Ben Hokum & Son: to the 21st century and beyond

The closure of a mill traditionally makes Valley people very nervous. But the temporary closing of Ben Hokum & Son Limited’s small log mill in Killaloe this fall is something to get excited about … very excited, because its reopening brings a technological advance that places Hokums squarely at the forefront of the industry. The Current met on site with mill owner Dean Felhaber to learn more. Shown above, Felhaber explains how the mill will expand by an additional ten thousand square feet (photos July 2018).

As the biggest producer of pine in Ontario overall, Hokums already has a significant impact on our region. Although Hokums is considered a medium-sized producer in the province, Felhaber says the bigger mills concentrate on spruce lumber for home building. Hokums’ white pine is used more for decorative purposes such as paneling and furniture-making while the red pine goes into pressure treatment, flooring and posts for fences or decks. The Hokums philosophy is not to waste any part of the tree so their products include chips and sawdust.

Hokums sources logs within a radius of about 250km from Killaloe. Some come from Algonquin Park where Hokums is the biggest licence holder in Renfrew County. They also source from other parts of Ontario; for example, plantation red pine, and logs from the Minden area.

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It’s usually an eye-opener to people of what’s here in the back yard.

Dean Felhaber on visitors’ reactions of surprise. 

There are two sawmills on site. One is a big log (greater than 10 inches in  diameter) sawmill that was built in 1974 to replace an earlier mill built by Ben Jr. (Felhaber’s grandfather) and his father (also called Ben) in 1956. Ben Jr. built a small log mill in 1993 with conventional equipment similar to all the other mills in the Valley. But in 1997 in order to reduce the costs of processing the small logs, Ben Jr. (then in his70s) decided to replace that conventional equipment with 2D scanning and optimizing computers, as well as an automatic sorter. That technology installed back in 1998 helped Hokums to weather the difficult economic times that followed.

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2D scanners on the line to be upgraded to 3D. “This is where the money is,” says Felhaber. 

Hokums didn’t ignore the big log mill either and installed some upgrades. But for many years they did not upgrade their big log mill with scanning technology because achieving payback would have required a substantial increase in production.

Eventually Felhaber came up with the idea of upgrading the more modern equipment already in the small log mill to handle larger logs up to 18 inches in diameter. He decided to replace its 2D scanners with state-of-the-art 3D scanning equipment to achieve even faster processing speeds. As Felhaber says on the company’s website,

If there is one thing we have learned in 60 years, it is that standing still is not an option.

Felhaber bought the company from his grandparents, Ben Jr. and Lois, in April 2015. He proudly recounts how his grandfather approved of the plans for this expansion back in 2017.

Ben always wanted to install scanning things for a long time, seeing how you get more recovery out of every log that way and how there’d be a payback on it.… I told him last summer that we were going to put 3D scanning in and he thought that was pretty good.

His grandfather quizzed Felhaber on the details and the answers must have satisfied him because Ben Jr. approved,

Oh well, then you’ve thought of everything – that’s good.

Felhaber explains that 3D scanning technology will allow Hokums to reduce processing time, but, more importantly, to saw logs based on the dollar value that can be achieved from each log. He says,

It’s all about how much money you get per log – not just how much lumber comes out of it.

The Hokums expansion involves four phases over the next five years. This year’s project is to get the main line into the small log mill. The next milestone will be the grading facility with a high-tech sorter to vastly improve working conditions for the employees who now sort lumber manually in open sheds in all weather.

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Crew removes concrete to prepare for new mill installation.

The Current asked Felhaber how big the Hokums operation will be after expansion. He says they will produce just over 40 million board feet per year. That equates to about 20 percent more than they produce now.

Usually upgraded technology gets blamed for putting people out of work. Not so at Hokums. Felhaber says,

It will bring us into the 21st century and set us up for the next twenty years at least. We’ll be even more competitive. We want to be survivors, compete in the world and make sure that we provide employment for the area. Our family has a long history in Killaloe. We have a hundred and some employees right now but there are a lot of people working in the forests, trucking, contractors. We probably have three hundred families that are living directly off of [our business] plus other smaller spin-offs.

Automation generally lowers the work force and it will — temporarily. But because of the increased volume we’re going to add, by the time we’re done our four phases of expansion, our work force will actually increase by about five percent.

The company employs more than mill workers. Hokums services their own equipment. Their on-site North American Sawmills Machinery division is a parts and steel distributor not just for Hokums’ own needs but also for local trucking companies, harvesters, other sawmills and farmers. Last year Felhaber purchased Miller BMR hardware and building materials supplier in Eganville. The Current asked about labour sources. Felhaber says that Hokums works with Algonquin College on apprentice programs for millwrights and mechanics. He says he’d like to see something for in-demand trades needed in the area like welders and machinists as there are no nearby colleges offering them.

The Current asked about sources of raw timber for a bigger operation. Felhaber says,

Some of the sawmills in the region haven’t fully recovered from the downturn and are not using the same amount as they were before. Some have shut down. We have every confidence that the wood is available out there so we will create jobs that have been lost on the harvesting end.

The 3D scanning is phase one of an expansion that will put Hokums in a strong position. Felhaber, the fourth generation owner of Hokums (It skipped a generation, he says) shared some tales with The Current about his grandfather and greatgrandfather. Those stories illustrate that business success doesn’t just happen. It results from a lot of planning, expertise and just plain hard work. Part II of this article, Ben Hokum & Son – all roads lead to Killaloe, will provide some history of the Hokums business, how they expanded internationally to ride out stormy economic times, and the business ethos on which that growth is based.

Felhaber is proud of his family, his community and his business. He says when prospective customers ask him where he’s located,

I’ll say, “Do you not know all roads lead to Killaloe?”

Yes, all roads lead to Killaloe. A lot of things happened in Killaloe. We have a lot to be proud of in our little town. A lot of history, a lot of innovation. A lot of people left here … and went on to do great things out there, from Killaloe. We’ve got a lot to be proud of. Some [people] think we have a dying community but … Things have changed and [maybe] business struggles in the small towns because of the big box stores, but we’ve got a lot to be proud of.

4 Comments

  1. The impact of these types of projects run deeper than one might think on the surface. We had guests staying here at the Pinewood Inn for weeks that were doing work at the mill. I know they stayed elsewhere as well, bought groceries, ate at food establishments and put gas in their vehicles. It was a benefit to everyone in the community. These types of projects bring needed income to our area. We are certainly grateful.

  2. Wilmer Matthews

    Congratulations to Dean and the whole team at Hokums!! The manner in which you operate your business is most commendable. Our whole community benefits from your growth.
    I am very pleased to see the partnership you are developing with Algonquin College in an effort to develop & promote apprenticeship programs being offered locally. It will benefit our our youth, and provide local employment which will ‘keep them at home’–we all win !! BTW–in my ‘past life’, I found Canadore College always interested in offering programs by partnering with local High Schools so we can get kids into apprenticeships as soon as possible. Our local tradespeople were also very much open to taking on apprenticeship trainees . If you want to know more–give me a call.

  3. Michael Bozak

    My Grandfather (Ben Hokum Sr.) would be amazed of the Advance machinery, and proud of what Dean has achieved . It is exciting for me to be operating such state of the art equipment !

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