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Riding the bench is part of the game

David Colburn
Posted 3/3/21

If you’re a University of Kansas alum, as I am, there are two givens about Jayhawk sports.First, you will spend most of your adult life doing whatever you can to excuse or distance yourself …

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Riding the bench is part of the game

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If you’re a University of Kansas alum, as I am, there are two givens about Jayhawk sports.
First, you will spend most of your adult life doing whatever you can to excuse or distance yourself from the university’s hapless football team. It’s absolutely untrue that the TV show “The Biggest Loser” was named after the Jayhawks’ football team, but it’s easy to see how folks could jump to that conclusion, particularly after this year’s dismal 0-9 record. It’s little wonder that the most popular football cheer at KU has long been “Wait until basketball season!” From football’s first kickoff, most Jayhawks already have the first basketball practice circled on their calendars.
Ah, basketball. Don’t get us Jayhawks started, or we’ll talk your ears off about Kansas men’s basketball. Second-winningest program of all-time, trailing only Kentucky, and I’ll be quick to be sure you know how we beat the Wildcats 150-95 in 1989, and that their current head coach got his start as an assistant at Kansas. Third on the list is North Carolina, and the vast majority of their wins came under a coach, Dean Smith, who played college hoops at, yes, the University of Kansas.
And while he’s the only Kansas hoops coach ever to have a losing record, Jayhawks never tire of crowing that our very first coach was none other than the inventor of the game himself, Dr. James Naismith.
The art of creating a winning team has changed dramatically since Naismith nailed up two peach baskets for the inaugural hoops game, but regardless of all the changes across the decades, one thing about the sport has remained constant. It’s always been about finding the right mix of players, the complementary pieces that make up a winning combination. Some players are ready to be starters the day they set foot on campus. Others are works in progress, recruited with the knowledge that it might be two or three seasons before they become a starter, perhaps even a star. Some of those pan out, others don’t. It’s never only about their individual talent, it’s always about the mix.
And with that, we jump from the basketball hardwoods to a different sort of hardwood, aspen, and the world of manufactured wood products.
I’ll readily admit that I don’t know what the mix of wood is that goes into structural oriented strand board, although aspen figures in there somewhere, but I do know that Cook has its own Naismith-like connection to the product – the mill in Cook, then owned by Potlatch, was one of the first three in the country to ever produce OSB, a product that’s become as ubiquitous to the housing construction industry as synthetic composite leather is for making basketballs today.
Locals know far better than this Kansas transplant the history of the Cook facility from its days as a star player in the industry to one sadly relegated to the bench when Ainsworth shut down the facility in 2008. It had to be a devastating demotion to swallow.
But eight years later, it looked like Cook might get back into the game when the mill was purchased by Louisiana-Pacific, a name that sounds like one of those dark horse mid-major schools geared to make a deep run in March Madness.
It’s a big team at LP Solutions, as the company is known. They currently have eight mills for siding, 12 for OSB, and five for other engineered wood products, scattered across North and South America. Every player has to contribute, and the right mix is critical to the company’s success.
Like a four-star hoops recruit out of high school, the Cook facility had a lot of upsides as it joined the LP Solutions roster. At the time, company execs described for investors how the facility was well situated in an “aspen basket,” how it had the advantage of existing rail service and a wood yard. It was big enough to accommodate not only a line that could produce up to 400 million square feet of the company’s rapidly growing SmartSide trim and siding, they said, but also a second production line when demand warranted.
But the company picked up another “recruit” for its team at the same time, an OSB mill in Val-d’Or, Quebec. While not rivaling Cook in potential production capacity, Val-d’Or came with its own upsides – it could be converted to siding production in as little as half the time and for much less expense than it would take to fully develop the mill in Cook.
In the end, the company went in a different direction by deciding to convert its Dawson Creek OSB mill, leaving Cook on the bench, waiting but hopeful. Cook was still in the mix, they said back then, once the Dawson Creek conversion was up and running.
But while Cook has been warming the bench, the game has been changing. LP Solutions CEO Brad Southern has determined that in order to put his best team on the floor, the company’s product mix has had to change – less reliance on OSB, more emphasis on its rising star, SmartSide.
To make the pivot expeditiously, LP Solutions acquired mills in Green Bay, Wis., and Granite City, Ill., last year, two new recruits that could contribute quickly. This year, in a recently announced decision, two active players will be getting new roles. A facility in Maine will be converted to produce SmartSide products, putting the company in a better position to compete in the Northeast and East Coast areas. Following that conversion will be another in Sagola, Mich., the timing yet to be determined. Given the conditions of the game as it is today, these decisions look sound to savvy investors and one small town editor for the company’s overall quest for growth and profitability.
Meanwhile, the Cook mill continues to languish on the bench. It certainly hasn’t lost any of the upsides it brought to the table in 2016, but today it’s in the “other players include” list of possible future developments for LP Solutions, along with other potential conversions and collaborations. Whether it’s basketball or manufactured wood products, it’s always about the mix.
With two conversions already in the works, it’s unlikely we’ll know anything more about the playing potential of the Cook mill for at least a couple of years. The mill still “has game,” but will it be right for the mix when another opportunity comes, or will the game have passed it by? Only time will tell as Cook continues to wait uneasily on the bench, just aching for a chance to play.

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