Ted Seraphim may be leaving B.C.’s largest forestry company by revenue after 22 years, but he thinks the Top 100 mainstay still has room to grow
Despite having spent a good chunk of his career with Vancouver-based West Fraser Timber Co., Ted Seraphim calls himself a “short-termer.” That’s because after six years in the CEO chair, he’ll be retiring this summer. The man Seraphim succeeded—Henry (Hank) Ketcham, the son of Pete Ketcham, who started the company with his two brothers in Quesnel back in 1955—held the position for 28 years.
Still, Seraphim has seen plenty of changes since he moved to the forestry products outfit as vice-president, pulp and paper sales, in 1997. The UBC commerce grad and CPA had about a dozen years’ experience in forestry with now-defunct Fletcher Challenge Canada before joining West Fraser. The latter was still mostly a B.C. company then, with a few interests in Alberta and about 3,000 employees.
The business he will leave behind—No. 6 on the Top 100 list, with revenue of more than $6 billion in 2018—has 47 mills between B.C., Alberta and the southern U.S., and just under 9,000 staff.
“I joined the industry because I love B.C. and wanted to make my career here,” says Seraphim, who came to the province from Montreal at age nine. “As a British Columbian, I think it’s pretty impressive that the two largest lumber companies in the world, West Fraser and Canfor, are based in B.C. We’ve really grown, but our bases are still in B.C.”
At the same time, he notes that it’s tough to see the B.C. industry’s expansion continuing as it has. That’s why West Fraser has diversified and will keep doing so: at 21, the company’s U.S. mills almost double those in its home province.
“We’re dealing with the mountain pine beetle issue, and the industry’s going to get smaller in B.C.,” Seraphim says. “We see more growth opportunities in the southern U.S. because that industry’s quite fragmented—many small owners and not too many large companies. We’re actually the largest lumber producer in the U.S. South.”
West Fraser has mills in eight U.S. states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Texas), and Seraphim has publicly said that President Donald Trump’s tariffs haven’t harmed the company’s stateside work. He’s more concerned with the pine beetle wreckage, plus the wildfires that have curtailed B.C. and Alberta operations. But he also recognizes that the industry is cyclical.
“Last year it was really strong, and this year it’s quite poor,” Seraphim says of forestry in general. “We try very hard to be low-cost, and when you’re in a business with tough down cycles, being low-cost is important. We don’t take on too much debt, so we can manage through the downturn.” West Fraser’s sawmills are probably the world’s most technically advanced, he adds. “We invest a lot of capital in our mills.”
That goes for B.C., too, he insists, even with the somewhat unfavourable outlook: “We’ve been able to make enough money throughout the company so that we could reinvest in B.C. in the hard times,” says Seraphim of the $600 million or so the company has allocated to the province over the past five years. “And we know that good times will eventually come again in B.C. We’ve been at this for almost 65 years; we just know we’re going through a very hard period now.”
Of course, that’s not really his problem anymore. Current president and COO Ray Ferris—who’s been with the company about as long as Seraphim—is taking over the reins as CEO. Although Seraphim will stay connected to the Vancouver business world as a board member of Finning International (see p.83), he’s excited to explore his home province.
“I’ve spent most of my career travelling, almost 35 years of constant travel; I think it’s time to step back and enjoy life outside of work,” he says. “I’m still going to travel a little bit, but I want that travel to be in B.C. I want to enjoy the province a little more.”