PanelTech acquisition inspired by a history of wood products innovation

Ask the new owner of PanelTech International why he put together the $2.4 million winning bid to take over the Hoquiam-based composite wood products company in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and Gale Dahlstrom unfolds the history of the Harbor Plywood Corporation.

It is a history of the plywood pioneers of the Harbor, where on Christmas eve 1934 Harbor Plywood General Manager and vice president Bob Wuest “startled the plywood world by announcing the successful development on a new type of Douglas fir plywood made with waterproof hot-pressed resin.”

That led to what became known as “Super Hardbord” and then in 1939, “Super Harborite,” a plastic overlay with a smooth, dense surface.

“We’re still running that same plant today,”Dahlstrom notes of the underlying motivation for stepping in to save the financially strapped PanelTech, known as one of the most innovative composite-based companies of recent years.

Had Dahlstrom and his group of local investors not won the bid at auction, PanelTech was might have gone to Expanko Inc., a flooring products manufacturer with headquarters in Pennsylvania, court documents show.

“Basically, we got into it because it looked like an outside firm was interested in purchasing it and perhaps moving it, and henceforth out of Grays Harbor,” said Dahlstrom the driving financial force behind the new ownership company, Little Green LLC.

PanelTech manufactures solid surface phenolic resin paper composite products under the Paperstone, Rainstone and Stonekast brands for kitchen and bath surfaces, architectural use and other applications. It also uses resins to create products like vehicle armor and facility blast protection.

At a non-distinct office off Port Industrial Road known as Harpo Investments, Dahlstrom displays some of the original ads and marketing tools used to sell the early composite products from Harbor Plywood’s bygone era to illustrate the main reason he and his new company stepped into the bidding process after Expanko attempted to purchase the company for just over $2 million in early January. Other members of the limited liability company are Randy Rust of Grayland and Rick Rust of Aberdeen, brothers who built Westport Shipyard into a major operation; and Dahlstrom’s brothers Monte of Aberdeen and Kirk of Craig, Alaska.

Dahlstrom bought the old Evans Plywood operation in 1996, the same year PanelTech was founded, and has been operating that overlay business since then.

“We’ve been in it forever,” Dahlstrom said of his background in the industry.

Last March, Dahlstrom became an interested observer when PanelTech filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the company tried but failed to reorganize operations amid mounting debt and unexpected decreases in sales. Prior to the bankruptcy filing, the company reported declines in commercial and military sales of its household countertops, construction frames, ballistic armor panels and other products.

Dahlstrom has nothing but admiration for what PanelTech’s operating staff and employees have produced with the company, especially company President and CEO Roy Nott.

“Quiet honestly, those people have taken it to a new level and have done a tremendous job,” Dahlstrom said.

The company still is in production and currently has about 30 employees. Dahlstrom said his intention is to keep all the employees working, including management and upper management.

“At least some of them have indicated they had a desire to work with us in the future,” he said.

Nott along with Scott Olmstead, the company’s chief financial officer, and Ronald Iff, production manager at the Stevens Way facility, also formed a corporation last June that was part of the bidding process and tried to find new financial backing to run PanelTech, ultimately losing out on the final sale, which was approved by the court on Friday.

When he first talked to PanelTech staff after the sale, Dahlstrom realized it ‘was a tough moment for them” in having to part with full control over the company. “It’s always tough if you build something,” he said.

Dahlstrom hopes to grow the company’s relationship with other composite manufacturing efforts on the Harbor, such as the still developing Reed Composites in the Port of Grays Harbor’s newest facility.

The Port, he said, has agreed to extend the current PanelTech lease, something the Bankruptcy Court wanted to be assured of before approving the sale.

Court documents list the value of the company’s equipment at $765,600, with inventory of $598,698, accounts receivable at $530,917 and “intangibles” at $184,785. Dahlstrom knows the past few years have been hard on the company because of the recession and said he hopes it can now begin to grow again. He doesn’t expect that growth to occur rapidly, but he shares a sense of civic relief at having helped preserve a part of history.

“We certainly didn’t want the jobs to leave,” he said.

Asked how a reporter should describe him, Dahlstrom overrules most labels and says he’s just a “businessman. That’s as close as you can get.”