Force of nature

Timber In Construction talks to the woman who is bringing ancient timbers recovered from the depths of an alligator-infested Panamanian Lake to the UK market

FROM growing up as the only kid in the logging camp to being adopted by not one but two indigenous tribes to running her chainsaws with vegetable oil, nothing Alana Husby does is what you’d call run of the mill.

Now the eco-conscious Canadian businesswoman is bringing ancient timbers from beneath the alligator-infested waters of Panama’s Lake Bayano to the UK.

"I was at my wedding and an old employee came up to me and they were like, oh you see they’re underwater logging in the Panama Canal? I was like, what?! I have to go on my honeymoon – get down there!”

And so began Alana Husby’s adventure in Central America. Fast forward and the Canadian businesswoman is breaking into the UK market with ancient, rare hardwoods salvaged from beneath 15,000ha of freshwater. Her company, CoastEco Timber, has the stamp of approval from the Rainforest Alliance for its environmentally responsible approach and has been hailed as a “Green Hero” by design guru and Grand Designs host Kevin McCloud. It has been what you might call a long, strange trip.

So let’s rewind to the beginning. Husby grew up, as she puts it, with “wood in my heart”. Her family’s roots in the British Columbia timber trade go back to the 1800s. Her late father David is a legend of the industry in BC, having started out as a single trucking contractor in 1970 before building up the largest independent forestry company on Canada’s west coast.

The young Husby grew up on a remote First Nation reservation of just 900 people and in logging camps. She saw how one person’s actions could have a positive impact on a whole community – and learned how to stand up for herself in a rough and ready world.

While many children run a mile from following in their successful parents’ footsteps, Husby realised in her mid-20s that the family business was “in my blood”. Already an entrepreneur who had run her own businesses, she asked her dad if she could join his company.

“He said, okay, well go to forestry school,” Husby says.

An intensive course followed at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Only around half of the 40-strong class stuck it out but, Husby says, they learned “every facet of the business from tree planting to road building to log scaling”.

“I finished up there and my dad was like, fine, go work with the men!” she says.

She was posted to a dry land storage where logs are brought to be graded, sorted and batched for market.

“I learned everything there, and I got to use a chainsaw and run the excavator and run the machines. It was horrible – I don’t know if you’ve ever run a machine but you need rhythm. I have so much respect for machine operators, it’s unbelievable,” she says.

Next, Husby followed lumber men around “keeping my mouth shut and listening and watching day after day. I learned a tonne”.

“Did I have to work double hard because I’m like a blonde girl and they expected me to be lazy and spoiled? Damn straight. But I like that. I like it when people tell me I can’t do something because it just fires me up and makes me work harder,” she says. “I think you just have to be yourself. I’m not afraid to tell somebody to ‘eff off – my dad raised me to stand up to people if they’re mean!”

Working for her father’s company during boom times in the US meant trips selling timber in ski resorts like Aspen and Vail.

“It was pretty cool,” she says. But it wasn’t all so glamorous. Showing that entrepreneurial streak, Husby began recovering timber from old buildings and a river debris trap.

“I would find dead cows and all sorts of crazy things in there,” she says. “My dad was like, what are you doing? And I was like, I just like the story.”

And it was that nose for a good tale that led to Panama. As stories go, the one about rare, ancient timber beneath alligator-infested waters is pretty intriguing. So, back from honeymoon, Husby bought into a small company she found recovering timber from the Panama Canal.

“The company was focusing on the softer woods so I started buying wood off them and shipping it back to Canada, testing it and doing lots of R&D on the species because a lot of people hadn’t heard of them,” she says. “I made guitars and decking and flooring and tabletops and veneer and I had to test it all out. I stood on the Forestry Advisory Council at the University of British Columbia, and they’re really good at letting me work with the scientists and testing out the woods.”

But it was not all plain sailing. Husby was effectively propping up the husband and wife-run Panamanian company with cash – but it turned out the husband was using the money to take his mistress on trips.

“The wife knew, so I got together with her and she convinced her family to sell me 65 per cent around the dirtbag. So I got 65 per cent of the company and then I just turfed him because he was a bad guy,” Husby says. “That was my first hostile takeover and hopefully my last!”

She expanded the operation with a sawmill, assuming another concession in the canal would be forthcoming. But work to expand the canal was behind schedule, meaning the authorities weren’t handing any out.

“At that point I had 60 guys to keep working, my concession was running out and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Husby recalls. “Then a miracle happened.”

