Columbia Vista Constantly Improving From The Inside Out By Wayne Miller
Columbia Vista, located on the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., has been around since 1952, but Bob and Sharon Lewis bought into the company in 1991.
Vancouver, Wash.– At Columbia Vista, productivity is a major component to making a customer happy, according to Bob Lewis, owner and president. He has worked to guarantee that his customers are happy with the services he provides by making sure his business runs efficiently from the inside-out.
A local Vancouver family started Columbia Vista on the banks of the Columbia River in 1952. Lewis and his wife, Sharon, bought into the company in 1991. The mill was originally purchased as a Japanese production mill, and today produces items shorter than 13 feet. The firm’s primary focus is to serve the domestic market with 8-foot, 10-foot and 12-foot, 4x4 and 4x6’s, in both green and kiln-dried Doug Fir.
“About 20 percent of our production still goes to Japan as a kiln-dried square for traditional Japanese houses,” Lewis said. “Another 20 percent of our production is a crossarm, used by utility companies.”
Between 1991 and 1997, Columbia Vista received almost 100 percent of their logs either by barge from Idaho, Montana and Alaska, or by rail from Utah and Colorado. Today, according to Lewis, the
The sales team at Columbia Vista includes Scott Olsen, sales manager, and Darren McKowan, sales and shipping supervisor.
company only purchases open market logs, which arrive by truck.
“A vast majority of our production comes from large industrial landowners,” Lewis said. “We actually merchandise the log in the log yard, then provide a particular sort to the mill so that we concentrate on the product that we want to produce that day. So the logs come in, they’re unloaded from the trucks, scaled by a third party scaling bureau, then our guys grade it based on the product that we think the logs will make.”
Lewis recently purchased 10 acres also in the Vancouver area and located 15 minutes from the sawmill. This location is equipped with six dry kilns, two Coe kilns retrofitted with 4-zone control systems, a Wellons kiln and three side-loaded Brunner-Hilderbrand kilns, which were installed last year.
“The 10 acre facility includes a 50,000-square-foot building where we have two moulders, chop saws, a lathe machine and a resaw for remanufacturing small pieces and small items,” Lewis said. “We also have a Stetson Ross A12 planer with up to a 20-foot capacity for running some of the remanufactured items and running all of our kiln-dried materials.”
Lewis added that the equipment at Columbia Vista is important to the quality of the lumber they are manufacturing. The company operates a Nicholson debarker for green items. The debarker is fully automated so that the only thing the operator has to do is put the log on an in-feed system; the computer controls everything else.
Columbia Vista also operates a new Salem shifting edger, which has slewing capabilities. During this process, the sawbox moves two degrees, one way or another, following the contour of the log. Back at the headrig, there is a 3-D scanning system
Jerri Hasz and Cindy Frasey are also part of the team at Columbia Vista.
with Lewis controls that reads the product for optimization. At the edger, the firm utilizes a linear scanning system.
Along with the headrig and edger, Columbia Vista is equipped with a 5-foot Salem vertical band mill for recovery purposes. Everything else exits the mill, precision end trimmed to whatever length the company is producing that day.
“It’s a single-length mill so we can only produce 10-foot through 13-foot lengths, or whatever the primary product length is on a particular day,” Lewis said.
Following this process, boards then travel to the company’s 25-bin sorting system, where the wood is either stacked to go into the dry kilns or is dry-stacked to go to the green planer.
“The things that are green get planed here through the Stetson Ross A12 planer,” Lewis said. “Then the wood goes through a 21-bin sorter behind the planer into a specially-built stacking system with multiple stick capabilities. The machine can
Dave Pietz, sawmill manager, operates the head rig as a relief operator.
stack unit-to-unit in different configurations.”
Because the company does so many custom-sized packages and custom packaging arrangements for its customers, the ability to stack products in a variety of ways is useful and efficient, according to Lewis.
From the sorter, the green lumber goes through an anti-stain treatment system where it is dumped in emulsion for over a minute, then hung from a drip chain and put under cover for more than 30 minutes so that the fungicide binds to the wood fiber.
On average, the mill has been producing four and a half million board feet per month since 1997. According to Lewis, a big part of the productivity is the fact that the mill only runs on one shift, which allows them to match up the lumber inventory with the lumber sales. This has also allowed for a reduction in maintenance costs as compared to running the machinery on multiple shifts.
Along with the up-to-date technology in the plants and the profitability of running only one shift, the happiness and productivity of the employees is very important to Columbia Vista, according to Lewis.
“We have a fairly young, but stable workforce,” he said. “The average age in the company is 39, with the average length of
Jason James operates the edger at Columbia Vista.
employment being a little over 11 years.”
Some of the key employees are: Scott Stormoen, the vice president; Dave Pietz who is the mill manager; Jose Vargas who works in shipping; Jerri Hasz who works in accounting; and Cindy Frazey who works in accounts receivable and payable.
Lewis and his wife, Sharon, said they have initiated several programs for the employees in an attempt to keep a low turnover rate, have happier employees and better production. One program the Lewis’ started is a forgiving home loan for employees with more than three years of service with the company.
Another program is what they call “Columbia Vista University.” All employees who hold primary jobs within the company are required to take classes that cover company mill and safety policies and practices.
“If they are an equipment operator, they have to learn how their equipment is built and how it operates,” Lewis said. “They
Scott Graves tags lumber ready for shipment.
even have to take a test to demonstrate their competency level. We offer them incentives to take those tests.”
In addition, all employees are required to take grading tests, even if they are not graders, to ensure each employee has a good knowledge of the different grades of the lumber they are working with. Lewis has also provided English classes on-site for non-English speaking employees to ensure the company runs as smoothly as possible.
At Columbia Vista, according to Lewis, productivity is increased when employees are happy in their jobs and when the machinery is kept clean and up-to-date. He tries to ensure this in every way possible so that the customers are always satisfied with the services Columbia Vista provides.