Robert's column

Robert Barron column: Harmac a shining example of bravery and ingenuity

I’ve seen miracles and phoenixes rising from the ashes

The shut down of Paper Excellence’s long-standing pulp and paper mill in Powell River, putting more than 200 employees out of work, must be of concern for workers at the company’s pulp and paper mill in Crofton

Paper Excellence announced the “indefinite shutdown of operations” at the Powell River mill last week, citing the “ongoing contraction of global paper markets and paper prices”, particularly in Asia, as being the biggest reason for creating significant ongoing financial losses at the mill.

The forest company, which has another mill on the Island in Port Alberni, had curtailed operations at the Crofton mill for part of November citing market difficulties and is up and running again now, but the industry is fickle so who knows what the future may bring.

I’m no forestry genius, but, in my experience covering industry issues, it’s become clear to me over the years that the industry in B.C. is cyclical in nature and bad times almost inevitably turn to good times again eventually.

I’ve seen miracles and phoenixes rising from the ashes in the forest industry over the years, and one that stands out is the Harmac pulp and paper mill in Nanaimo.

In the spring of 2008, Harmac was shut down when its parent company Pope & Talbot went bankrupt, leaving 530 workers without a job.

Unwilling to walk away from a mill that had been profitable in the past, the mill’s employees banded together to take over Harmac themselves and began searching for private investors.

After a lengthy court process, Nanaimo Forest Products, which included Harmac workers, who each invested $25,000, and three private partners bought the mill for a paltry $13.2 million and, as far as I know, the mill has operated successfully ever since.

Despite a major downturn in the forest industry at the time, the worker-owner model at Harmac allowed the mill to shave production costs and keep the mill internationally competitive in lean times.

I remember when Arnold Bercov, the president of the Pulp, Paper and Workers of Canada, Local 8, that represented the workers at the mill at the time, first suggested to me that the workers were considering buying the mill and running it themselves, I thought they were crazy and I doubted the idea would go anywhere.

While I admired their enthusiasm and fearlessness for suggesting such an endeavour, it seemed to be an insane idea to me that a bunch of mill workers with little knowledge of the global marketplace could keep such a large operation that shipped its products all around the world going successfully.

But they marched forward undaunted and successfully found competent private partners with the capital and time to invest in the project.

Harmac reopened on Oct. 2, 2008, after a five month shutdown and I remember clearly the joy on the workers’ faces at the celebrations that were held in a field adjacent to the mill that day.

Pat Bell, who was minister of Forests, said Harmac and its resurrection will “serve as a model” for other forest companies in the province.

“If any business can succeed, it will be Harmac because its owners, workers and managers have learned to work together to overcome difficult challenges,” he said to the gathered crowd.

“It took tremendous courage for them to do what they did by putting their money, homes and families on the line. There’s no better workforce than those engaged in their own business and Harmac is a shining example of that.”

I don’t know if Harmac’s worker-led model would be a fit for the Powell River mill, or any other mill in the province facing closure, but it has certainly worked so far for Harmac’s workers.

A bit of ingenuity and a determined attitude can go a long way in hard times.

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