ASH at Heyfield is still open for business.
With the closure of the native forest industry, the manufacturer has lost its cherished Victorian Ash timber, but the company is not panicking – it is in expansion mode.
Each month, thirty 40-foot containers carrying American hardwood from the country’s north-east arrive in Heyfield.
“We aim to be growing that,” said ASH’s managing director, Vince Hurley.
“It’s the prince of hardwoods – regarded as that everywhere, not just in the States. It’s the timber that everything is compared to, it’s why England conquered the world with their oak boats. Oak is the king that everything is compared to.
“It is a really good outcome; we import a raw material, a very basic raw material, and we manufacture in Australia – a bit un-Australian really, isn’t it? – importing a raw material and manufacturing it in Australia?”.
Mr Hurley said ASH had branded the timber ‘Glacial Oak’.
“The reason is, the wood is extremely consistent and blond in colour, it doesn’t contain any pink. Often pink oak has variations – and pink doesn’t sell,” he said.
“Glacial Oak has been one of our star performers and we originally started with Glacial Oak nearly four years ago, off the back of trying to grow a market, we actually started before we knew what was happening with the Victorian supply.”
In 2017, ASH lost half its Vic Ash volume, which gradually diminished further to only three per cent of its supply in 2023. The dwindling supply prompted a strategic rethink in 2017, with a few aims: look after the company’s people, diversify the fibre input, have a greater emphasis on advanced manufacturing and tighten the supply chain to the end user.
“We had no relationships in the US – they couldn’t be developed overnight,” Mr Hurley said, so ties with US suppliers began in 2019. The company also targeted greater use of plantation hardwood from the Strzelecki Ranges that was available through HVP (previously Hancock Victorian Plantations).
“As it happens, we developed markets and products and a good supply of the US hardwood,” he said.
With the government’s announcement last May to close the industry, ASH turbo-charged its US ties. ‘Let’s go!’, we said. Everything was in place – Glacial Oak, the produce out of the plantations; we just had to bump them up a bit to cover what we were missing. Out of necessity, we put ourselves in a good position. With the closure announcement and the actual closure of Victorian hardwood supply, we have been able to ramp it up.”
Trucks from the Port of Melbourne laden with the US timber arrive in Heyfield.
“We unload; we have an 85-tonne container forklift. We got it when we were exporting a lot, now we are importing a lot,” Mr Hurley said.
“We are using it (Glacial Oak) to supply the market we have developed and as a replacement for some of our Vic Ash as well. It has been really good in that space – staircases, windows, doors and furniture. We also have a new engineered flooring line; we’re also going to have an engineered floor made of it as well.”
It was important that the engineered floor matched the ASH staircase.
“Home builds, interior designers involved – they want to match the stair with the floor, and now we have an exact match,” Mr Hurley said.
“We are not importing something and re-selling it; we are importing raw product, manufacturing it in Australia as a finished product – not a sawn board, but as finished products.”
These included stair treads, stringers, stair rises, window styles, window sashes, door moulds, furniture components, kitchen bench tops and furniture tabletops.
“It’s a balancing act. Part of our solution is to ensure we have a good long-term growing company with access to a long-term certified supply of sustainable timber,” Mr Hurley said.
“These are private forests, but they are grown as forests. That’s their business; they want it to be there forever. There are weekly auctions for wood – it’s a massive industry.”
Mr Hurley said the US hardwood all came from mixed hardwood forests selectively harvested.
“There is no clear-fall at all. It’s a great way of doing it. We went to a couple of its operations that were harvested six months before – you would not know they had been there! Basically, they go through once every 25 years, they take effectively a bit less than a quarter and gradually go through. They leave old trees; they stay there, they do not burn,” he said.
Such selective harvesting meant ASH paid more for the timber than if the wood was from a clear-felled coupe.
“You’re effectively paying for social licence, to make sure you are looking after everything in the forest,” he said.
ASH is part of a group of more than 40 Gippsland and Victorian businesses connected to the forestry sector, led by Bowens and including Dahlsens, who have written a letter to the Premier, Jacinta Allan, urging a rethink of forest management.
“There are management solutions that deliver important benefits and wider community needs including – forest health and resilience, reduced wildfire risk, greater biodiversity and wildlife protection outcomes, and also sustainable, renewable, local and independently certified Victorian hardwood products,” Mr Hurley said.
“The current situation enables the opportunity to consider forest management from scratch – a fresh start. The fresh start would not consider the industrial type clear fall harvesting or coupe burning. Active Forest Management as widely practised in the hardwood forests of Europe and USA for centuries has maintained the same forest and biodiversity in perpetuity.”
Active Forest Management incorporates all forest values and is now being successfully practiced in Tasmanian private forests, with the same species as in Victoria under a strictly approved Forest Practices Plan. This model enables funding for biodiversity, research, forest improvement and fire prevention work. It is also self-funding.
“Monitoring is an important component both before and after active forest activities to measure impacts and improve forest management practices,” he said.
Mr Hurley said true environmentalists – not the activists – were correct.
“That’s the way we should be doing it. It’s about the health of the forest. For years, we have put out (fires caused by) lightning strikes, we have not burnt the way traditional owners have done. People must accept that forests require management; locking them up is not management,” he said.
“Active forest management’, it’s called. Change to terminology that people can understand, rather than terminology that has been demonised.”
Mr Hurley said ASH had also developed shining gum plantation from HVP as a registered brand called ‘Plantation Oak’.
“We have developed a social housing solution that meets Victorian government objectives – somewhere that’s nice to live, not a concrete box; it has to be energy efficient, carbon positive, not concrete and steel but timber – carbon positive as it stores carbon.The housing can be deconstructed – it can be pulled down and put up elsewhere,” he said.
“It’s extremely cost effective to build, maintain and live in. Really importantly, we can construct these very quickly; they can go up three-to-four times faster than a concrete building. It’s a social housing solution.”
The housing can be four-to-five storeys with a clear open plan that can be turned into individual rooms if needed.
“There is a new solution for the ceilings and floors. You can run services in between beautiful secondary beams,” he said.
“This solution is called Advanced Timber Composite (ATC). ATC satisfies the acoustic vibration and fire solutions in one go, is very cost effective – and unlike other solutions, you can see timber.
“Now, we would like to engage with the Victorian government on this solution.”
ASH is now robust. “We are equivalent to what we were before downsizing; we have not gone backwards in the last five years. We have increased employment off the back of new manufacturing to 210 employees,” Mr Hurley said.
Expansion offers new employment opportunities, as ASH has a strong focus on employee development. For example, Mr Hurley said all ASH’s supervisors and line managers began with the company on the shop floor. New job opportunities ranged from advanced equipment operators to engineers.