Derek Nighbor of FPAC speaks to Paper Advance

Derek Nighbor, CEO, FPAC


Derek Nighbor admitted ours wasn't the first interview he'd agreed to since accepting his post at the helm of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC).

As the Association evolves and matures into its role as a prominent advocate for Canada's forest sector, it is safe to say FPAC is in not only competent hands, but also in ones with a deep-seeded respect for the industry. With a career grounded solidly in regulatory and policy issues, as well as communications and association work, many eyes are on Nighbor as he carves out a vision and a path for FPAC, the industry, and the people who rely steadfastly upon its success.

Paper Advance: Why FPAC, and why now? Is this a job you would have considered accepting, say, ten years ago, when the industry was on much shakier footing?

Nighbor: I was raised in Pembroke, in the Ottawa valley, which is prime lumber and sawmill territory. This industry, regardless of its position, has always been really exciting to me. My grandfather and father spent their careers working in a corrugated box plant – my brothers and I worked there in the summers, so the industry has been close to my upbringing. It's always been important to me from the perspective that I've seen firsthand how critical the industry is to the communities where I grew up. I've always had an affinity for the sector. But even apart from that, the particular position of the industry right now, where it's poised to be a big leader in the climate change debate, where it can stand to really capitalize on the opportunities brought about by innovation in order to become an even bigger economic player in this country - that to me is really interesting.

Paper Advance:  Vision 2020 seems to be a cornerstone of FPAC's mandate and agenda. How difficult is it to be responsible for delivering on an agenda that you weren't around to help conceptualize?

Nighbor: It's an important vision, with very big goals. As an association, of course, our member companies are working to meet the specific goals, and our role is to best support them and help them navigate relationships with government and grow their businesses in a sustainable way. At the end of the day it's up to member companies to hire Canadians and to invest in their own operations, while it's up to us to enable them to do these things. Vision 2020 is important in that it espouses environmental, social and economic objectives. These are the things we are talking to government about, so that we can continue to employ and deliver quality jobs in rural communities, to help ensure government continues to support the sector.

Paper Advance: How has FPAC's role evolved as Canada's forestry sector has carved out new niches for itself?

Nighbor: The new government in Ottawa is really focused on supporting growth and innovation in business and climate change. No industry is better positioned to work with government than forestry. It's our role to ensure our companies get access to the programs, investments and supports that are available through our current government, while assisting them in developing new, leading edge products that people all around the world want. We are talking to ministers about how we are positioned to deliver some real wins for Canada on climate, on growing the economy, on sustainability.

Paper Advance: I imagine partnerships are crucial to FPAC's success. Given the changes in our industry, has the importance of relationships with mills shifted to accommodate an increased importance on relationships with academia, clean tech companies, or biotech firms, for example?

Nighbor: I think we are seeing a couple of things. Especially with the new government, the way to do business in general is through partnerships and collaboration. Through leveraging the strengths of others. Where we can work with another industry, or group, with academia, or other stakeholders, we are prepared to do that. We see our member companies doing this all the time. They need to go outside of their own organizations in order to access different capacities to develop new products. Strategic partnerships are a very, very big part of our business.

Paper Advance: How has forestry joined in the conversation on climate change? What role does it play? What role does FPAC play?

Nighbor: I think the role of the association is to ensure that government is aware of the challenges and opportunities for the sector. We communicate to government the role they can play in both easing the burdens to growing and sustaining business in Canada, and also that we are a resource just down the street from Parliament and can be a valuable partner in a variety of ways, when developing or updating policies, when developing new trade deals with China and India, for example. That's definitely the main focus for us here in Ottawa. The most recent federal budget contained $3 billion for innovation and climate change and our goal is to work with our members and government to make sure that our companies get their fair share of access to that funding so that we can do more – innovate more, develop more, contribute more to climate change efforts.

Paper Advance: How does FPAC engage with Aboriginal communities?

Nighbor: It's really our member companies who have the direct opportunities to engage with Aboriginal communities, because a great deal of them have operations in or near Aboriginal communities. Our role is really to stay close. We respect the work our companies do in their own communities by staying on top of trends, by liaising with groups that work within that space. Aboriginal engagement is a growing agenda item for our current government, and we are working to understand what role we can play in supporting those commitments.

Paper Advance: Can you be more specific?

Nighbor: Sure. The recent budget earmarked funding for building infrastructure in First Nations communities. So, we are looking at what role our member companies can play in providing affordable building materials, for example. It's also about working with government to make sure they are aware of and understand the roles we can play.

Paper Advance: How does FPAC influence the policy-making process? Has its approach changed along with the change in government?

Nighbor: One of the biggest changes with the current government is there is a large urban element to it. More of the major cities have liberal MPs. There is some rural representation but a big part of our work is to get urban MPs and ministers to think about rural impacts, when most of them don't have mills in their ridings. It's thinking about how we can bring benefits to urban ridings. I think climate change efforts and the contribution of jobs, both direct and indirect is key in this. There are some 200 new MPs in this government, who have never been MPs before, and so there is a lot of basic education about our industry through outreach efforts that is happening, and needs to continue to happen. Working with key ministers, particularly those involved in finance, environment and natural resources, is key for us, in making sure their departments are working to bring great ideas to our sector.

Paper Advance: What are your goals for the Association for the next five years?

Nighbor: Definitely to expand on the innovation agenda. When it comes to natural resources there is still a lot of talk about oil and gas in Canada. One of my big priorities is to remind decision makers that we have another very powerful sector in Canada; forestry. That it has more potential to address the serious issue of climate change than any other industry. Labor is another big issue. We need to ensure our mills and companies have the staff and talent to run their businesses. We need to make sure we are at the leading edge of what skills will be needed in the next few years and so we are working with the education sector to ensure those skills and trades will be there, developed, when we need them. We are also continuing our momentum in working with partners and stakeholders in sustainable forest management. The thing I am proudest of, when I look at other countries, is that Canada is the best in the world at sustainable forest management. People sometimes need to be reminded of this. For every single tree that comes down in Canada, at least one more is planted. That really speaks to just how committed our industry is to sustainability. And we need to remind our friends in big cities just how sustainable this sector is, that forestry is a cool, leading-edge products, modern, high-tech, environmentally-friendly sector.

Paper Advance: Is FPAC continuing to seek new members, or have you reached somewhat of a saturation point?

Nighbor: We are always looking for new members. The industry is very diverse. We like to say that you find wood products in everything from hockey sticks to lipsticks. We are very mindful that companies who may have never considered themselves as being part of the forestry space, are potential members. It's a real revolution. While it's a challenge common to any association to constantly ask itself, 'where is my industry going?' our member companies are becoming increasingly diverse and we are seeing more and more new ones developing tight links to forestry.