Tolko has a rich and storied history, one that begins with a determined, hard-working family who immigrated to Canada in the 1890’s and thrived despite many challenges. Critical to the family’s success were their firmly-held values that eventually became a foundation for the company: Safety, Respect, Progressiveness, Integrity, Open Communication, and Profit.
We spoke with Al, John, and Brad Thorlakson to capture their thoughts and perspectives on the history and evolution of Tolko over the past 65 years and the future of the company.
CC: What does celebrating Tolko’s 65th anniversary mean to you?
AL: It proves that the family values that have been applied to manage the company have been successful. These values, along with the individual principles of hard work and “be sure to have some fun” have contributed to the longevity of the company.
JOHN: It gives a great deal of satisfaction that what was started from absolutely nothing has managed to survive and grow.
BRAD: I think it’s an amazing accomplishment and our employees have played a crucial role in Tolko’s success. Back in the early days, we were the underdogs; we couldn’t afford the best equipment, and yet here we are 65 years later. We’ve grown into a strong and thriving organization, but we haven’t forgotten where we came from. I grew up around Lavington Planer Mill and have seen many ups and downs in the industry, so it’s extremely rewarding to see this company flourish into an international business within my lifetime.
CC: How did your family influence your decision to join the business, and how did you start out in the company?
AL: During school holidays, I started horse logging with my father and older brothers when I was 14 years old then worked at Lavington Planer when I turned 16. From this work experience I know I wanted to stay in BC and work in the forest sector. After I graduated from UBC with a degree in Engineering, I worked at Weldwood of Canada, in Quesnel, BC from 1964-67. I returned to LPM in 1967 as a truck and forklift driver. I was also motivated by the desire to give my children the best possible education.
JOHN: My decision to join the business was driven by a desire to get back to BC and the Okanagan, away from the big cities. Our mother, Jemma, was a nurse, and a successful professional in her own right. While us kids were growing up, she often worked the graveyard shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Mom would be there when we got up in the morning and see us kids off to school. Her income allowed Dad to work on his fledgling business, which he started at the age of 46. It was very much a family team effort! During university, I worked summers at SM Simpson Sawmill in Kelowna. After I earned my Bachelor of Applied Science in Engineering from UBC, I followed this up with a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from McGill University. After graduation, I spent five years in Calgary working in the oil and gas sector and later moved back to Vernon. In 1970, I started at LPM helping with lumber sales and supervised the construction of Tolko’s very first dry kiln.
BRAD: Right from the beginning of my career, I had the opportunity to work alongside family members, including my brothers and cousins. I was exposed to the family business from a young age as it was often the topic of discussion around the dinner table. Grandpa would talk with my dad and uncles about the business all the time. I was fortunate to have great mentors in many different areas of the business, such as operations, woodlands, sales and marketing, logistics, and management. It gave me great insight into how the business was run. I’ve been with Tolko for 35 years. I was never pressured to work for the family business, I wanted to do it. While in high school, I worked at Lavington during the summers. I worked a variety of roles, starting with clean-up duty, and later spent time in the bush…and almost every job in the mill at some point! After I finished college, I worked in production for about a year and then moved into various marketing and sales roles. In 2009, I assumed the role of VP, OSB Operations, and then became President and CEO in 2010. It’s been an interesting and rewarding journey, and I really enjoy what I do!
CC: What significant changes within the company and in the forestry industry have you seen during your career?
AL: For me, the J Bar sorter was a game changer on the operations side — we installed them in our first four sawmills, and in later years the use of computers. In just 65 years, we’ve gone from logging with horses and hand-bucking logs with chain saws to fully mechanized logging and milling operations. It’s been a remarkable implementation of technology!
JOHN: I think the shift to sophisticated computer-controlled machinery and systems are probably the most significant technology changes that I have witnessed in my career.
