Ian Gill, Vancouver Sun, September 20, 2000
While some forest firms adopt responsible cutting practices, Interfor cuts with public relations abandon.
On April 18 this year I attended the annual meeting of Interfor, its first ever AGM held outside Vancouver, in a newly constructed long house in Squamish. As an environmentalist, perhaps my place was outside the building, where a small but determined scatter of protesters hung banners, waved at passing traffic, and offered a few desultory objections that died on the strong breeze blowing off Howe Sound.
Instead, I was inside the building. I had been asked to participate on a panel that would follow on the company’s regular business meeting. Perhaps the good folks at Interfor were feeling some sort of millenium itch, but whatever their motivation, the company wanted to unveil and then discuss its new corporate identity, "The New Interfor: New Relationships, New Forestry." I was joined on the panel by a First Nations leader, a trade union rep, a tourism operator and an academic. Before agreeing to participate, I had called a few people to solicit opinions about the company. I wanted insights into why Interfor, of all the companies operating on the B.C. coast, was far and away the most reviled by people on the environmental front lines.
Remember the venom once reserved for MacMillan Bloedel? Multiply that many times, and you begin to get a measure of the Interfor’s stock and standing.
Why? Because the company has manifestly failed to take heed of the social changes that have swept this province. In Clayoquot Sound, it logs right to the border of Pacific Rim National Park, where prudence would suggest otherwise. On the central coast, it spurns heartfelt, if somewhat clumsy attempts to forge a stay of proceedings on the cutting of pristine valleys there. In the Elaho Valley, it hunkers down and hides behind process and injunctions.
By the time I got to say my piece, I shared with the directors and the shareholders and the workers and anyone else who was listening a view of the company from outside. I told them – staring old Bill Sauder, the company chairman, right in the face – that they were considered the dinosaurs of B.C. forestry. I said this not to be offensive or provocative, but merely to underline the fact that for a company to credibly declare itself at the vanguard of the new – "New Relationships, New Forestry" – it needed to do more than print up a big banner and hand out baseball caps with a new logo.
The panel batted a few ideas around, and made some constructive suggestions about how the company might really move forward, as opposed to marching on the spot to the sound of a new jingle. I noticed that not long after the panel got underway, Interfor’s chief forester, Ric Slaco, went outside to shoot the breeze with his buddies.
One of my points was that if a company really wants to forge new relationships and imbue in its workforce the new values implied by its wordplay, then that had to come from the top. Elect board members – women, First Nations people, environmentalists – who might bring fresh thinking to bear. (At least ask your chief forester to sit still through the spin session.)
I made one other point that I thought might get them listening, which is that shareholder value eventually will suffer at the hands of governance and management that fails to get ahead of competitive forces, and a key competitive issue these days is getting market share in a world that is demanding sustainable forest practices for real, not just in news releases.
Consider MacMillan Bloedel (now Weyerhaeuser) under the stewardship of former president Tom Stephens. I am told that Stephens told his senior management that it is not enough to simply comply with the law, that public sentiment is often five years ahead of the law and that to really get a jump on the competition, you need to get five years ahead of that. Hence a very different company, which appears to take its social contract as seriously as the Forest Practices Code.
Now cast your mind into the dark, dank place where Interfor forages around and lashes out at its foes. Interfor has spectacularly mishandled the protests in the Elaho Valley and has been shamed by the thuggery of some of its employees in that same conflict. The company hides behind the fact that, to quote Slaco from the company website, "… the public has a right to expect that government will support its own land use plans and that the police will enforce the law."
Certainly, there is ample evidence the police and the courts will do what they are told by a government that does what it is told by the timber industry.
Just last week, Justice Glen Parrett of the B.C. Supreme Court sentenced two Elaho protesters to a year in jail each. If Interfor wishes to be taken seriously as a progressive company that is genuinely interested in embracing social change and accommodating values that it might find, well, "new," it should roundly condemn Justice Parrett – for the vulgar judicial overreaction that he dares to present as a "judgement."
But all we’ve heard from Interfor so far is from its president, Duncan Davies, who snivelled on the weekend that protesters outside Bill Sauder’s Shaughnessy house "cross[ed] the line of decency." Tell that to 71-year-old Betty Krawczyk. Tell that to 36-year-old Barney Kern.
I suspect the word around the water coolers and on the green chains at Interfor is that the protesters finally got what they deserve. So, in time, will Interfor. And so will their shareholders. Stock tip: sell.