Priding itself on an impeccable safety record as well as the quality cedar fence pickets it produces, Welco of Idaho has been a stable business and a steady employer in Boundary County since 1992.
Originally owned by Herman Cook as Diversified Forest Products, the Naples site was purchased by Welco of Idaho and has employed literally hundreds of people over the ensuing 17 years. Currently there are 90 employees who man two shifts per day three weeks per month.
"Lots of companies have mills down now due to the lower housing starts," said Rob Harrison, Welco Business Manager. "We're also facing price erosion and currently have a higher inventory than we like to have. We're not selling as much and getting less for what we do sell. The economy is bad everywhere but we're struggling along. Welco fencing often goes into the big developments and that has slowed down, but our two biggest customers are Lowe's and Home Depot. We've been able to keep up and even added a second shift in December of last year. Welco is a pretty big employer. Almost all of our people are from Boundary County, so it certainly helps the area to have the jobs."
He emphasized, "One of the big things that we are proud of is our incredible safety record. We have been OSHA Star Rated for five years and have over 1,700 days without a lost time accident. We're pleased to bring people in here and not hurt them."
Rob indicated that Welco pays its employees commensurate with competitors in the industry and offers them full benefits such as a 401(k) plan, health insurance and paid vacations for employees. He said that a core crew of 16 people has been there for 10 years or more.
"The morale has been pretty good. The workers know that there are ups and downs but we haven't lost anyone this year. I would say that they are reasonably satisfied," he stated.
Ken Carter, Welco's Resource Manager, has spent his entire career providing logs to mills as a forester. Ken stressed that because of Welco's practice of buying logs from local loggers, Welco indirectly employs many other people in the community besides the mill employees.
"We buy cedar from wherever it grows, which is east of the Cascade Mountains," he explained. "We buy them from loggers, landowners and log sellers."
The yard itself is enough to make you feel like an ant in a forest with gigantic stacks of logs lying in tidy decks throughout the area. Ken estimated that there are about three and a half million feet of lumber stocked in the yard at any one time, a three month supply.
"Welco bought the mill and rebuilt it," he said. "There is no original equipment left in the mill. All the machinery is intended for safety and efficiency."
The process of transforming a living tree into a stack of precisely cut fence pickets is amazing. After being removed from the forest and transported by truck to the mill, the logs are unloaded, moved to different decks according to size then lifted by a massive machine to a conveyor belt that transports the logs in single file to a debarker that removes the bark like peeling a potato. The nude logs are moved to a different area to be cut into the correct length by an enormous circular saw. Continuing along the conveyor belt, these now uniform six foot lengths are loaded into another saw assembly by hand to be cut the correct width for fence pickets. They are then sorted, stacked and packaged with care. Ken estimated that it takes a mere 10 minutes to complete the entire process due to the synchronization of the skilled employees who do their jobs with precision, working in rhythm to produce a quality product.
"Everybody at a saw mill has to know what they are doing," Ken emphasized.
Obviously, most of Welco's inventory sells in the spring and summer when people build fences, which has been a good thing for Welco's financial status.
"The doors are still open and the lights are still on," joked Ken.
Rob may have summarized the future for Welco best when he said, "I don't have a crystal ball but sooner or later it's going to get better - it always does. We'd like to be here for a long time."