Groupe Savoie was incorporated in the 1970s by Hector Savoie and his son Jean-Claude. The elder Savoie was heavily involved in New Brunswick’s hardwood industry, working as General Manager of the Southampton Lumber mill in Saint-Quentin. In 1978, Hector and his son decided to take the plunge and start their own business.
Hector resigned from his General Manager position as he and his son purchased a small softwood mill, Cèdre Restigouche. Hector’s departure actually led to his former employers getting out the business; they sold their hardwood mill to the Savoies.
Thirty-eight years later, Groupe Savoie has grown to become the region’s largest employer. Alain Bossé, President and COO, says the company now employs upwards of 650 people across multiple facilities. Opportunities NB (ONB) recently spoke with Mr. Bossé to learn more.
ONB: We understand it was a rocky beginning for the Savoies, can you tell us a bit about the early going?
Bossé: Indeed, the company hit a big roadblock in 1980 with a major fire damaging their hardwood sawmill. This cost the company immensely; it was a total loss. It wasn’t a great time financially to begin with as interest rates were quite high at that point. So Groupe Savoie’s story is one of perseverance, it was an uphill struggle right out of the gate. They shut their sawmill down for a year and restarted it with the capacity to saw hardwood, with an assist from the Province of New Brunswick.
They were selling plenty of green lumber (lumber that has not been dried or treated), but they didn’t like the idea of using a valuable New Brunswick resource for that purpose; they wanted to do more. The goal became focusing on value-added wood products. That was 1984, and it’s when the company’s story really began. Ever since then it’s been all about adding value to a great New Brunswick resource. We now offer a variety of value-added products like pallets, cabinet and furniture components as well as a host of products aimed at producing heat, pellets for example.
ONB: The company now has several locations throughout the region, isn’t that right?
Bossé: We have three sawmills in total, two being conventional hardwood sawmills. The third is special, we built it in 1988 in order to produce pallet wood out of pulp material; nobody was doing that at the time. Again it was all about maximizing local resources. Today I tell people that when we cut a tree we’re using 125 percent of it. What I mean by that is 100 percent of the sawed material plus 25 percent that we use as biomass; we use tops and limbs to produce our pellets. That’s a very important issue in this business and effectively using the whole tree is a big part of our success.
We’ve grown considerably from there, with expansions beginning in 1994. We built a new component factory that year, and acquired Pallets Plus in Moncton which is now home to both our pallet production and recycling plant. We’re the biggest pallet manufacturer in Eastern Canada now; I’d say we have the capacity to produce over 2 million pallets per year. 2005 saw the construction of our Kedgwick-based factory focusing on molded components. Finally, in 2010 we built the pellet plant and launched the Canawick line of ecological fuel products.
ONB: Renewable energy sources are definitely in demand. Where are your customers now, beyond Eastern Canada?
Bossé: I’d estimate that 15 to 20 percent of our sales now go south of the border. A lot of pallet wood and kitchen cabinet components go to the US now. The UK is becoming a much bigger market for us as well; there is a lot of demand for pellets over there. We have probably moved 40,000 tons of pellets this year, shipped in bulk from the Port of Belledune.
ONB: What’s your best advice for New Brunswick companies looking to see export success?
Bossé: First focus on the quality of your product and reliability of your delivery before you worry about export. I know that sounds a bit obvious, but I think it bears mentioning. It’s actually easy to say that and not always easy to accomplish.
One thing that has helped us reach a point where we’re exporting to Europe is constant improvement of our facilities, and keeping up with technological advancements. To be able to stay current you need to have a decent base sales volume. If you don’t have a good base volume it’s going to be hard to consistently invest in your facilities. We have invested several million dollars in those sawmills and plants in order to keep us competitive in those export markets.
The most important thing, however, is to have the right people — ambitious people that want to move the company forward and keep pushing.
ONB: Speaking of finding the right people, how do you go about recruitment?
Bossé: We work very closely with CCNB actually; we’ve collaborated on several courses with their team. It was difficult to find good electricians at one point, for example. With CCNB we put together a solid program aimed at training and recruiting good electricians. We ended up training 12 electricians initially, and those people are now working for us. It’s actually a great success story for us.
ONB: What role has ONB played with Groupe Savoie?
Bossé: We talked about the mill closing for a year in the early 80s; if the province had not believed in the Savoies there would likely be no facility today in Saint-Quentin. We have been very fortunate to have had strong support from the public sector. Your team has helped us over the years with a variety of programs that have allowed us to invest in our technology and facilities; the reality is that we are in a sector that requires a lot of capital so that is a big help.
The province is here to assist but you have to have an action plan. If all you want is money, with no real strategy for it, don’t count on the public sector. If you’re creative and have real plans for investment the province’s door will be open.
Learn more at GroupeSavoie.com.