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Chantiers Chibougamau: A leading family wood processing business

Learn how Chantiers Chibougamau became a major employer in the Nord-du-Québec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean regions.

By Fonds de solidarité FTQ

Lucien Filion founded Chantiers Chibougamau in 1961. At the time, he had five employees who were busy turning black spruce into lumber for the mines in Nord-du-Québec. Today, the company's president can rely on his children, grandchildren, and more than 1,000 experienced workers to supply its products and share its expertise throughout North America.

A partner of the Fonds since 2011, the company has been able to grow as well as create, maintain, and safeguard hundreds of jobs in several regions of Québec thanks to the commitment of hundreds of thousands of investors. Check out our interview with Frédéric Verreault, Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Chantiers Chibougamau Ltd., which has experienced significant and inspiring growth in recent years.

About Chantiers Chibougamau

  • Industry: Forestry and wood processing
  • Products: Lumber and engineered wood
  • Date established: 1961
  • Company partner of the Fonds since: 2011
  • Total number of employees: Over 1,000
  • Subsidiaries: Nordic Structures, Foresterie Nordic, Nordic Kraft, Scierie Landrienne
  • Operation sites: Nord-du-Québec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Montréal

Diversifying to grow

Although the company got its start supplying mass timber to mines in the Nord-du-Québec region, it quickly expanded into the residential construction market. "At first, we took a more artisanal approach, but with industrial ambitions," recalls Verreault.

Chantiers Chibougamau then began producing and distributing lumber mainly for the construction of new houses, turning black spruce into planks, studs, and jointed studs. To give you a better idea, 55 percent of the company's production is in 2x4s!

In its first years of operation, however, the plant was razed by multiple fires, forcing the company to rebuild from scratch. "It forged the resilience that is still very much a part of our company today," says Verreault. "We developed the ability to accept adversity, get back up again, and focus on solutions. We had to rebuild the factory, which allowed us to begin mechanizing and industrializing our processes."

The Filion family continued to grow the company and diversify its operations. In the mid-1990s, they entered the engineered wood sector. At the turn of the century, Chantiers Chibougamau created the Nordic brand—Nordic Structures—to work directly with the construction industry while providing state-of-the-art technical services. Since then, its engineered wood has been used in large-scale construction projects, from bridges and schools to theatres and sports complexes. Examples include the SAQ at Montréal's Jean-Talon Market, the Lévis river terminal, the Mistissini bridge and the Gilles-Vigneault theatre in Saint-Jérôme, which have won multiple awards and mentions for their structure and design.

"In 2005, we took it to the next level. Our large wooden beams began being used in construction projects, and in 2011, we introduced a new product category with our solid wood panels. That's also when the Fonds came in."

Building a relationship of trust

"We got a loan at the time, which gave us a chance to get to know each other," recalls Verreault. "The Fonds gave us a small loan to get started, and we could see that our two organizations, our two cultures, were highly compatible." The first project the Fonds contributed to helped the company diversify its operations, allowing it to take on the risk of developing a new product and purchasing another plant that was added to its Chibougamau complex. It also meant the company could employ more local residents.

A few years later, the Fonds became a shareholder in Chantiers Chibougamau so that the group could consolidate its operations and assets.

"The Fonds has earned our trust. It respects our more independent management style, even going so far as to partner with us. That's how we got a second and third investment, which allowed us to go from 600 employees in 2011 to over 1,000 today."

In 2015, the company acquired Scierie Landrienne, another independent sawmill. Today, Chantiers Chibougamau processes 8 percent of Québec's public softwood forests.

Number of jobs at its 4 operation sites

  • +600 in Chibougamau in Nord-du-Québec
  • +225 in Lebel-sur-Quévillon in Nord-du-Québec
  • +200 in Landrienne in Abitibi-Témiscamingue
  • +60 in Montréal

Chantiers Chibougamau has also built a relationship of trust with the community. As of 2020, it estimates that, through contracts and subcontracts, its operations in Nord-du-Québec directly inject $40 million annually into the region's economy. That amount is estimated at $30 million in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region and more than $25 million in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region. And that's not counting the payroll.

