North Fork Lumber Builds up its Employees

Meg Wall-Wild


Editor's note: After this story was published, the Journal editorial department learned that its production was included in a contract for services entered into between the Journal's marketing department and the Humboldt County Economic Development Department. The story was produced by a Journal freelancer under the guidance of Journal editors, and at no time did anyone outside the editorial department have any input into the story's content, including the Journal's marketing department, the county's economic development department or the subject of the story.

A business voted Best Place to Work by its own staff must be doing something right. When the call went out for nominations, North Fork Lumber's employees anonymously answered the 17 questions so positively it catapulted the company to the designation of being the county's best employer, according to a survey filled out by employees of dozens of local companies and nonprofits.

Like many industrialists of the 19th century, the Korbel Brothers built a side business to support their famous Sonoma County vineyards. They scanned the California landscape looking for the best location for a sawmill. The Mad River provided the perfect site. The Korbel Sawmill opened in 1882, churning out lumber for wine vats and building projects. After the Korbels sold out in 1913, the company passed through a succession of owners until 2018, when Frank Schmidbauer saw an opportunity to reopen the old sawmill.

When a shift change came to the Schmidbauer Lumber in Eureka, Schmidbauer asked if employees wanted to help him in this new venture of starting up a subsidiary company at the Korbel site. Forty-five of them took him up on his offer to move operations to the town of Korbel. With hard work and a dedicated staff, North Fork Lumber CEO Ken Dunn set a first-year goal of 100 million board feet of primarily Douglas fir for housing and new construction. They cut more than 150 million board feet.

One way Dunn judges employee happiness is through the quality of their work product. An engaged employee cares about their craft and Dunn points to the number of board feet as solid evidence that employees go that extra mile willingly, proving their investment in North Fork Lumber's future. Their success resulted in the addition of a second shift, increasing the workforce to 88 from the original 45. Great attendance is another indicator that workers are content, not burned out or frustrated with management, Dunn says.

The survey answers employees submitted illustrate the commitment that North Fork has to its workforce. The role of communication is clear — it goes both ways and starts on the first day. A thorough orientation is designed to make a new hire comfortable in their workplace and understand the processes from the moment timber hits the lot to the finished lumber at the end. During the first six weeks, employees are evaluated every week. While many jobs do not require this level of scrutiny, sawmills are, well, dangerous.

The training pays dividends all along the line. In the survey, employees said they know what they need to do to be successful in their job. Continued development is also ranked high. Employees who want to grow their skills report they have the chance to do so. North Fork Lumber provides opportunities to acquire certifications needed to advance and the ability to transfer to other Schmidbauer companies. Employees give high marks to management's support of their career aspirations and their ability to contribute to their own development.

Dunn believes that equal treatment and high expectations, combined with being fair, firm and consistent, are key to employee retention. This strategy seems to be successful. Workers report rarely thinking of leaving and see themselves still working at North Fork two years from now. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Dunn says that of the original 45 employees who helped with North Fork's start-up, only two have moved on.

North Fork received top marks in the "I am proud to work at my job" category. To many, being proud is a platitude, but its true meaning describes the investment in time and toil of employees who want their company to succeed. This desire for success is backed up by another top score: "I would recommend my job as a great place to work."

We all are tired by now of COVID-19 and how it has changed our lives. Many workers have been asked to sacrifice as their employers lose business and the economy tightens. Dunn says North Fork and its parent company responded quickly to stave off hardship. Schmidbauer Co. voluntarily paid time off due to COVID-19 until the regulations were updated in September to require all businesses to do so. North Fork employees were given $125 per-week bonuses for three months in an effort to cushion the impact of spouses' job losses, childcare needs and other pandemic impacts. The company also paid employee insurance premiums for a month and a half, providing needed breathing room for working families with overstrained budgets.

Dunn says North Fork Lumber puts thought into its employee perks. The company provides a 401k match of 4 percent and profit sharing, as well as a holiday turkey, gift cards and company jackets. It also purchases 25 pounds of meat for each employee every year from the Humboldt County Fair Livestock Auction, which not only benefits their employees but also Future Farmers of America exhibitors and the local farming community.

With all that in mind, it's perhaps no surprise North Fork Lumber employees indicated they are satisfied with their jobs to a greater degree than other local residents. Dunn says he is grateful for the survey, which provided employees a valuable platform to anonymously evaluate their employers.

Oh, and North Fork Lumber is hiring. Those looking to join the team can contact Human Resources Manager Crystal Eckhardt at [email protected] or call (530) 739-2102.

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct both North Fork Lumber's initial board feet goal and the number of board feet cut in the company's first year. The story's initial version also misspelled Frank Schmidbauer's name. The Journal regrets the errors


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