A varied career: Q&A with Canfor safety manager Grace Cox
By Ellen Cools
Grace Cox has been with Canfor since 1979, when she started as a summer student. She was initially hired in the sales and shipping department, but, since then, she has held a variety of roles, including planer superintendent, continuous improvement coordinator, human resources, and now, safety manager. Grace is proud of how far the industry has come in terms of diversity and inclusion, and is a passionate advocate for forestry.
CFI: What led you to join Canfor in 1979?
I started with Canfor as a summer student right out of high school. I was really excited at the time, finding a well-paying summer job. My family wasn’t in the forest industry, but I had lots of friends who had multiple family members working for Canfor. At that time, I had no idea about the opportunities in the forest industry. And yet, before the summer was over, my manager offered me a position in sales and shipping, and that opened doors which I hadn’t even imagined at that time. Within a few years, I was asked to travel to Japan on a sales trip and was in awe. Our customers were kind of intrigued because I was the first female that they had seen in a role like this. That was the beginning of a lot of interesting challenges and a very varied career with Canfor.
CFI: What is it about the industry that you find appealing?
The people. We’ve got the most amazing people in our industry, whether they’re colleagues or our customers or in the plants or woodlands or in the offices. We have amazing people.
The other thing that is really important to me is that wood is the ultimate natural, renewable resource, and the way we use the wood. Whether it’s lumber or pulp – which are our two core businesses – we use the product in a sustainable way. Over the years, I’ve loved seeing continuous improvement through technology and the innovative ideas that have led us to the point now where we’re wasting very little, if nothing. We fully utilize the resources. Living in the north, we love being outdoors and really respect the nature around us. To be able to go out and see a block that was logged years ago, and once again see healthy working forests, that is definitely a source of pride for me.
CFI: What roles have you held over the years? What are your main responsibilities now as safety manager for Canfor?
I have had a lot of opportunity in our business over the years. I started with sales and shipping, and then I was planer superintendent and a continuous improvement coordinator before getting into human resources. I progressed to regional human resources looking after the north. All these roles helped get me to where I am today, which is safety manager. That was over a lot of years – and 17 supervisors along the way.
Beginning in sales and shipping was a great entry into the forest industry because it gave me appreciation for our customers and their needs, what we can do to serve our customers, and, honestly, that’s stayed with me throughout my career. Then, I moved into more production roles, which was really interesting, and then into the quality side of it. Being part of improving process optimization to produce top-quality products safely and efficiently was a huge learning. I was given the opportunity to manage the Chetwynd sawmill for a while, and then managed continuous improvement through all of the sites, which was fantastic because we worked with groups of employees to develop solutions for production issues. Then I jumped into HR, which led me into my current role, which is safety manager – wood products.
Currently, I lead a team of safety professionals whose job is to ensure that safety comes first at Canfor. We work with our operations at all of our worksites towards our goal of zero safety incidents, help to keep our people safe from the pandemic, and ensure that we’re continually improving our safety systems, processes and culture. Safety is our single highest priority on a day-to-day basis, and we’re always looking for best-in-class safety protocols. I personally am extremely passionate about safety and really proud of our people because they’re the ones that keep us a safety leader.
CFI: Were there particular people who encouraged, supported or mentored you over the years?
Yes, and I’m extremely grateful to have had some fantastic mentors that gave me honest feedback, encouraged me and supported me through different stages of my career. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for them, and I really hope that over time I can pay it forward to the next generation.
One of my fondest mentors was a boss who really taught me how to learn. Instead of giving me answers, he’d give me questions, and his favourite question was “Why?” He would pose a challenge, I would suggest a solution and then came more ‘Whys?’. So, it really was always something new to figure out, and that questioning helped me learn to find solutions, and I think it’s really helped me throughout my career.
CFI: When you started out in forestry, were you apprehensive about being a woman in a predominantly male industry?
Oh yes. I was young, and I remember many times working with crews and going to meetings and trainings where I was the only woman. I mean, 40 years ago it was a lot different. We didn’t even have a woman’s bathroom in some of our areas back then. But, I’ve got to say, I’m extremely proud of the changes we’ve made and continue to make.
CFI: So, how has the industry evolved over the years in terms of diversity and inclusion?
I believe we’ve made huge strides forward, on both diversity and inclusion. I’m honoured currently to be part of Canfor’s Canadian Diversity Council, which is sponsored by our CEO Don Kayne. The Council advises and informs company policy, looking for ways to embed and advance inclusion and diversity across all areas in the organization. Our goal is that by 2030, the diversity of our people reflects the communities that we operate in. To me, that’s fantastic.
CFI: Do you find there are particular challenges or hurdles for women in the industry today?
I don’t look at them as challenges or hurdles; I’ve always looked at them as opportunities to prove yourself. I learned early on in my career that being prepared and gaining a good understanding of the business was critical to gain respect and become part of a team. And, as an organization, I know we want to increase the percentage of women in our workforce. Today, we have a MentorMe program for women, which is a more formal structure to help us move the needle around diversity and inclusion and develop leaders to advance our organization.
CFI: So, what advice do you have for women that want to get into the forest industry?
To me, there are lots of opportunities for women in forestry. My advice would be to always take every opportunity to learn the business, engage with the people and have confidence in your own ability.
As an industry, I really think we need to do a better job of branding our companies so that people understand who we are, what we’re producing and how we do it, and how women are equally capable of being successful. At Canfor, we’re making strides and it’s an area that I’m passionate about. I am and always have been proud to be part of Canfor and the forest industry. To me, we have a renewable resource and we’re not doing enough to sell it to the rest of the world. I really believe we’re in a phenomenal industry.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge.