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Laminated lumber firm on track

Plant to open in June in Conway, have across-state reach by Andrew Moreau | May 9, 2021 at 2:19 a.m.
Structurlam Operations Manager Hayes Anthony walks through the company's Conway facility Monday May 3, 2021, where they will make the laminated timber for the new Walmart World Campus in Bentonville. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Structurlam Mass Timber Corp. will carve an economic development road map across Arkansas, stretching from the pine forests of the south through a remodeled manufacturing plant in Central Arkansas before bending north to Bentonville, where Walmart will use the manufacturer's laminated-lumber products to build a new corporate headquarters.

That journey included an unplanned traffic delay about 7,000 miles away in the Suez Canal and another slowdown, also thousands of miles away, in Europe as a German supplier was dealing with Brexit-related issues.

Nevertheless, the manufacturing company is on schedule to open one of the world's largest laminated wood production facilities in Conway on June 1. The 288,000-square-foot facility, with newly installed fully computerized production equipment, should be the world's most efficient producer of mass-timber products, according to Structurlam Chief Executive Officer Hardy Wentzel.

The plant will have 130 workers dedicated to producing laminated beams, timbers and panels for Walmart for the first two years of operation.

"Those products come together to make a mass-timber building, and those are the materials that Walmart will be using just up the road in Bentonville to build their new headquarters," Wentzel said.

Structurlam will buy raw timber from sawmills and other producers across the state and finish the product for use by Walmart.

"This is really a complete Arkansas story that encompasses so many parts of our state and touches a wide swath of our economy," Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said in describing the plant's operations.

"You start with the timber industry in south Arkansas where they source their materials and then ship that up to Conway for manufacturing and further processing," he said. "Those materials then are used for the foundation of the new corporate home of Walmart, our retail giant. You get south Arkansas, Central Arkansas and north Arkansas all tied together in one project."

The Conway facility will be the largest mass-timber producer in North America and joins the manufacturing plant that Structurlam has been operating in British Columbia for about 60 years.

The Canadian plant can produce one, 200,000-square-foot office building every month. The Conway facility will have capacity to produce two of those buildings every month.

"Our Conway facility is going to be the biggest and most efficient facility we have," he said. "I believe we will have the most modern, state-of-the-art mass timber plant in the world – everything in the plant will be brand new."

The reliance on modernized equipment led to some unforeseen delays in getting machinery from European manufacturers to the Conway plant.

The supersized cargo freighter that jammed up the Suez Canal for nearly a week in March held up delivery of some machinery, while other pieces were delayed as a German equipment producer had to work around Brexit-related issues to import bearings from the United Kingdom.

"It wasn't always easy but we made it through," Wentzel said. "Our team has done a remarkable job of managing through all those things and staying on schedule to get us up and running in Conway."

General Manager Randy Grace will lead the plant and is returning to Conway after leaving the state in 2011. He is heading up hiring efforts, which are producing lower-than-expected results. After a recent two-day job fair, Structurlam was hoping to hire 80 workers -- it found 20.

"The results were not what we were hoping for," Grace added. "We're not hiring as many as we would like up to this point."

Structurlam plans another on-site job fair May 15, with support from state and local officials. Wages range from $14-$26 per hour, depending on the skill level and job requirements, and the company has openings for skilled craftsmen with woodworking and framing experience, as well as familiarity with basic computer programming to run machines.

Finding and hiring qualified workers is not unique to the manufacturing plant -- businesses across all sectors report difficulty hiring workers. Creighton University's study of the Midwest region economy, which includes Arkansas, reported last week that more than one in five, or 22%, of supply managers named finding and hiring qualified workers as their greatest challenge this year.

Grace remains optimistic that the plant will be on target to have about 130 workers by late summer. "The goal is to have 80 employees by the June 1 start date and escalate from there," Grace added. "We'll have a ramp-up plan and incrementally increase the workforce as we begin operations."

The company enters a market filled with an abundant supply of Southern yellow and various pine that the Conway facility will rely on for raw material. The state's forests are overgrown and need thinning out, according to Matthew Pelkki, one of the leading forestry experts in Arkansas.

It also adds another ingredient to one of the state's most important economic sectors, said Pelkki, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and George H. Clippert endowed chair in the forestry department.

The timber and forestry sector contributes 5% of the gross domestic product in Arkansas -- third in the nation behind only Maine and Wisconsin. Other states in the South -- Georgia and Alabama, for example -- have larger forest-products industries, but their overall contribution to the state GDP is not as large.

More than 29,000 Arkansans are employed in forestry-related jobs and earn an average pay of about $56,000 annually. "Many of those jobs are in rural areas, though not entirely," Pelkki said, adding that urban counties such as Pulaski and Washington counties also have a significant number of timber workers.

"The forest-products industry exists in a considerable fashion in about 50 of Arkansas' 75 counties," he said.

There will be no shortage of available timber supply for Structurlam. Arkansas over the past 40 years has grown from 600 million tons of standing trees to 1.2 billion tons today. Forested areas in the same time period have increased by only about 6%, according to Pelkki.

Forests are getting denser, which creates fire, insect and disease threats. "The forest products industry and companies like Structurlam play an important role in keeping our forests safe and healthy," Pelkki said.

Arkansas' fertile forestry sector, combined with the Walmart connection, was a main factor in expanding to Conway, Wentzel said. "Arkansas is an ideal location for us," he said. "The wood basket in the state is as good as it gets."

Even more, Structurlam also could contribute to Arkansas' economic growth by sparking commercial and industrial development projects that rely on laminated lumber products rather than steel or concrete as primary construction materials, according to Pelkki.

"Structurlam really has the potential to revolutionize the construction industry," he said, noting that the U.S. recently enhanced building codes to allow for wood structures of up to 18-stories high. Previously that was limited to six stories.

"You get the advantage of building structures out of renewable materials that are growing all across Arkansas," Pelkki said. "The buildings help the environment by sequestering carbon, they are rated to last 100 years, and they will make a significant contribution to slowing global climate change."

To stir interest and attract new customers, Structurlam is adding sales teams in key metropolitan across the region: Atlanta, Dallas and Austin in Texas, and several on the West Coast. The company also is building relationships with architectural and design firms to promote mass-timber commercial projects.

"We've built a pretty dynamic sales team, and we'll add more as we look to expand our products beyond the initial work we'll be doing for Walmart," Wentzel said.

Interest is picking up in office space, mixed-use developments and multifamily construction, according to Wentzel. "We're seeking quite a mix of interest and uptake in our sales funnel," he said.

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