A Cut Above With Simon Potvin

Simon Potvin

Simon Potvin is president of wood processing with BID Group, an SFPA associate member which focuses on operational lifecycle excellence, transformational wood processing technologies, and integrated solutions for the lumber industry. As president of the wood processing division, he leads the delivery of close to 99% of the equipment sawmills need, such as kilns, in addition to all services, including aftermarket support.

I understand you’ve been around the industry for a little bit. Share with us what you do, and how BID Group supports the industry.

I started right out of mechanical engineering school with Comact in 1990, and I went through all sorts of different positions, starting as an equipment designer and project manager, then running some operations and sales.

We started to venture into the South by 2000 working with High Tech Engineering (we owned that company for a period of time, and that was our first real contact with Southern culture and Southern Pine). In 2013 BID Group, which was basically a construction company, bought Comact and joined the two companies to create a large corporation to sell turnkey facilities all over North America. The strategy at the time was to install ourselves in the South.

We started a facility in South Carolina in September 2013, and then turned to working on planer mills. We’re probably up to 15 turnkey mills now and there are a few in the pipeline we’re working on the manufacturing, building, or commissioning.

And this is an exciting year for Comact, right?

We’re celebrating our 100-year anniversary this year! That company started in 1924 in Quebec by Joe Cote, an entrepreneur who was putting manufacturing taps in maple trees to get the sap out. We did some work for dairy farmers, then slowly got into the wood products business. And here we are 100 years later, a leader in the sawmill equipment manufacturing business. We still carry the C, O, and T in our overall brand name COmacT – for Cote.

What is it about the culture, the product, and Southern Pine industry you enjoy the most?

Compared to other businesses, we can turn things around quickly. We don’t have a very complex or intricate engineering background like pulp and paper, where it can be tough to change without hurting a bunch of other different operations. I really appreciate that we can challenge the processes and be creative.

These private owners – it could be first, second, or even third generation – they have their own little recipe of how they work. You get to work with them, understand their needs and what they believe in, and you work to merge your thinking with their thinking and come up with something that makes them feel good, makes them feel the next generation will still be there and you’re going to be part of a good story, not a bad one.

You mentioned change can be a little bit slow just because of what we do, but I bet you still come across surprises.

Good question. I’ve seen a lot! I would say how tough it is, particularly in the South with the competition, to keep their people. The first 10 years of my career in Quebec were basically spent working in sawmills, and when you go back to these mills 20 years later, a bunch of the people who were there when you did a project are still there. It’s small communities, and people stay there for a long time.

From what I see, it’s been very difficult, at least in some areas in the South, to maintain that group of people who will make mills successful for the long term. And it’s probably one of the main reasons we’ve had to develop training tools to support remotely, so we can quickly come in and help them get back to production, help them fix something without putting someone on a plane or sending a truck and losing a day or two before they go back to production.

It’s also a cyclical business. If you’re highly technical and the business gets low for a period of time and there’s no investment and there’s nothing new coming in the mill, it’s tough to keep employees excited, and they just go somewhere they can get excited and be exposed to new technologies.

Weve talked about the technology, the improvements, and the constant advancements in how sawmills are operating, but what are you most excited about in 2024?

This year is certainly a transition year. We came out of a couple of years that were absolutely crazy. Every equipment manufacturer probably had a two- to three-year backlog for a period of time, but this has gone away slowly. We’re really in a year where it’s more about smaller, high-return investments.

What’s really exciting, and while we hear and read about it but don’t always understand how important it is in our industry, is all the artificial intelligence. I almost wish I was born 30 years later so I could be a young engineer exposed to AI and the IoT (Internet of Things) in all these connected mills. I come from a time where you would track time and take notes on a pad for hours. Today, we can track all that live, and we can go down to the minute.

With AI, with all that data, you can easily understand what small changes will do to the outcome of the mill, and you can be way more predictive. It’s both on the preventive maintenance on bringing the uptime higher in the mills and controlling the flow better and then making sure you get the product you want to sell to your customers.

You’re super excited about where this is going, and I love all the talk about AI and automation because that is revolutionizing an industry a lot of people may think is just cutting wood with a sawblade and shipping it to the local home supply store, right? So where do you see the Southern Pine lumber industry in 10 years (because anything more would be crazy to try to predict)?

I think there’s going to be some more consolidation. We’ve built a lot of new facilities, and there’s probably a few more that will come online, so people are going to have to work at consolidating some operations, maybe shutting down a few facilities and putting a bigger one somewhere. In tougher markets, people will realize to compete you have to get to that level of automation and performance.

If some of my team listens to or reads this, they will laugh, but when I talk about technology, I compare the iPad to the computer. You can give an iPad to your granddad or whoever’s in their 80s, and after 15 minutes they’ll figure it out. You give them a computer, and it may take weeks, or they may never be able to figure it out.

You don’t need to understand everything that’s in there. You just need to trust it’s going to work and it’s going to do the right things for you every day. So, we’re trying to build our mills so that they become closer to an iPad or something that’s easy to use.

As for wood, I certainly don’t see the lumber going away. Trees are still growing pretty well in the South, and I think people will use wood more and more. CLT is driving more of that. The use of wood is certainly being seen as green more and more, and I love that. I’ve been promoting that with my kids.

The Southern Forest Products Association’s A Cut Above series highlights and introduces to the Southern Pine lumber community and the greater world the amazing people who are part of our community and help keep Southern Pine among the premiere wood species domestically and internationally!