Wood supply, labour key to success in northwest, says CEO of New Resolute Forest Products
Success of wood-products business 'good for our footprint in northwestern Ontario': Remi Lalonde
The new president and chief executive officer of Resolute Forest Products has a strong connection to Thunder Bay and northwestern Ontario.
Remi Lalonde was the general manager at the company's Thunder Bay pulp and paper mill for 2½ years in the mid-2010s.
He said the operations in northwestern Ontario are integral to Resolute, noting the company understands its social and economic impacts on Atikokan, Ignace, Thunder Bay and surrounding areas.
"What we've seen in the last several quarters here is a significant improvement in performance for our wood products business, and that's good for our footprint in northwestern Ontario," Lalonde said.
"[It's] good for the economy, good for Resolute and good for the people there."
Lalonde said while the lumber market is strong, the demand for paper is soft, with the company shutting down two paper mills in Quebec.
As for its operations in Thunder Bay, Lalonde said the mill has some advantages.
"I know those assets very, very well. I would tell you that the operating assets in Thunder Bay are very good assets, they're competitive, but what's important in northwestern Ontario is whole infrastructure."
'New York of paper'
Lalonde said he was told Thunder Bay once considered itself the "New York of paper," based on its extensive pulp and paper operations. Demand has shifted, he said, making lumber more attractive and profitable.
"As we say, we harvest to make 2x4s, and the byproduct is pulp and paper. The additional component to keep in mind in northwestern Ontario is the role of the co-generation operation at the pulp and paper mill, because that goes to support the competitiveness of the asset and uses a waste byproduct to generate power.
"When you look at it, when you work your way through the fibre chain, the reality is that logs are round and you make dimensional lumber, and when you cut off the edges, that's where the wood chips come from. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and in our case, it's the integrated infrastructure, where every piece is meant to work together."
Shortage of labour
The industry isn't without its challenges, he said, noting wood supply and securing "reasonable" access to fibre are issues across all of Resolute's jurisdictions, including northwestern Ontario.
But there is another major concern, which has nothing to do with trees.
"There's a shortage for qualified labour. I used to say when I was general manager there that the most important gaps in employment that I had were millwrights and electricians.
"There are excellent jobs for trades available and operators as well," he said, noting the pandemic has also made operating large factories a challenge.
Lalonde said working for 2½ years in Thunder Bay taught him a lot about the company he is now running.
He said he started as a "corporate type," working as a lawyer, and then getting into business and finance.
"The depth of appreciation that it brought me for the role that every single member of the Resolute team plays in our success, from the folks running the machines to the guys and girls turning the wrenches, to corporate people, everybody plays a role," he said.
"I still keep my general manager's safety hat here, even as CEO, to remind myself ... where the root of this business really comes from."