The first call went out on a late afternoon in early March 2009. Management of the Weyerhaeuser mill in Conecuh County, just outside Castleberry, Ala., phoned supervisors and team leaders to summon them back to the plant. There, the plant manager instructed them to contact their teams and bring everyone in for a meeting the next morning.
The entire workforce gathered at 7:30 a.m. at the 150,000-square-foot white-metal monolith just off Highway 31, the onetime federal artery that connects Castleberry with the county seat, Evergreen, to the north and Brewton to the south. One year earlier, the plant employed 225 people. At max capacity, it cranked out 2 million cubic feet of ultra-dense Microllam beams and 120 million lineal feet of TJI joist I-beams annually, by company estimates. But Weyerhaeuser had scaled back production and payroll in ensuing months, and, by the day of the meeting, only 96 employees remained.
The housing crash, they were told at the meeting, had throttled demand for engineered lumber products (ELP) so severely that Weyerhaeuser couldn’t continue operations. The official announcement stated the Castleberry facility would be closed “indefinitely,” though not necessarily permanently.
“Few if any in the industry saw the magnitude of the downturn we went through,” says Alan Bradshaw, director of engineered wood products and technology at Weyerhaeuser’s Federal Way, Wash., headquarters. “We went from 1.8 million housing starts to 450,000, so at that point we had to notch our production to the demand.”
The output of the Castleberry plant, a facility built in 1997 and 1998 by TrusJoist MacMillan and acquired in 2000 by Weyerhaeuser, was too close to those hard numbers, Bradshaw said. The facility, anchored by four massive continuous presses at the center of the shop floor, turned shaved Southern yellow pine veneer into ultra-dense, ultra-strong 80-foot-long billets. The billets fed into two flanking “product” areas—one cut them to various sizes with a fearsome bundle saw and spray-sealed them as Microllam laminated veneer lumber; the other hewed them into TJI Joists, Weyerhaeuser’s premier I-beam brand. While ELP is just one division of the company, it is “a product designed for residential construction,” Bradshaw says. “So when housing starts go down, we feel it immediately.”
From 2008 to 2013, nearly 150 North American lumber mills boarded up, including the Castleberry plant and other Weyerhaeuser facilities in Simsboro, La., Chavies, Ky., and Dodson and Pine Hill, Ala.—the latter a “sister mill” that supplied Castleberry with veneer.
A study issued in 2012 by the University of Tennessee’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries and the USDA’s Forest Service, “Recession Effects on the Forests and Forest Products Industries of the South,” tracked a loss of 110,000 jobs in the major wood product sectors—paper manufacturing, forestry and logging, and wood manufacturing—in the 2005–09 period, confluent with declines in southern pine lumber production from 19 billion to 11.8 billion board feet and of eastern hardwood lumber from 12.6 billion to 5.7 billion board feet. Wood manufacturing jobs in the region declined 35 percent from 2005 to 2010. All that took some $7.21 billion out of workers’ hands across the South as direct labor income dropped from $31.98 billion in 2004 to $24.77 billion in 2009.
Alabama saw an impact proportional to the 71 percent of its total acreage it boasts as forest land. In the counties around Conecuh, the wood products industry contracted. Louisiana-Pacific shut down its OSB plant in Thomasville. Georgia-Pacific and Alabama River Newsprint not only shuttered Monroeville facilities but also wound up demolishing the lot to sell the properties underneath because their corporate headquarters were unwilling to sell the infrastructure and specialty machinery inside to direct competitors.
“We’re in the middle of a wonderful forest,” says John Johnson, current executive director of the Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance, a consortium of businesses and county/municipal members that acts as a resource and interlocutor for industrial development in five southwestern Alabama counties. “This is the heart and soul of our economy. So when the housing market was the bubble that burst this time, it hit us doubly hard. It was tough, tough times.”
John Carmichael, a former production manager at the Castleberry mill, retrained in healthcare at Evergreen’s Reid State Technical College, where he now works. The community college saw seven male nursing students matriculate that year, a record for an incoming class. Three of them were Weyerhaeuser vets, and three others were laid off from other mills in the region. “A lot of folks I know did stay in the wood industry, they just drove 100 miles to go to work for lower-paying jobs,” Carmichael recalls.