"In Chibougamau, one out of every four people in the labour force works for the company. We are the largest employer in the Nord-du-Québec region. We rely on local talent," says Verreault.

All of the company's employees have true respect for their environment and for the forest. In Chibougamau, the company coexists with three local Cree communities within its immediate perimeter. According to Frédéric Verreault, friendship and respect occur naturally. "Those of our teams that manage the forests also visit those same forests on weekends for recreation and tourism. If they want to enjoy them, they might as well do their work right!"

The importance of the company's presence in the Nord-du-Québec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean regions isn't just economic—it's also social. This was quickly made clear with the arrival of COVID-19. "With the role we play in the communities where we operate—small communities with small health care infrastructure—we have a huge responsibility to ensure that our operations do not cause any contamination. It mobilized us," says Verreault. The company made its supply of personal protective equipment available to health care workers, while still ensuring the safety of its employees and production sites.

The Fonds and the forest industry in Québec

Our forests are a vital asset in Québec. The same is true for black spruce, which is the most sought-after structural timber in the construction industry due to its superior mechanical and environmental properties. A symbol of the boreal forest, this coniferous species is able to withstand some of the harshest climates anywhere and is found only in North America.

Thanks to its strategic geographic location, Québec is a true hub on international markets for the forest product industry. With our expertise in corporate financing, our in-depth knowledge of business environments, and our financial resources, we provide financial support to companies that, for example, want to merge, are looking to make an acquisition or transfer, or want to implement a development plan or growth-generating projects. Our goal is to help create, safeguard, and maintain local jobs—all the more so in an industry as strategic for the province as forest products.

Be bold

While some groups had expressed interest in a possible revival of the Lebel-sur-Quévillon kraft pulp mill, they all ended up backing away. According to Frédéric Verreault, virtually no one believed in the potential for a successful recovery. An estimated $350 million was required to revive the plant, which had been closed since 2005. Yet Chantiers Chibougamau believed in it, and so did the Fonds. Through the Fonds Valorisation Bois, $25 million was invested in the project in 2019.

For a family-owned Nord-du-Québec business like us, it was a hefty sum," says Verreault. "When we embarked on this, many were skeptical of our ability to pull it off. The fact that the Fonds's senior executives are on our side, that they believe in the project, and that they're a partner in this adventure has changed people's view of this bold idea—and of us. The Fonds's involvement gave the project credibility in the market."

By adding the Nordic Kraft pulp mill to its group, Chantiers Chibougamau has definitely taken a big step forward. Expanding its expertise in a brand-new sector will make it even stronger in the face of future challenges, in addition to increasing its revenue, size, and integrated solutions. It also brings back more than 225 jobs for workers in the region.

Eco-friendly and sustainable development practices

Chantiers Chibougamau uses cutting-edge wood processing technologies to recycle the resources of Québec's boreal forests. Its products are recognized and accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®).

The company operates with respect for ecosystems, biodiversity, and communities. It promotes gender equality at its facilities, which is something of a challenge for a forestry manufacturing company.

"The product we're making is an excellent response to climate change," adds Verreault. "Our clients are deeply engaged and have integrity. They want to use our products because they help consumers and businesses achieve their sustainability goals."

When the company cuts wood, it recovers the chips to make packaging, toilet paper, and fabrics. It's a great way to maximize resources.

There's no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has had repercussions on the forest industry and on this Nord-du-Québec company, but Frédéric Verreault remains confident: "We're facing a lot of unknowns, but we have a certain amount of confidence thanks to the resilience of our company, the diversity of our products, and the diversity of the clients that we serve as well."

Chantiers Chibougamau has built a solid and complementary network that it strives to optimize and consolidate every day. But dreaming big and aiming to expand are also part of its DNA! And the Fonds has been able to provide support all these years as a partner, thanks to its savers.

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