BRAD: I believe that the most significant evolution or cultural shift in the industry during my career is the increased focus on occupational health, safety, and injury reduction. Back in the day, harvesting operations were largely unregulated. It was a bit of a macho thing to work in the bush, people got hurt. It was just an accepted reality back then. Today, the industry has really tightened up its expectations for safety and Tolko continues to build its Culture to Care. Although we always strive towards zero RIR, ultimately, it’s not just about the numbers. It’s making sure that everyone goes home safely at the end of each day. I also think that the use of technology and innovation has been phenomenal compared to when my grandfather Harold started the business in 1956. Everything from mechanized equipment out in the bush to laser scanners that speed up the lumber grading process to the computerized systems that allow us to efficiently process our wood products all contribute to greater productivity and recovery at our mills.
CC: How did the family values evolve into Tolko’s Values of Safety, Respect, Integrity, Open Communication, Progressiveness, and Profit?
AL: These values originated with my father Harold, and he lived those values every day. They weren’t formalized or written down, but he always treated his employees well. He was trusted and respected in the industry and was known to be a man of his word. His philosophy was simple: treat your people well and pay them well. People wanted to work for my father. He was very personable and wanted to know all of his employees by their first name.
BRAD: Over the years as the company grew, my father Al wanted the company values to align with the family values. It’s more challenging to sustain a company culture as it grows larger and is spread out over a wide geographic area, but it’s essential to put the work in to keep that culture strong. I believe that culture is an output of values. It’s our people that make the difference — not the capital, not the equipment, not even the product, but our people.
CC: What do you see as being Tolko’s greatest accomplishments during its 65 years in operation?
AL: Three things stand out for me. First, when Brad took over as CEO, the Value statement of Respect was used to address workplace safety. Brad felt there was a need for a greater focus on safety at Tolko, so he and the management team developed a new Value statement for Safety and made it a top priority. This focus on safety developed into our “Culture to Care”, which also included management’s goal of being more involved in the communities where we operate. As a result, we have seen a step-change improvement in safety performance and employee engagement. As a shareholder, I am very supportive of the “Culture to Care”. Second is improved and sustained employee engagement. The growth of the company and its success in weathering numerous market downturns would not have been possible without engaged employees who care about their work, their fellow employees, and the company. Third is the continued focus on serving the needs of our customers. A customer focus was a passion of my father’s which he instilled in all employees at Lavington Planer. My brother John, who took over the responsibility of Sales from my father, developed a customer-focused culture within his Sales team. It is extremely satisfying for me to see this focus on the customer being sustained in the company. I believe these three factors have significantly contributed to the survival and growth of Tolko.
JOHN: Being able to survive all the ups and downs in the industry. We accomplished this because of our people, who are conscientious and dedicated. I also think that Tolko’s commitment to ongoing innovation has helped set us apart. I am particularly proud of Tolko’s OSB facilities. In High Prairie for example, we built a different operation, including the only OSB conveyor-dryer in Canada and the first 12- foot wide OSB press in the world at that time. We worked closely with engineers to choose the equipment and layout. Only one or two other mills had that unique configuration, and this system has worked well for 30 years. Tolko is also one of the few companies that uses a book saw, a two-pass saw system which is more common in MDF-particleboard manufacturing but not typically used in OSB.
BRAD: Tolko has always charted its own path, and I’m particularly proud of how our employees have pivoted quickly to keep our business running despite the challenges we’ve faced due to the pandemic. I believe that it is also because of Tolko’s Power of Great planning strategy that we’re able to remain focused on what’s important and remain competitive in any situation. I’m proud of the relationships we’ve built with First Nations and Indigenous Peoples over the years. These partnerships, which are based on respect and trust, are important to us and are something that we must continue if Tolko is to be successful in the long run. What I think differentiates Tolko the most is our long-term perspective, commitment to planning for the next generation, and our people. We have a solid foundation built on family values, and the family is committed to growing the business. I’m excited about the future!