May 2013

Lumber industry bounces back in Weldon

Don Bright is excited to watch the lumber industry come back to life.

Based on economic trends, he believes the demand for products from his company will outpace the ability to produce. That is why the company expanded.

Bright is president of Meherrin River Forest Products, lauded last month by Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker for the company's effort to operate a mill in Halifax County. A release from the governor indicated Meherrin would create 40 jobs and invest more than $1.8 million over the next three years at the old Coastal Lumber location.

Bright said opening the Weldon mill is a great fit with the Alberta, Va.- based operation. He credited Cathy Scott, the Halifax County Economic Development Commission and the North Carolina Department of Commerce with selling the greater Roanoke Valley's economic possibilities. Meherrin was also looking at sites in Virginia and South Carolina.

Bright said this area has high quality white oak. "One of our top products," he said. "This is a good region for Cypress, too. Another thing is the ports of Norfolk (Va.) and Wilmington. It's the perfect scenario for exporting this lumber."

Bright, a graduate of Virginia Tech, started out with Morgan Lumber Company as sawmill manager. He was promoted to vice president within a few years, then headed the design and construction of a Continuous Dry kiln — the first of its kind in Virginia and one of only four in the world.

He spent a lot of time in the mill. He believes in a hands-on approach. He left Morgan Lumber to start Meherrin River Forest Products in Alberta, Va., in 2011 with Union Level Land and Timber, and C.A. Wright Logging.

Meherrin tailors products to its customers' specific needs, producing more than 10 million board feet of lumber each year. The majority of its products are hardwoods. Bright said it has been two years since there were any logs on the Weldon yard, but in the next two weeks he plans to be sawing logs. By the end of the year, he should have 30 employees.

The facility will not be drying lumber initially, but will begin that process "in the not too distant future." Bright said the company will also provide wood for Enviva wood pellets in Gaston.

Having heard a lot about the workforce in the area, Bright was concerned about finding quality people to work the yard, but it turns out it was an unfounded worry. "We have been overrun with people wanting jobs, who are willing to work," he said. "They've done a lot for my soul."

Because of shutdowns in other lumber companies, there is an overwhelming number of well-seasoned workers applying. Add to that Halifax Community College is training workers, and Bright believes there will be no problem finding quality employees.

"When the dust settles, HCC will assist in cultivating the next generation of Meherrin River employees," he said. "This area provides a talented workforce, especially for the wood industry."

Bright said this is an ideal time for those interested in the field to get involved. They can get hands-on training by some of the best in the field and have growth opportunities as that group of employees ages out to retirement.

Bright is looking for people who can drive forklifts and operate heavy machinery, general and skilled laborers, like saw filers, and maintenance workers. He also needs office workers to answer the phones and handle information.

"It lends itself to people who like to see something accomplished at the end of the day," Bright said. "They like to make something happen. We're looking for the guy who's not satisfied at sitting at a desk all-day long. We generate a world class product from a natural renewable resource. I take pride in this industry. We're not pumping oil out of the ground. Our products are sought after around the world."

He said the company is making major renovations to the facility that will include expanding the "Green Chain" building so workers will be fully covered under the building. "Traditionally when it rained hard, they got wet," he said. "We just don't work like that with our business."

Bright said typically, employees work a 50-hour week. "It's single shift, traditionally," he said. "It's just the way we like to work it. A 50-hour week is fairly comfortable."

Applications are available at the Employment Security Commission at Becker Village Mall in Roanoke Rapids.

"There's going to be a lot of wood rolling through this facility," Bright said, adding he expects the company will produce 27.5 million feet of hardwood lumber each year.

Last modified on November 2013