CATALDO — Neither rain nor snow nor a rotten economy — heck, not even a disastrous fire — could keep a good lumber business down.
The saga of Whiteman Lumber Co., stretching back four generations and countless changes in the industry, marches forward as a success story in the North Idaho business world with few peers.
Never mind that the timber industry, once a stalwart with mining atop Idaho’s economic hierarchy, has fallen on hard times that have engraved RIP on the headstones of many of its businesses and suppliers.
Even after fire razed the mill on Jan. 5, 2009, the facility is up, running and grinding out fine wood products that look and smell an awful lot like money.
Owner Brad Corkill explained that mills producing wood products as commodities have to increase production almost daily to stay viable.
“The production level doesn’t change here; it’s the same every day,” he said during an NIBJ tour of the operation in late February. “Where we make our living is finding some new corner in the marketplace. And we’ve been pretty good at it.”
Corkill, 60, was walking past two highly efficient dehumidifying kilns as he said that. In those kilns were a couple truckloads of prime Douglas-fir timbers — some eventually headed for a new home in Kansas, and some for Gibbs Lumber in Hayden — enjoying some eight days of heat and humidity while Whiteman’s 12 full-time employees labored in 25-degree temperatures.
And nobody was complaining.
“This is more than a job — it’s a family,” said Terry Groth, the mill foreman and a fourth-generation Whiteman employee who started when Corkill bought the operation in 1988. “Everybody gets along because we have to. We’ve got to have low-key personalities and everyone has to want to work hard, and they do. I probably enjoy this crew more than any I’ve had here.”
Corkill takes good care of his mill family. New employees start at $12 an hour and can move into the $20 an hour range. But Corkill is particularly proud of Whiteman’s benefits. The company pays the entire health insurance premiums for its employees and offers a 401k program that fully vests employees on their first day of work, with 6 percent matching contributions from the company.
In retrospect, the blaze that leveled the mill proved to be a Phoenix. Rather than mourn his loss and do something else for a living, Corkill brought in modern new equipment and built a 16,000 square-foot roof over the operation.
“I can’t believe we made a living in that place,” he said of the pre-fire mill, which was down for about six and half months before rising anew. “Since it burned down and we built this one, this has got another three generations in it.”
Whiteman is thriving, Corkill says, by filling important niches in high demand.
One of those is the mining industry — like timber, one that slumped badly but has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. A major Whiteman project now keeping two craftsmen fully occupied for two months is filling an order from Con-Sil Mine for 120 three-compartment shaft sets. But just a few yards away, the mill’s diversity is on display as a rare circle saw — frowned upon because the width of its cut is not considered efficient — rips through huge blocks of Douglas fir.
Corkill keeps the circle saw busy because customers love the rough, rustic look it gives. And despite its reputation for inefficiency, Corkill points out that the prolific sawdust pouring down from the cuts is never wasted. Some of it goes to a company that burns it to generate electricity, and some goes to a plant that uses it to make products like the one you’re holding in your hands right now.
“Everything gets used,” Corkill said.
Groth says he’s bullish on the business because of Corkill’s ingenuity and rugged persistence.
“I’m very optimistic,” Groth said. “We’ve been through it all, seen it all. When the mines weren’t there, he’d find another niche.”
The way he fills those niches is another secret to Corkill’s success.
“Here’s the difference in my mill: Every log that comes to the head rig is there for a specific product, a specific order,” Corkill said. “I’ve already sold everything before I make it. Other mills you make something and then you try to sell it.”
Quality of craftsmanship also counts.
“In most sawmills the machinery does all the work,” he said. “It’s all automated. By comparison, the production per person per hour here is small. But everybody in this operations is essential because we make so many different products.”
Corkill, a logging foreman and land buyer for Potlatch and then manager of a stud mill in St. Maries before buying Whiteman in 1988, says he still isn’t sure why he made that leap almost a quarter century ago and moved his family from St. Maries to Rose Lake.
“If my life had been about money I never would’ve bought this place,” he said. “But it’s worked out well. I could do this for another 20 years.”
Groth, who lives a couple miles down the road and also plans to stick around for a long, long time, feels the same way.
“If I left here,” he said, “it would be like leaving a piece of my home.”
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