Castleberry veterans “worked off”—left their homes and families and went where the work was—as far away as Texas, according to Alesia Stuart, associate dean for community development at Reid State. Stuart corresponded with grads as they emailed looking for transcripts for prospective new employers far afield. “All those people that left, even if their families stayed here,” Stuart says, “their salaries, half of them were at least going to where they were working, so that cuts [retail revenues and sales taxes] around here by half for that family.”
Unemployment, which hovered at 5 percent to 7 percent for most of the early 2000s, topped 20 percent in Conecuh in 2009 and early 2010, according to data aggregated by Trading Economics. And as of 2011, the rate of area residents living in poverty reached 27.9 percent.
Weighing the Options
The next call went out in August 2012. HR manager Glenda Moore, based in Weyerhaeuser’s Atlanta regional office, reached out to James McGuyre, the former maintenance supervisor at the Castleberry mill. The company needed a new caretaker at the mothballed mill. It was a possible first step to restarting, but there were no guarantees.
Castleberry was the third shutdown McGuyre has experienced. He’d come to Weyerhaeuser after five years at a lumber facility that, operationally, had been his dream work environment, a kind of shop-floor democracy. “There was no line between operations and maintenance,” he says. “If something went wrong, we were all in it together, we’d take care of it.” That went away when a competitor bought the mill and eventually shuttered it.
After his third shutdown, he joined the Castleberry vets diaspora, finding a job at a plant in a remote tract of western Louisiana. He paid $350 a month to live in a camper and took a three-day weekend once a month to visit his family in Milton, Fla., an hour south of Castleberry. He’d moved on to a chemical facility in Mobile, Ala., when Moore called with the offer, but with so many closures on his résumé McGuyre agonized over the decision so much his hands shook, he recalls.
But he couldn’t dismiss the possibilities of the upside—of building that operational ideal he’d experienced before. “We had a sense of ownership in it,” he says. “And when they called me about reopening this place, what went through my mind was I had the opportunity to make that happen again.”
Local officials, meanwhile, picked up word of Weyerhaeuser’s ruminations. In 2012, Evergreen, as the Conecuh County seat, created the Evergreen-Conecuh Capital Improvement Cooperative District, a “political subdivision” overseen by two county commissioners, two city council members, and newly appointed economic development director, Robert Skipper. The new entity “holds all power a municipality holds, it’s able to eminent domain, buy, sell, lease, donate, enter into a contract, anything a city can do,” Skipper says. “Plus, county and municipal governments can’t invest taxpayer money into anything that’s for-profit. This political subdivision can.”
It also could leverage a relatively new public revenue stream in Conecuh County—about $1 million in monthly royalties from some 290 oil and gas wells dotting the county.
By July 2013, Weyerhaeuser settled into conversations with a consortium that included representatives of the Alabama Department of Commerce, Evergreen-Conecuh, Castleberry, and Coastal Gateway. With state, regional, and local resources pooling to create an incentive package (with an upfront $300,000), contingent on a job target of 75, the company gave the Castleberry mill’s rebirth the green light.
Rebuilding the Team
The next call went to Bob Doll. An Indiana native, Doll held serendipitous ties to the area: he’d met his Castleberry-native wife working his first job out of college. He also was no stranger to Weyerhaeuser, working at the company’s door plant in Marshfield, Wis., in the ’90s. Weyerhaeuser lured him from former Georgia-Pacific distributor BlueLinx in Arkansas to be the Castleberry plant manager, where he and McGuyre began the demothballing.
“I think most people, myself included, we want to feel like we’re accomplishing something worthwhile and meaningful,” Doll said. “And taking a plant that was not in operation and breathing life into it, it’s good for this community. It’s meaningful.”
Moore drove down from Atlanta to put staffing in motion. The Castleberry team made contacting former employees a priority while McGuyre set about excavating the plant from dust and weeds and jury-rigging inert tech. Weyerhaeuser didn’t announce the reopening until the end of summer 2013, but even then, the company didn’t post on job boards. Moore pulled old employee applications to expedite rehires and tracked down some whose information had changed.
Impromptu phone trees formed. More calls went out.
Crystal Jackson, a former bundle cut operator for Weyerhaeuser, had landed at a flooring company in Andalusia, Ala., after the shutdown. The job resulted in a two-hour commute from her Evergreen home, which eroded time with her kids. She heard about the Castleberry resurrection from her former team leader, and then relayed it to a ripsaw operator with whom she’d kept in touch.
