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A sustainable resource

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Chester's largest employer defies bad economy

By Travis Jenkins

Trees are a renewable resource, but Chester Wood Products doesn't treat them that way. Nothing, from the bark to wood chips, is ever wasted at the facility, which is Chester County's largest industrial employer.
Typically, trucks are lined up at the facility at 6 a.m. every day. In a day, 100 or so trucks loaded with wood will roll into the facility, each carrying about 50 tons of wood.
"They'll be steady all day," said Larry Stewart, a contractor and public relations specialist with Chester Wood Products.
A Taylor (a heavy machine that has what looks like large pinchers on the front of it) removes the wood from the trucks and stacks it up. Stewart notes that size is important where the logs are concerned. They can't be less than eight inches in diameter on the small side. They can't be rotted or have too many knots in them either.
Eventually, the logs are de-barked and sent to a steam vat. The bark isn't swept up or sent to a landfill, instead it is used to fuel the fire that makes the steam.
"We waste nothing," Stewart said.
The steam vat softens the wood up. When the trees reach a temperature of 180 degrees, they are taken out. They eventually make their way onto a conveyer belt. The process of turning the de-barked, steamed logs into plywood is very technical. The logs are cut into eight foot lengths by giant saws. A series of laser beams hit the wood once it makes its way inside the facility. In an area above the wood and the conveyer belts, those laser beams project an image of the log onto a screen. It shows bad spots and gives an idea of the density of the wood.
"This helps us operate more efficiently," Stewart said.
The logs are about to be subjected to some very large blades. The blades have to be sharpened to very detailed specifications.
"We have to be within thousandths of an inch," said Joe Copeland, who works at the facility.
The logs spin and are, essentially, shaved into a thin veneer. There are some bad spots and some uneven places. Cameras constantly watch the flow of the wood veneer to seek out those imperfections, which are then removed. None of that wood is wasted either, as Stewart said, it and some of the other wood that doesn't meet specifications are purchased by pallet manufacturers. Even the ash from the burned bark finds a home. Brick companies and landscapers end up buying that. There are wood chips left over as part of the process too.
"Paper mills buy that," Stewart said.
Not every bit of the log ends up being whittled down into the thin veneer. The cores are saved.
"We ship 120 trucks of cores out of here a week," said James Watts, another Chester Wood Products employee.
As you walk around the inside and outside of the facility, you see people busily going about their duties. The only area on the property not busy is the sawmill. Stewart said the company used to make two-by-fours. It got a bit cost prohibitive, though. One of the things that has kept the place financially viable, Stewart said, is closing the sawmill and selling the cores to companies that make fence posts and broom handles.
The veneers then roll into the drying department.
"This is where the wood is dried," Copeland said. "If this place is a kitchen, then this is the oven."
Stewart mentions that two women working in the drying department have been at Chester Wood Products for more than 15 years. That's a common refrain of Stewart's throughout the day.
"That guy in the black shirt has been here for 10 years," Stewart said. "That guy, has been here for 20 years."
The longevity of the employees is such that it is a bit of a running joke. Stewart noted with a laugh that one employee "has been here at least 50 years." The facility didn't open until the early '80s and the person he referred to probably wasn't 50 years old either.
Jill Coleman, who works in human resources, said the reason employees tend to stick around is actually pretty simple.
"We have a large group that have been here 10 years plus," Coleman said. "We tend to offer more attractive salary and benefits than other companies in the area."
Some of the people working in the plant are transplants from other parts of the country, but the majority are from Chester. Stewart said that point is especially important to him.
"These are local jobs for local people," Stewart said.
Coleman said there are about 350 hourly employees and 50 salaried at the plant. Stewart said the number of people whose employment depends, at least in part, on Chester Wood Products is about 1,500. That ranges from people in the timber industry to truck drivers. A lot of those jobs are at least semi-local. Most of the wood comes from Chester and surrounding counties. Stewart was sure to note at the early morning truck line that St. John's Trucking, of Chester, was bringing in a load of wood.
Some of the veneers are sold as is. Others have a cross-band affixed. Glue is applied and the wood goes into a press, with the end result being plywood. The plywood is certified (by a person not in the employ of Chester Wood Products) and tested. After a few other steps, it ends up in stores for sale to the public. The plant produces one million feet of plywood every day.
With so many moving parts, a huge premium is put on safety. Rodney Thomas is the safety manager of the plant. Every new hire spends five hours of their first day on the job with Thomas to make sure they are apprised of safety rules. Thomas said there is a system in place where "rookies" wear a certain color hat, while managers and long-timers wear different colored hats. That makes it plain who is new, and those with more experience always take the time to show the new hires the ropes and make sure they understand the hazards. The approach works, with recordable incidents dropping by 44 percent last year. That earned Chester Wood Products the Atlas Holding (the plant's parent company) Safety Award.
The office is just as busy as the plant. In addition to Coleman, there is Rich Stipanovic, the controller. He detailed that while many plants are closing, cutting back and going through layoffs, Chester Wood Products is actually in the process of updating and replacing much of its equipment.
"You have to maintain the equipment in this business," he said.
But how has the plant managed to remain productive and profitable while so many other industries have struggled. Richard Baldwin, general manager of the plant, said there are a lot of variables that have gone into making the plant a success story.
"It's no accident that we haven't made layoffs. We're determined to keep this operation going," Baldwin said.
As Stewart mentioned, since the plant was purchased from Weyerhauser in 2005, steps have been taken to reduce cost and increase profitability, but there are other factors. Baldwin said the continuity of employees certainly helps; he even noted that there are now some second generation employees.
Baldwin said the plant is ideally located. The plant is an overnight trip away from 60 percent of the U.S. population, is seven miles from the interstate and located near good rail lines. Additionally, being in the Southeast gives it a ready supply of lumber.
"You can drive from here to Newberry and about all you see is trees," Baldwin said.
It stays that way because of the climate. The typical turnaround on growing trees in this area is about 27-35 years.
"There is a lot of perception that when you cut down a tree it's gone," said Baldwin. He noted that trees cut down for use in the plant when it first opened have been replenished. That wouldn't be the case everywhere. Baldwin said "out West" it can take 80 to 100 years to re-grow trees once they're cut.
Although a lot of technology goes into turning trees into plywood, the industry as a whole isn't looked at as being high-tech. It's high tech industries that many areas still try to recruit. Baldwin said those types of businesses are often obsolete within 10 or so years because they can't adapt to rapidly changing technology. Chester Wood Products has updated its facilities and made some changes, but it's essentially doing the same thing it's been doing. Baldwin said long-term, sustainable jobs and economic development is truly found in places like Chester Wood Products.
"It's a major underpinning of this economy," Baldwin said.
Trees are a sustainable resource and so is Chester Wood Products.