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A small stockpile of lumber owned by CANFOR at their Houston facility in Houston, B.C., on Jan. 11, 2020.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The heirs to a handful of U.S. lumber barons stand to cash in handsomely in the near future, as investment banks predict Canada’s largest forest products companies will expand south of the border by targeting privately owned timberlands and sawmills.

The North American lumber market is booming, due in large part to surging home construction. Canada’s largest companies, including B.C.-based West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd., Canfor Corp. and Interfor Corp., are flush with cash and on the hunt.

Last year set new records for lumber company acquisitions, with $2.2-billion of takeovers playing out in North America, more than the previous five years combined, according to a recent report from analyst Paul Quinn at RBC Capital Markets.

The torrid pace of deal-making will continue, according to investment bankers, in part because the latest round of M&A paid off for buyers. In a report, analyst Benoit Laprade at Scotia Capital said: “All acquisitions that closed in the last 12 to 18 months have enjoyed excess cash flows so far, making the economics of those transactions likely very attractive.”

After a series of deals over the past year, analysts say the obvious deals involving publicly traded companies have played out and buyers are turning their attention to privately owned lumber businesses in the Southern and Northwestern United States, some of which are in their seventh generation of family ownership.

B.C. forest product companies are targeting U.S. expansion after the provincial government rolled out policies that reduced timber cutting and transferred forest ownership to First Nations, according to industry experts. Mr. Quinn said: “Geographic diversification is top of mind given that changing political and natural environments can negatively impact operations.”

A handful of private U.S. lumber companies would command billion-dollar-plus price tags, including Idaho Forest Group LLC. Founded in 1934, Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest is now controlled by two families and produces approximately half as much lumber each year as Vancouver-based Interfor, a TSX-listed company with a $2.4-billion market capitalization. If Idaho Forest’s owners decided to sell, Mr. Quinn said West Fraser, Interfor and Canfor would be among the potential buyers.

However, analysts predict the next wave of takeovers will focus on smaller lumber businesses that would qualify as relatively low risk, tuck-in acquisitions for large Canadian companies.

For example, West Fraser owns facilities near South Carolina-based Collum’s Lumber Products LLC, currently run by the fourth generation of the founding family, and Georgia-based Langdale Forest Products Co., controlled by one clan since 1894. Mr. Quinn said the Vancouver-based company is the natural buyer of either U.S. business.

Interfor or Canfor are the logical buyers of Jordan Lumber & Supply, Inc., a North Carolina business that’s been in the same family since 1939, according to Mr. Quinn. He said Canfor would also be interested in buying Rex Lumber Corp., which owns four sawmills in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and traces its roots back to 1926.

Why would any of the founding families sell? Recent deals show passing a business from one generation to the next in the often-volatile lumber sector is not always a way to build family wealth.

Over the past 15 years, New York-based Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC bought and sold a number of forest products companies. The private equity fund manager recently published a case study on one acquisition, Florida-based Suwannee Lumber Co.

Suwannee was founded in 1954. By 2013, when Blue Wolf came calling, multiple generations of three families shared ownership; no one group held control. The majority of shareholders didn’t work at the company. Critically, none of the owners were earning dividends; all profits went back into the company to expand operations. Like many long-established forest products companies, Suwannee also faced significant environmental cleanup costs.

Presented with the prospect of putting new capital into a lumber business that wasn’t paying them a cent, the majority of family members opted to sell. Blue Wolf remediated and modernized facilities, then acquired another sawmill in Arkansas. In 2018, Blue Wolf sold the business for US$200-million to Vancouver-based Conifex Timber Inc., which subsequently resold it to Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products Inc.

The same dynamics that led to Suwannee’s sale – diffuse family ownership, declining dividend income and significant future costs – will likely prompt more descendants of lumber barons to cash out when Canadian buyers come calling.

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