Freres Lumber Sets Example for Adapting in Forest Products Industry
When Freres Lumber Company was founded in the Santiam Canyon in 1922, the timber industry drove Oregon’s economy. Sitting in the middle of one of the richest supplies of timber in the United States, Freres was well-positioned for success. The company took advantage of that opportunity and became ingrained in the economic and civic success of the surrounding community.
Though still surrounded by lush forests, Freres Lumber faces a more challenging operating environment today. Over the past two decades, the company has adapted to new economic, environmental and political realities to remain competitive. Freres’ path to success provides an example of how to adapt as an industry evolves. Their path is worth studying this week as we observe National Forest Products Week.
For most of its history, Freres focused on high-quality veneer and veneer-based products, which can be used in both structural and visual-grade plywood and other products as well as engineered applications such as I-joists and laminated veneer lumber. Since 1998, when the company purchased a plywood plant, it has offered a more diverse product mix. Expansion into plywood also reduced the company’s dependence on outside customers for veneer products and allowed it to earn a higher return from wood fiber.
Last year, Freres took another important step when it developed the revolutionary Mass Plywood Panel (MPP) and constructed a $35 million facility to manufacture these panels. MPP, a new material option for mass timber builders, is a patent-pending, veneer-based engineered wood product designed from the ground up by the Freres family.
Strategic Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR), the leading economic development entity for the mid-Willamette Valley, cited the development of MPP as one of the reasons for naming Freres Lumber as this year’s Manufacturer of the Year.
“Our MPP product is an environmentally superior product to concrete and steel and respects our local Douglas Fir forests by using wood fiber wisely,” said Kyle Freres, vice president of operations. “We intend to show that it is the construction product of the future.”
Freres also invested $25 million in a cogeneration plant, which opened in 2007. The plant converts waste-wood products and residuals, which have no other value, into electricity. “Out of every log we transport to our facilities, there is not one piece that is not used in some form, shape, or fashion for a usable product,” Kyle Freres said. The plant generates enough electricity to provide power to about 5,000 homes, which is equivalent to about 75 percent of Freres facilities use in a year.
Freres employs 480 workers and has gross annual revenues of about $150 million, numbers that stand out in the small community of Lyons where it is located. The Freres Foundation is active in the Santiam Canyon and surrounding communities, supporting Family Building Blocks, the Boys and Girls Aid Society, other charitable organizations and local schools and churches.
The forest products industry has been through repeated cycles of change in the past 30 years. The ability of companies like Freres to adapt provides confidence that his important Oregon industry will continue to evolve and remain and important contributor to the state’s economy and the communities, many of them rural, in which it operates.