LACLEDE — In the small, unincorporated community of Laclede, with the scent of pine and cedar filling the air and looming stacks of logs watered by large sprinklers, it would be impossible not to notice the sawmill that is the heart of the area.
During the mill’s 40th anniversary celebration Friday, Idaho Forest Group Chairman Marc Brinkmeyer said the mill has had its share of ups and downs over the years, but the future looks "incredibly bright."
"It's the mill, the machinery and the technology and so forth, but what makes this place special is the people," Brinkmeyer said.
The people Brinkmeyer was referring to — the IFG family — came through one of the more difficult times in the sawmill's history in 2009. The mill was supposed to be down for six months due to the market conditions at the time, Brinkmeyer said, but it was down for 18 months. The team was sent to the Chilco site and returned to Laclede at 75 percent of production on the first shift, which Brinkmeyer said is unheard of after being down for that length of time.
"There's one thing in investing in machinery, and then there is understanding it and extolling its virtues and getting everything out of it you can — and that's what this group does here," Brinkmeyer said.
Brinkmeyer purchased the sawmill in 1981, though he has been with the mill through its duration. He worked for the original company that owned the site, Brand-S Corporation, as a financial director and was involved in the purchase of the land — a pasture at the time — that would become the sawmill site in 1976.
Riley Creek Lumber was formed after Brinkmeyer purchased the mill site. In 2008, Riley Creek Lumber merged with Bennett Forest Industries to form Idaho Forest Group and five mills now operate under IFG, including Laclede, Chilco, Moyie Springs, Lewiston and Grangeville.
The Laclede mill pulled through the recession and the market opened up for international export. Plant manager Mike Henley said one thing that makes the sawmill unique is, after the recession, they began running high-end, high-quality appearance-grade products.
“It was never designed to do that,” Henley said. “It was designed to be a high-speed framing construction mill. We can still do that today, and it does a little, but we’ve turned it into what we call a specialty mill.”
There is a lot of history surrounding the mill and many employees have been there long enough to know much of that history.
“I believe that once you get the sawmilling in your blood it is something that you are very passionate about and you love to do,” said Tommy Groff, currently a maintenance manager at the Chilco site, but who spent the majority of his 18-year career at the Laclede site.
He said a lot of people may not think of it in terms of a career, but Riley Creek and now IFG has “set the bar” on how to evolve, grow products and new customers, and creating a viable career opportunity.
“This is the type of company where if you work hard for them, the opportunities are always there to grow and be successful,” Groff said.
Steve Spletstoser, quality control supervisor, said his first day at the Laclede mill was through the labor service on Dec. 7, 1980, and the man many refer to as the local historian has seen a lot of changes over the years.
"There is, pretty much, not a piece of equipment on the site that's the same as when I started here," Spletstoser said. "Everything has been changed, modified, replaced."
For long-time employees like Spletstoser and Henley, one of the first things they remember looking back on the mill's history is walking through dirt and mud — but that is one of many changes the site has undergone over the years. Today, the site is paved and trees, grass and flowers can be found rather than dirt and mud.
"We want to be known for being a leader in the industry and that involves having a nice clean site," Henley said.
Spletstoser said 1996 through 1998 were "huge years" when the site was paved and many of the facilities and machinery were upgraded. There was about six months around 2000 that he referred to as a "six-month perpetual root canal" when crews were working long hours tearing down the old mill and installing new equipment. But, he said, the work they put in back then correlated with the mill getting back up and running smoothly in 2010 after the recession.
"What's the saying — what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" Spletstoser said. "Well that is absolutely, 100 percent true in sawmilling. You have ups and downs in markets ... boom and bust is the typical cycle of the lumber industry, and if you're not putting money back into your mill in the boom times, you may not survive through the next bust cycle."
Another difficult time for the mill was in 1985 when Brinkmeyer was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with Riley Creek a new company and taking a downturn in the market. But Spletstoser said the company pulled through in ‘87 after a lot of hard work. He said, all along, when it was Riley Creek and now IFG, the company has reinvested back into the facility, the plant, the timber and the people, which is one reason why IFG is a leader in the industry.
The biggest change in the sawmill industry, in Laclede as well as other sawmills, is technology. Henley, who has been with the mill for 28 years, said technology is constantly changing because as soon as something is updated and upgraded, it is time to update and upgrade again.
Brinkmeyer said when he purchased the Laclede mill there were 210 employees, about 50 more than there is today, but he said it was "very inefficient." To put it in perspective, he said the mill ran about 40 million board feet per year in 1981. In 2016 it has the capacity to produce 240 million board feet per year.
Henley said technology has increased efficiency without too much impact on jobs because with increased efficiency comes increased production. Increase in production means filling positions for quality control, maintenance, technology repair and more. The difference is less heavy manual labor and more technology-oriented jobs.
Although not available at the Laclede mill, Spletstoser said the “latest and greatest” technology is CT, or computed tomography, scanning. Just as it is used in the hospital to see inside of a body, a CT scan can be done on a log to look for defects on the inside of the log before the it goes through the sawmill.
While so much has changed over the years, one thing that remains constant is the people. Brinkmeyer was not the only one who spoke about the sawmill as being special and successful because of its team. Spletstoser said it is the family atmosphere that has kept him there over the years.
"There is a great group of people here and there really always has been," he said.
Groff recalled when his first days at the Laclede site on the green chain, pulling and stacking lumber. It was backed up and Groff said he was “sweating and working hard” when a man came by and helped him out for about 30 minutes until he was caught up. He later found out it was Todd Brinkmeyer, the general manager and Brinkmeyer’s son.
“It left the impression that, no matter what, we all work hard here,” Groff said. “No matter what position you are in everybody kicks in, and that same approach rings true today.”
Along with helping each other out, Groff said something else that is important to the company is the community involvement.
“This company gives so much to our community and our communities youth and I think that is really important,” Groff said.
Brinkmeyer said community involvement by the company is an effort to give back to the area, which has been good the IFG family. Community support by IFG includes sponsoring big events like the Festival at Sandpoint to little league baseball to the upcoming "Boobs 'N Beer" 5K fun run in Sandpoint. They also give out several scholarships each year and have a successful internship program.
"That stuff is precious," Brinkmeyer said. "We've not had an intern that hasn't had a life changing experience coming here and working with our people."
Brinkmeyer is looking forward to the future as the industry will continue to grow. In 2050 he said there is expected to be 10 to 11 billion people on the planet, so the only place to go is up. The mill has survived these 40 years and he is looking forward to many more.