Clair, New Brunswick’s Waska has been a major white cedar shingle manufacturer since 1969. In its fifty years, the family-operated business has grown to include aspen and cedar laths, cedar fencing boards, prefinished color shingles, and patterned shingles. In the process, their team has grown to nearly 100 employees.

“Waska utilizes 100 per cent of the tree, producing products and by-products from its operations that make us an environmentally-engaged company,” notes General Manager Pierre Michaud. “Our by-products are all-natural and organic and are used safely.”

ONB continues to work with innovative businesses like Waska as they focus on productivity. They have invested heavily in building the world’s first fully-automated cedar shingle manufacturing facility. The results? Lower production costs, reduced energy usage, enhanced efficiency, and a massive increase in employee safety, and more. It also landed them the Small Business Week Committee’s Business of the Year Award for 2020.

Pierre Michaud tells us more.

ONB: You celebrated 50 years in 2019. Why continue to call New Brunswick home?

Pierre Michaud - Waska New Brunswick Michaud: The original owners were from the small community of Clair. They pursued this venture to create jobs and retain our young people. Over the years, the number of jobs grew and now stands at 95.

The forestry sector has always had a strong presence in the area and the labour force knows this industry, which facilitates training at any given mill. Université de Moncton’s Forestry School and CCNB are both located less than 40 km away in Edmundston. Not only do students benefit from those schools, but the wood science teaching staff also represents a valued resource to the businesses involved in this sector. We also border Maine, which gives us easy access to the U.S. market where over 90 per cent of our production is shipped. Maine is also the major supplier of logs for our cedar milling operations.

Over the years, numerous partners were at the table to share the risks and burdens of research and development, training, building and equipment additions, and other asset acquisitions. After 50 years in business, the company continues to be owned by locals with the same concern to create jobs, wealth, and well-being for a small New Brunswick community.

What has your relationship been like with ONB?

ONB shares Waska’s passion and desire to evolve. We have partnered with ONB, as well as NRC and ACOA, on several successful initiatives. I think Waska is a textbook example of great things being achieved in our small communities and that’s not possible without those relationships.

In 2010-11, after completing a feasibility study on how to modernize the way we cut shingles a project that lasted eight months we decided to move ahead with R&D projects to validate the conception of new automated shingle sawing equipment and processes. That took five years of hard work, determination, and commitment. ONB, NRC, and ACOA all played a major role in supporting us.

The decision to go ahead with the construction of a new modern shingles operation employing 4.0 technologies was not an easy one. We could not support the financial burden alone and needed partners. People who knew our story expressed their desire to assist us in every way they could. ONB, ACOA, NRC’s Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, and Northern Hardwoods Research Institute (NHRI) were pleased to contribute financially or to provide strong recommendations to help us reach a final decision.

After a decade, and now days away from the start of production in our new facility, we continue to be resilient, focused, and happy to recognize the contributions of all parties involved.  

Tell us about automation and what it has meant for Waska’s overall productivity and team safety.

It’s brought huge benefits to our operations. The consistency in the resulting product’s quality, absence of lost production time, enormous improvements in risk management and employee accidents, and savings in training costs. That all more than compensates for the initial costs associated with our automation projects.

Prioritize your projects and focus on having the discipline to do them one at a time. Complete each prior to commencing the next to minimize disruption to operations and be able to measure progress and spending in accordance with an established budget.

Great tip! What other advice can you offer to other New Brunswick manufacturers looking at productivity improvements?

The best advice I ever received on improving productivity still applies today – “you need to know where you stand.’’ Map your process from start to finish, know your value stream, and measure where you have strong capacities and weaknesses in terms of fluidity, bottlenecks, and your workforce’s abilities. Confirm with your staff what you see and where you want to go. Note the improvements you would like to see and ask your employees how to get there. Improvement is synonymous with quality of life.

Involving your marketing team from the beginning is very important too; they know the competition and what consumers want to see. For those that have not invested in new technologies, it’s a big world and what you need is probably on the shelves somewhere.

It is very important to get the right partners involved from the beginning of a project. They always involve financial risk, so knowing programs that are available is very important and they will force you to measure the payback on your investment. Continued improvement must be a part of doing business.

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In the coming weeks, ONB will continue to tell the stories of companies already at work building that new New Brunswick we envision. Keep an eye on this space and on our social media channels: Twitter – Facebook – LinkedIn – YouTube