Cameron Knapp, who’d worked at the Castleberry plant since TrusJoist MacMillan opened it, also worked off, leaving his family in Brewton to undertake a vocational odyssey that included starting up a plywood mill in Georgiana, Ala., sleeping weeknights in an RV borrowed from his dad, and eventually landing at particleboard maker Monroeville. When he told his plant manager Weyerhaeuser wanted him back as plant technical director, the boss said, “You’re not even going to give me a chance to counteroffer?”
“You don’t have enough money in your pocket to counteroffer,” Knapp said.
It wasn’t about money. It was the time and more ethereal matters on top of that.
“I was here since this was a pasture,” says Knapp, now operations manager of the Castleberry mill. “There’s a tremendous pride reopening it. Not a lot of plants get a second chance.” But the heart of it, he says, is “to be able to take my kid to school because [work is] 12 minutes from the school instead of 60—that was a no-brainer for me.”
Production supervisor Brandon Chancery, who started with TrusJoist MacMillan as a bay tender when he was 19, found himself out of work for five months until securing a similar job in Thorsby, Ala., 150 miles up I-65. He relocated his family, bought a house, but discovered a strange thing: out beyond the Castleberry mill, some companies still hewed to the old quota-based managerial system wherein problems on the line were ‘solved’ by, as he put it, “Shut up and work harder.”
“It’s not that Weyerhaeuser has any different core principles than any other company—the difference is they actually use ’em,” Chancery says. “A lot of companies, it’s all they talk about and all they care about is the financial side of it—which is an important piece of what everybody does, but I didn’t get the feeling they cared about what it took to get it. You can do a lot of things to cut corners, but you’re not really doing anything but setting yourself up for failure. You’ve gotta treat people right, and you gotta make your processes and systems work the way they’re designed and engineered to work, and most people don’t get that.”
Curiously, something like McGuyre’s dream of an unbounded workforce, taking ownership of the place, began to take shape. “We were looking for a real quality of associates, all willing to wear so many hats, and no one batted an eye,” he says. “Or if they did, we weren’t rude, but we’d be upfront that they weren’t right for it. This is a facility that hadn’t had running water in five years and I had a programmer in there scrubbing toilets. There was no ‘that’s not my job.’”
One major lure for the legacies: anyone who returned to the mill would retain their standing and raise schedule. Also attractive to the returnees was what Doll refers to as the “modified 12.” The scheduling scheme involves four shifts working mirrored 12-hour days, tough work in concentrated doses, but netting out to 14 days off a month.
As software was updated, as parts were oiled and dust-collection motors sent out to be dried and baked, the old team reformed, some 65 percent of them rehires. That’s no small consideration, Doll says, as they would be key in bringing the other 35 percent up to speed. The management team not only went to great lengths to re-emphasize Weyerhaeuser’s core safety-above-all principle, but they also have attempted to seed a nonhierarchical culture where no one is afraid to speak up about safety and efficiency issues. “The culture,” Jackson says, is that “we’re here to help each other and, if you got that understanding with that person, we can talk it through. Nobody’s pointing fingers. We’re moving forward.”
Doll budgeted for a May 1 startup, which meant having two of the continuous presses going and both the Microllam and I Joist products being churned out. The crew beat that by a month. The team stroked the first continuous press back to life on Nov. 18. Salaried employees came in December and, in January, shifts started reporting. As of late May, still with only about half the max production staff, Doll estimates the mill was producing at just under 50 percent capacity.
“So there is an extremely evident correlation to hiring previous skilled employees as opposed to ground-up hiring,” says Skipper, Evergreen-Conecuh’s economic development director. “And that correlation is productivity and efficiency that translates into revenues at the end of day. And you pay for what you get.”
As far and wide as Castleberry workers may have gone in the intervening years, the realization many articulate is that having a decent job where you live is all too rare. This, as Doll put it, is worthwhile and more meaningful than most people know.
“It’s that good old Cinderella song, ‘Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone,’” Knapp says. “I’m probably more motivated this time because now I have the reality that it can be snatched out from underneath me. So I carry a lot passion with me when I talk about things that we have to do to improve our processes. We don’t want to give Weyerhaeuser a reason to look at this plant ever again.”