A contact put her in touch with the indigenous Kuna Madugandi tribe. Husby’s background growing up on a remote First Nation reserve helped to foster mutual trust, and the tribe granted her one of the biggest concessions in the country – 15,000 hectares – on Lake Bayano.

Now there was just the small matter of getting the timber out of the water. Divers trained by US Navy SEALs – “safety first,” says Husby - tie guy lines to air tanks, which are filled up. They then cut the tree and it “literally pops up like a whale breaching”.

Then, two British-built boats that saw action in the Vietnam War – named the African Queen and Joan Jett – tow the wood to land, where it’s graded and batched based on size, species and characteristics, and shipped to the mill.

The whole process is as environmentally responsible as possible. The timber itself has the green stamp of approval from the Rainforest Alliance under the Rediscovered Wood certification programme. CoastEco’s Panama wood is also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Beyond that, the chainsaws used to cut the trees are lubricated using vegetable oil.

Husby, again influenced by growing up in a small community, is also committed to making a difference for local people, and not just through providing job opportunities.

Through the DoGoodWood Foundation, her company donates wood that would otherwise have been discarded for use as building materials, crafts or other household applications.

It also provides university scholarships, sports equipment, laptops for schools and has plans to build the area’s first large school to connect 14 different villages.

Husby’s work for the community in Panama is such that she has been adopted into the Kuna Madugandi with the name Olonadilii, meaning Daughter of the Moon.

“You have to make money to give money away,” she says. So the recovered wood has to hold its own in the market. Husby’s challenge has been to convince a traditionally conservative industry to take a chance on her rare, sometimes unheard of, species – one she has embraced with characteristic gusto.

“At first they were like, this isn’t in our product mix and I was like, listen, people are going to freak out. I sent them some on consignment to prove it and they can’t believe the interest. People are freaking out!” she says.

“If you were to buck off the end of one of my logs and a jungle log, they would look the same. The only difference is mine don’t have bark of leaves or any distinguishing features, all of that has been washed off, which actually makes things easier I think.

“We’ve done a lot of tests and apparently the underwater wood dries faster and is better acoustically and all sorts of stuff.

“I love giving people a story. If you’re going to have a deck in your house, say I’m over at your house for a barbeque and your deck is from underwater logs, how fun is that, right? It’s so cool!”

It also helps that the wood is some pretty fine timber. “Some of these slabs are like three, four feet wide and just tell this story. A slab can be a headboard, a bench, a tabletop, it can be anything. You can make a mantel or a shelf,” says Husby. “It’s an imagination station.”

A UK distribution deal was signed last year with Timbmet. “They get approached by companies all the time but Simon [Fineman, Timbmet chief executive] got it immediately, understood the value of the story behind it and liked the whole thing,” says John Duffy, Coast Eco Timber’s UK operations manager.

The first containers of decking and sawn timber are now arriving here.

“We think that when joinery companies get their hands on the sawn material, and the decking as well, they’re going to find timber that is, how can I put it, like timber they used to be able to get years ago that they don’t really get anymore because of this ancient quality that it’s got,” says Duffy.

“We’ve had a lot of testing done at TRADA as well to prove durability and such like – once they get to know the timber, we’re pretty confident there’s going to be reorders coming in thick and fast.”

Coast Eco already has one committed UK fan in none other than Grand Designs host Kevin McCloud, who named the company one of his “Green Heroes”.

“What a cool guy,” says Husby. “He got really excited about our wood – he was like a little kid. I was honoured.”

Husby says her ambition is to get a piece of Panamanian timber into every apartment going up in London – but it’s not all about the luxury market.

“Because I own the source, we can pass on the value. I’m like, listen boys, I’d rather sell like 10,000 Volkswagens than one Ferrari so let’s not price ourselves out. Let’s allow everybody to have that story,” she says.

“I’m so excited to be working with Timbmet because they’re over 70 years old and they’ve got beautiful distribution centres and trucks – and that’s the part I hate.

“I want to be in London a lot more. I love it here, I love England. It’s so nice because I’m from British Columbia – I miss sweaters. I know you’re going to think I’m really weird, but I miss rain. Panama’s like the surface of the sun and I was born with waxy feathers, so I want to be here a lot more.

“So that’s the plan, to just grow the hell out of this business and give people the most beautiful ancient growth wood that I can, you know?”

Who would bet against her?

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2015 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine