The ability to adapt to ever-changing market conditions and sometimes unforeseen factors is a necessity for any forestry operation.
The Paulcan and Jemico Enterprises Ltd. family operation, located in the Chemainus Industrial Park on Smiley Road, was first started as a small planer mill in 1985 but has stood the test of time and remains on the cutting edge of the business. It’s due in large part to industrious hands-on owner Paul Beltgens, who commands a great deal of respect in the industry for his innovation and vision.
“The forest industry is very unique,” said Beltgens, 65, whose son Mike also has a stake in the ownership. “It’s ever-evolving. If you’re not apt to change you won’t be here.”
He’s been through an abundance of ups and downs in his long career that’s now spanned 50 years, including 36 at the current location, but has always found a way to survive and thrive. Beltgens was born and raised in Ladysmith, currently lives just outside Chemainus and has been in the Cowichan district all his life.
Over the years, he’s not only created a stable work environment for himself and countless others locally, he’s branched out to build mills all across the world in places like Russia, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and Bolivia, been involved in numerous demolitions, bought and sold a lot of used equipment and so much more.
He originally started at Schon Timber in Ladysmith on mill clean-up. After graduating from BCIT, he was invited as a supervisor at MacMillan Bloedel Chemainus sawmill after he supervised at the No. 3 and 4 wood room at Harmac for a time and then went on his own in 1982 doing a variety of tasks from whole log chipping and shake blocks to bridge demolition and underwater logging. Also during that time he started a cedar mill with Guy Henry at Shawnigan Lake, involving 33 laid-off employees from the Chemainus sawmill when it was shut down.
Beltgens said he started all over again after the cedar market crashed in 1984.
“I never had a remanufacturing plant behind me to finish my product from the sawmill,” he said.
So Beltgens went about building a reman plant on the current Paulcan site with North Cowichan, renting an acre a month in the days when Rex Hollett was mayor.
Eventually, he purchased the original four acres in 1987 that later expanded to eight plus the 16 acres on the Jemico site, an old hog fuel dump site, that he bought in 1993.
Today, the modern Jemico sawmill is one of the largest producers of hardwood lumber from alder and maple not only in B.C., but all of Canada. Alder and maple are well-known globally as the best raw materials for furniture manufacturing.
Jemico and Paulcan manufacture wood products and provide services for customers around the world, including other sawmills, furniture manufacturers and buyers from the mill work, flooring and other industries.
Cottonwood is shipped to Los Angeles extensively for use in the furniture business. Most of the maple goes to Vietnam and then on to the Japanese market.
“Everything is kiln dried in our hardwoods,” Beltgens noted. “Softwoods are both green and dry.”
Jemico custom cuts to any required size, and has seven dry kilns for drying any product.
Logs come from the Island as far north as Campbell River, some by booms but most of it arriving by trucks.
That leads to one of Beltgens’ greatest principles. He is totally against any raw log exports from B.C., preferring to see the manufacturing done here to maintain jobs.
“Being someone that is against log export can be challenging sometimes,” he said. “I buy all my logs on the open market.
“People ask me to export logs, but it’s never ever going to happen.”
Beltgens cites the inability of labour, management and government and regulatory officials as the reason the ongoing issues haven’t gone away. “Sit down and figure it out,” he advised.
The Paulcan Enterprises planer mill specializes in high quality kiln-dried lumber and green timber, again with seven large volume dry kilns.
Paulcan provides quality, customized mill work of Douglas fir, hemlock and Western red cedar to global markets.
Many might consider the current high price of lumber as being a boom time for mills, but that’s not necessarily the case and Beltgens doesn’t put much stock in it.
“I’m quite concerned about it,” he said. “It’s unsustainable. It’s pushing a price of a house out of reach. It’s out of reach now.”
One aspect of Beltgens’ ingenuity that’s proven beneficial for him is the old adage about one man’s junk being another man’s treasure. He has never hesitated to utilize second hand materials.
“I also bring in other people’s lumber waste and process it,” he conceded. “One hundred per cent of everything we bring in is used.”
Beltgens’ sawmill and planer mill have long provided stable employment and been incredibly important to the local economy. There are currently about 30 employees in the sawmill and 14 in the planer mill on one shift, but there’s actually enough work for more.
“It would help if I could find any trained people for the planer mill,” Beltgens noted. “I could run a second shift.”
He appreciates all of his valued employees for helping the company realize such high standards in the marketplace.
“I’ve got a lot of long-term employees here,” Beltgens indicated. “You surround yourself with good people. If you didn’t have good people, you wouldn’t be in business.”
And good people are happy to work for him. “I have a great respect for him, a real pioneer so far as I’m concerned,” noted Chris Hardy, a 35-year Western Forest Products employee who opted to start working as a saw filer for Beltgens last year.
Hugh Henry of Chemainus looks after shipping and receiving and has worked for Beltgens since 1993.
“I think it tends to be a little unorthodox being a smaller company,” he said. “He’s (Paul) always had to be a little more flexible.”
Henry also knew Beltgens from previous ventures and appreciates his foresight.
“He’s always on the lookout for something else,” Henry said. “If you set up to do one thing, all of a sudden the ground gets pulled out from under you and you’ve got nothing left.”
Beltgens has never let that happen. Some things don’t work out but there’s always another avenue to pursue.
Henry noted it’s a great place to work with dedicated employees under Beltgens’ direction.
“Basically, Paul’s got a pretty good sense of humour. If all else is failing, you can get a good laugh.”
At this stage of his life, Beltgens said he’d like to cut back but retirement certainly isn’t imminent.
The industry will continue to shift while he’s working and long after he’s retired.
“There’ll always be a forest industry in B.C.,” he stressed. “What it’s going to look like, I honestly don’t know.”