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Innovation Award: Millson Forestry Services

"No business is complete if it doesn't have the next generation coming along to spur new ideas and take things in different directions."

Tough times produce resilient people.

And it seems to bring out the best in Millson Forestry Service.

Innovation, perseverance and a passion for growing the best trees possible and seeking out value-added opportunities has served the company of forestry practitioners well in weathering one of the worst spells in the industry's history.

With 60 full-time and seasonal employees, the Timmins-based company has done whatever it's taken to buffer itself against the cyclical nature of the industry.

When owners David and Sue Millson graduated from Lakehead University with forestry degrees in 1979, the big industry players didn't hire married couples.

So they decided to go into business for themselves growing trees. The timing was certainly right.

The Ministry of Natural Resources was privatizing its silviculture operations and the Millsons tapped into a funding program to start a tree seedling nursery with their first greenhouse in 1982.

They launched a tree planting division with aspirations of becoming a fully integrated operation from cultivation to harvesting.

"If it was there to do, we wanted to do it," said Sue Millson.

The decade that followed was one of growth with new greenhouses, heavy equipment for site preparation work, expansion with a second location, and investment in European technology. Revenues were plowed back into the business.

And they hired many locals. Generations of young people worked their way through college and university working summers in the greenhouses or on the forest block.

But the downward slide of the forestry industry in 2006 caused the Millsons and their partners to do some soulsearching.

"We knew we wanted to stay in the game," said Monique Koski, a forester and a company partner. "We knew we needed to become leaner and more efficient and do things better."

Tough times only reignited their passion for forestry.

The company went looking for value- added opportunities that served a wider consumer market.

They harvested underutilized species like birch and got into the firewood business by installing three firewood bagging lines. Today, they have contracts to deliver wood to 44 provincial parks and conservation authorities.

They made better use of leftover tree tops and branches by installing a briquetting plant in 2010 to make puck-sized discs for industrial boilers and home heating. It provided them with much-needed fibre through the province's wood supply competition.

Innovation has always been in the forefront.

Dave Millson came up with their "shade house" invention: a temporary greenhouse equipped with temperature sensors that roll up the walls and opens the roof. It's saved the company thousands of dollars in energy costs during the winter months.

The investment in automation went further with a seedling packaging line and a heat shrink tunnel that seals a recyclable plastic bag that creates efficiencies in time, storage, shipping and physical labour.

Modernization and mechanization remains in the company's future.

"We're going to make this work come hell or high water," said Millson.

With more than 30 years under their belts, the Millsons are grooming the next generation to take over. The company was restructured in 2007 to provide for succession planning for its younger partners.

"No business is complete if it doesn't have the next generation coming along to spur new ideas and take things in different directions," said Millson. "You've always got to be reinventing yourself in your business."