At 71 his irrepressible passion for his industry is undiminished. Photo: Ray Hudson

by Ray Hudson

At 71 his irrepressible passion for his industry is undiminished. Photo: Ray Hudson
At 71 his irrepressible passion for his industry is undiminished. Photo: Ray Hudson

Tom Sundher, grew up in the lumber business, following a path established by his father and grandfather. He was there when lumber was king and both Vancouver Island and the Mainland of BC enjoyed the prosperity that came out of BC’s forests. Now he’s breaking ground again, but this time as a pioneer in helping to grow BC’s lumber business in India. He spoke with Asian Journal’s Ray Hudson.
It’s in my DNA for sure. My grandfather came from India in 1907 and worked in the Vancouver mills, pulling and piling lumber. It was a good living. In 1924, my father followed to work in the mills of Vancouver. After he married my mother in 1936, they settled in Port Alberni working for the Manning Sawmill in Sproat Lake where we lived in company housing.
I was born in Vancouver General Hospital in 1941 but grew up in Sproat Lake and Port Alberni during the fifties, graduating from Alberni District High School in 1959. It was a great time to be there.
The Alberni Valley in the fifties was booming. A newspaper article said the city had the highest per capita earnings for people working in the mills and the woods. It was just industry from one end of the city to the other. I never thought it could come to an end.
After school, and my dad got me a job at Tahsis Company in Port Alberni, driving carriers and fork lifts to get enough money to go to UBC. But after two years I switched over to BCIT (which had just opened), got my diploma in Business Administration and went back to forestry.
In 1968 Tahsis Company hired me as an Assistant Coordinator, in Tahsis. I advanced steadily over 5 years, working the planer mill, then the sawmill as Assistant Mill Foreman.
I joined Raven Lumber in Campbell River where I learned sales and shipping. While there, I met the owner of Pallan Timber who invited me to help him build and run a sawmill at nearby Menzies Bay. That’s how I became the General Manager of Trout Creek Sawmills. It was a dream come true for me.
After five years, I moved back to Tahsis as the Superintendent of the Hemlock mill, and on my fortieth birthday, the General Manager appointed me manager of the sawmill. I think I walked out of that boardroom not touching the ground.
After five years, I decided that it was time to establish my own business, so in 1986, I started my re-manufacturing business in Nanaimo.
I knew from my own experience running a big mill, about 30% of the wood cut doesn’t meet the specifications for the main orders, and for the big mills to re-manufacture it themselves would require too much money and management, so it creates a ready market for other businesses to manage the re-manufacture that material into other products.
Most of my early markets were mill work plants that made windows, doors, spindles, flooring, stair parts and so on, for local home builders. It was a strong domestic business, and it employed a lot of people.
In 2008 US housing starts collapsed. Most of the forestry giants like MacMillan Bloedel, Crown Zellerbach and Domans, couldn’t carry on and were ultimately amalgamated into the current Western Forest Products, the only major forest company left standing.
At that time 15 to 16 mills shut down so I couldn’t get any product Re-manufacturers shut down, specialty sawmills shut down, and the job loss was staggering. In 1980 the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) had about forty-seven thousand workers in the industry, which dropped to seven or eight thousand. It still hasn’t fully recovered.
I kept going, buying logs to have them re-manufactured for the US market, but I began looking overseas for new markets. We opened Asia by offering different product than traditionally used, and by introducing BC Timber into countries which had been using other indigenous product.
So with perseverance and going the extra mile, I attended many lumber exposition overseas, and it’s starting to pay off. The US continues to be our number one market, but China is number two bumping Japan to third. Now we’re seeing strong potential for trade with India. We see strong market potential in a country that only needs to be educated about how to use our products.
In the early years I was out there by myself, trying to raise the profile of Canadian products and innovations. Interest in what we’re doing is now growing, and the provincial and federal governments are now fully engaged in expanding our markets in India.
I feel the effort is now paying off and I’m optimistic that the future will be bright for those who will adapt to the changing world industry. I’m concerned that Canadians are not hungry enough though, to go after the business opportunities. When I go to India, I see the airplanes, the hotels, the trade shows full of Europeans, Japanese and Chinese that want that business, it’s time for Canadians to step up as well.
Tom Sundher continues to exhibit the passion and enthusiasm for the industry that has made his business successful. Sundher and his Sundher Group of Companies, which includes Coast Clear Wood Corporation, have been recognized with a 1st Place for Primary Products and Resources in 2011 and 1st Place fir Exporter of the Year in the Manufactured Products category at the 2005 British Columbian Export Awards, and in 2007, he was named Business Person of the Year by the Surrey Board of Trade.