is now up to 28 employees and is on pace this year to post its best year ever with 11 million board feet in annual output, compared to 4.5 million in 1995.

At a time when softwood lumber producers across Ontario are taking a terrific beating from U.S. softwood tariffs, Cheminis is holding its own.

“We’re doing extremely well, we’ve had a really good summer,” says Bougie, who attributes their success to loyal customers such as Weyerhaeuser, Hanford Lumber in Rexdale and Leonard Ellen Canada Ltd. of Montreal, combined with a good-quality product and a vibrant southern Ontario economy.

“Our customers will pay that extra dollar to get our product,” including some of their more popular items like six-by-six and six-by-eight sawn timber of jack pine up to lengths of 18 feet to 24 feet used in the pole barn industry down south.

“Our orders change on a daily or hourly basis depending on whatever the customer demands.

“If someone is building a log home in southern Ontario and wants those beams sawn to exact specific dimensions and lengths, we do it. There’s really not many of us still left doing this kind of work.”