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Jobs of the Future: Nashville owners sing a new tune for Wawa mill

LP Building Solutions to re-tool former OSB plant, crank out siding in two years
LP Building Solutions, a Nashville, Tenn.-based building supply company, is promising as many as 150 mill jobs in the Wawa area.

A leading American siding manufacturer aims to bring some stability to a forest products mill outside Wawa.

Expansion-minded LP Building Solutions intends to convert the former Wawa OSB (oriented strand board) facility into a siding operation that will serve the North American home construction and renovation market.

The acquisition of the mill, located on Highway 101, 30 kilometres east of Wawa, was finalized in May in an insolvency sale with Montréal-based Forex.

Aaron Howald, LP’s vice-president of investor relations and business development, said the number of mill jobs created could be in the range of 150.

“We’re not sure of the head count,” he said, “but at least that many.”

Their team is in the initial stages of assessing the mill toward transitioning the plant to become a producer of its branded LP® SmartSide® Trim & Siding.

Howald couldn’t speak to the amount of capital investment dollars, pending completion of a detailed engineering study, but they'll disclose more in the coming months.

The Nashville-headquartered manufacturer is aiming for a third-quarter, 2025 startup, depending on North American customer demand. The company recently converted an OSB plant in Sagola, Mich., to siding manufacturing and they have excess capacity at the moment. 

But Howald said LP is “pedal to the metal” in maintaining a multi-year record of growing faster than the U.S. housing market, their main competition being producers of vinyl siding and fibre cement.

When operating, the company said Wawa will contribute 400,000 square feet of production capacity, boosting their total North American siding capacity to 2.7 billion square feet annually.

LP Building Solutions is no stranger to Canada, with two siding plants in B.C. and one each in Manitoba and Québec. All are converted OSB plants. 

“Canada has been a big part of our business for many, many years,” Howald said.

The company considers itself a pioneer in oriented strand board panels. Today, it maintains an extensive catalogue of upgraded and premium engineered building products for the home building, renovation and DIY segments.

OSB, on its own, can be a volatile market, he said.

“That’s not the case with siding. Those are definitely going to be stable, more quality, jobs (in Wawa) than they would be as an OSB plant “

The Wawa deal came together rather quickly. Forex and the Cossette family barely owned the mill for a year when they put it up for sale.

According to court documents, a combination of crashing OSB prices in 2022 and squabbling with shareholders put a strain on Forex’s cash flow. The dispute paralyzed management’s ability to make decisions on projects as the OSB and lumber markets began to tank in the second half of 2022.

The decision was made last October to put the entire company up for sale. It entered the CCAA (Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act) process in February. 

Forex's Amos, Que., mill went to Arbec Forest Products at the end of April. 

Howald called the Wawa facility a “perfect match” for their growth strategy, adding they were “thrilled” to be the successful bidder.

He said LP became aware of the asset in late 2022, early 2023. The sales process evolved quickly from an initial site visit to a closed transaction in a little under four months.

Serving as head of LP’s business development means fielding plenty of pitches from investment bankers about distressed assets.

But this one was different, he said.

LP makes engineered wood siding exclusively out of aspen.

“The fact the mill is located in a really great aspen wood basket is important for us,” Howald said.

Over the decades, through multiple owners and misadventures, the Wawa mill has always been a magnet for government subsidies.

Built in the mid-1990s, it operated as Jager Strandboard for two years before it was sold to MacMillan Bloedel, and then over to Weyerhaeuser. Wawa was included in a slate of Weyerhaeuser mill closures when wood products markets collapsed in the fall of 2007. The workforce of 148 was laid off.

Rentech, a provincially aided U.S. wood pellet company, tore out the OSB line and tried unsuccessfully to make pellet fuel for the British market. But the untested company ran into all kinds of operational issues at Wawa.

Forex surfaced last year, riding the wave of high post-pandemic OSB prices in the first half in 2022 before the commodity began to plummet by year's end. The company was in the process of converting the mill back to OSB, having spent $28 million thus far, when it was put on the block.

Howald said the mill is inoperable and isn’t capable of running OSB, which works out well since there’s not much demolition or reorganizing work to do.

“We can restart that mill as a siding mill in a more efficient CAPEX (capital expenditure) project than would be able to if it were a running OSB plant.”

LP sent a team up for a recent visit to take stock of the facility and came away pleased with its condition. 

“The mill looked great.”

Once operating, Wawa will serve the LP’s entire North American market. The siding is very durable and travels well, he said.
Wawa product will be shipped to prefinishing facilities in New York State, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Other wood species harvested from their Crown wood allocation will be sold or traded with other forest producers, commonplace in the industry, to get maximum utilization of the resource.

Whenever the job fair is held, Howald said they’ll have openings for a range of inside-the-mill positions at the entry level to more skilled engineering, IT support, human resources and finance, controls and leadership jobs, along with indirect jobs creating in logging and supply.

“A bit of everything.”

As for assembling a local workforce in a region that’s chronically short of skilled workers, Howald isn’t overly concerned, even with the pull of lucrative mining jobs nearby.

The Wawa-Dubreuilville area is in the middle of a gold mining revival with Alamos Gold expanding production with a very capital intensive project and Argonaut Gold putting the finishing touches on its Magino Mine construction project. Plus, there is numerous exploration field activity going on.

Howald said they often compete for workers in regions where mining and energy are huge employers.

“What it boils down to is, we want to be an employer of choice.

“I’ve been at LP for 12 years, I love the culture here, I don’t want to go anywhere else. And those are the kind of jobs we want to create in every community.” 

Working in the mining sector and the oil patch offer well-paying but difficult jobs in difficult conditions, Howald said, usually with a long commute.

“There are some real advantages to working indoors, closer to home in a little less volatile industry. We think we’ll be able to compete and find that labour and once we hire, typically, we have pretty low turnover in our mills because we try to keep people happy and productive.”