All slideshow colour photos by T. Hynd. Black and white photos courtesy of KLC.
Cover photo: Ken Kalesnikoff, president and CEO of Kalesnikoff Lumber Co. in Thrums, BC at Kootenay Innovative Wood Ltd.
Photo below:Koozma Kalesnikoff (left)and crew in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of KLC.
It’s all in the family at the Kalesnikoff Lumber Co. (KLC) mill in Thrums, BC. The company is celebrating 75 years in business and owner Ken Kalesnikoff recently spent a little time reflecting back on where it started to how far it has come.
It began as an idea by Ken’s great uncle Koozma Kalesnikoff and his crew falling trees with handsaws and hauling logs out by horse.
From a family of Russian immigrants who arrived in Canada in 1911, Koozma wanted to change the hardships of the Great Depression. In 1939 he applied for timber rights up China Creek, 10 miles south of Castlegar. Koozma and his two brothers spent eight months using axes, horses and cross-cut saws to punch in their first logging road, a distance of two miles. By 1940 a sawmill was built.
As the family grew, so did the business. In 1971 the current mill site in Thrums was constructed. It now directly employs 150 people. Estimates indicate that another 150 people are indirectly employed and the economic spinoffs are exponential.
The various mills in the interior are pretty much the last of the independent, family-owned mills.
Ken’s philosophy is getting the “right log to the right mill”.
He said we all depend on these forests. In 2008/9 they and other mills in the forest industry saw a decrease in lumber sales which Ken described as a “really bad run”. Many companies lost a lot of money. Ken kept the people at his mill as a priority, explaining that his mill doesn’t have shareholders like larger companies.
“The people working for us are our biggest asset,” he said. On April 7 Ken and his staff held a barbecue to celebrate the 75 year milestone. With three barbecues going they could hardly keep up. Ken chose April 7 as it was his dad’s, Pete Jr., birthday. (He passed away in 2006.)They will fire up the barbecues again for their family day in Glade on July 5.
Seventy-five years in business has seen three generations at the helm. As they lead into the fourth generation, youth is apparent. The average age of Kalesnikoff employees is only 31 years old.
Ken remembers his first days working at the mill began when he was just six, alongside his dad for fun on Saturdays. “My dad pointed to a pile of sawdust and told me to clean it up. At the end of the day, he gave me $5; from then on, I was hooked.”
As a 13-year-old teenager he spent every weekend working at the mill and upon graduation he worked there full time. Ken joked that his lack of post secondary education may have limited his vocabulary but he was serious about wanting his two children to have a post secondary education.
His daughter Krystle Seed has a Certified Management Accountant degree and is the company’s Chief Financial Officer. Ken’s son Chris went to college for a business diploma and is the operations manager.
In conversation with Ken and sales and marketing manger Griffin Augustin, they explain that one facet to their continued success is being a smaller company which has allowed them to adjust and adapt their products more quickly to changes in the market demand as compared to larger “spaghetti factory mills.”
The second factor is their products are value added, meaning they don’t sell raw logs. Ken said he doesn’t understand raw log exports at all and sees it as a waste.
KLC creates finished or near finished specialty building products like decking, siding, flooring and trim. Thirty five per cent of their market is a siding popular in Eastern Canada that they produce at their linear plant, Kootenay Innovative Wood Ltd. (KIW). Another specially is taruki, a 2×2 length of fir, planed on two sides, used for traditional house building in Japan. It is milled at KLC, then cut, graded and strapped in packages of six (as requested for their Japanese clients) at KIW. Currently 53 per cent of their wood sales are from Japan.
Their products are available for local sales too. One trip to the newly renovated Adventure Hotel (formerly known as The Grand) in downtown Nelson will show you the trim, flooring and finished wood products from KIW.
The Kalesnikoff family continues to plan for the future of the business and two years ago invested $18 million to retrofit the mill. “We’re in it for the long haul,” said Ken.
There’s less waste than ever at the revamped mill with laser precision cutting which manages to get four different sizes of boards from one individual log as it scans the log curvature for maximum use.
The sawdust goes to Avista Utilities in the United States for combustible power generation and the wood chips go to Zellstoff Celgar pulp mill in Castlegar.
The wood harvested from the West Kootenay is known as Kootenay mix but the star of the show is the Interior Douglas fir. Ken said the growing conditions of the wet belt mean the fir tree knots are smaller, “more like the size of golf balls rather than grapefruit sized” like you’d find on the coast.
Among the various products they make are large structural beams. Kalesnikoff logged and milled the lumber (Interior Douglas fir) that became the iconic ‘wood wave’ roof in the Richmond Olympic Speed Skating oval for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Looking up on the hillsides of Mt. Drummond in the Rover Creek drainage and to the face of Glade Mountain it’s hard to see any signs of the cable logging and the single tree select logging they did in 2002. Ken said that is because he continues to live and work by the company motto “Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you.”
“I truly believe that,” he said. “It’s my life.”
— This story appeared in the West Kootenay Advertiser.