Being a change-maker: Q&A with Kelly Parfitt, manager of engineering and capital for Canfor Pulp
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh
Who: Kelly Parfitt
Role: Manager of Engineering and Capital
Employer: Canfor Pulp
Lives in: Prince George, B.C.
Years in industry: 23
Kelly Parfitt’s passion for engineering and her knowledge of the industry from an early age paved the path for her career in pulp and paper. As an engineering manager, she leverages everything she has learned along the way to bring about a change for the better, both for the people and the mills.
Pulp & Paper Canada: Tell us about your beginnings in the pulp and paper industry. When and why did you decide to be a part of it?
Kelly Parfitt: I’m the second generation in my family to be in the pulp and paper industry. My father worked at Canfor’s Northwood Pulp mill. I had an aptitude and interest in engineering when I was in high school. My father worked with engineers at the mill, so, he introduced me to engineering through pulp and paper.
After becoming a bio-resource engineer, I circled back to pulp and paper. I had connections in this industry. I had worked for Canfor as a student. After graduating university, I joined a consulting firm where I worked with several pulp mills throughout B.C. I then joined Canfor Pulp in 2009 and have been with this company since.
Since my father worked in this industry, I remember many exciting union discussions at our dinner table. The insights I came away with were really valuable. They helped me understand things from various perspectives. This helps me to lead better today because it’s not just a single view of the world.
P&PC: What has your journey in this industry been like so far? Any particular challenges?
KP: I was lucky to be able to identify what I was good at and what I loved really early on. I came into the pulp and paper industry with my engineering background and the benefit of being a second-generation worker. It was very challenging but also, culturally, a really easy fit for me. I also grew up in Prince George. I had built relationships fairly early on, and it made a big difference. So, very quickly I was able to bring my skills to pulp and paper and excel here.
It’s always a steep learning curve when you’re out of school and coming into the work environment. That was there, but I think my career has gone well for me. I’ve had the opportunity to do some consulting, as well as work right within the facilities. That has helped me bring value to the different opportunities that I’ve had in the industry.
One of the steepest learning curves for me was the progression into leadership. As an engineer in pulp and paper, I had a lot of success and accomplishments. However, when I moved into leadership roles, I struggled a bit to find how I added value. My initial instinct is to revert back to engineering to try to bring value, but I ultimately discovered how to find value as a leader. I think this is a common feeling for leaders who move from a technical role to leadership. I have embraced a leadership role and have received excellent support at Canfor Pulp. I’ve had mentors and leaders who have guided me in this journey. I get more job satisfaction today leading the teams than I ever thought I could.
P&PC: When you took up this leadership role as a manager, did you go for any additional training and education?
KP: Probably through my whole career there’s been some training along the way, even if I didn’t recognize it at that time, that prepared me for this role. Learning how to interact with people, understanding the obstacles people face, and making mistakes along the way has all been preparation for the next step in my career.
Canfor Pulp has also provided some formal training on leadership. One example is when COVID started, there were opportunities early on to learn how to lead remotely.
I also sought out experienced leaders who mentored me. Leaders at Canfor Pulp have been very open with their experiences and that has been a big opportunity for me to learn and to grow.
I think leadership is a lot about opening yourself up to different conversations and perspectives. For me, being in a leadership role has resulted in a lot of personal growth. The training and mentorship has really allowed me to question my viewpoints and identify my own biases to create a better work environment for myself and others.
P&PC: The pulp and paper industry is constantly evolving. It has gone through so many changes in the past few decades. What has it felt like being a part of this changing landscape?
KP: As an engineer, it’s a great fit. The opportunities to be innovative, to look at challenges that face our industry and identify potential solutions, have been exciting.
It’s not just taking chips and making pulp and paper. It’s also about safety and our impact on the environment. And as technology and innovation, and the demands of the outside world, all come together, we continually get to be part of projects that not only impact the quality of the products that we make and how efficiently we make them but how we impact the environment and maintain our safety standards.
I’ve never found a lack of something interesting to do that will have a significant impact on the mills and on the community.
P&PC: What does a typical day look like at present?
KP: The day-to-day is more challenging since COVID. For our people [in pulp and paper], it has been difficult to transition into remote work.
One of the advantages of working directly within a mill is the ability to see what’s going on, to interact with the people who are operating and maintaining the mills, and to be able to collaborate.
That collaboration has been more challenging. We’ve come up with very creative ways to continue to collaborate but I think we’re all very excited to get back to a place where we can do everything more interactively.
I would say, my role today is very diverse. At one moment, I could be on a meeting where I am mentoring a group representing three different mills that are working collaboratively on process improvement. And then in the next moment I may be meeting about our joint venture partnership – Arbios Biotech – where I am reviewing the utility connections to the pulp mill. And later I could be having procurement discussions to help improve contract management across departments.
So, in a day, I’m usually switching between many topics to work on continuous improvement at our mills and review of how all of the processes interact.
P&PC: What was it like when you were working as an engineer? How were your days different?
KP: When I was a process engineer, I worked with operations. I would go for a walk through the different areas and make observations.
I remember early on that I was once shown a kiln and told to observe what a flame on the kiln should look like. So, I grabbed my little lens and looked at the kiln flame every day. It looked the same every day, I didn’t know what to look for. I wondered if I was just missing something. Then one day, there were some problems in the kiln and the flame looked terrible. And I realized that the effort creating that baseline observation had value and purpose. I knew how to help correct the kiln flame shape because I knew what it was supposed to look like.
So, as a process engineer, it was really about getting input from the operators and observing what was going on in the process. The job was about building that experience and knowledge around what things should look like, sound like, feel like, and so on. I also worked with FP Innovations on projects. They came in, did trials and tests, and then we worked together to develop projects and optimize the process.
When I became a project engineer, it was about working on a group of projects at various stages of development. I worked on them every day with different groups, including vendors, contractors and consultants, to move them forward.
And now, my role has progressed to include a far more strategic focus, interacting with people and asking good questions. It is about taking all of what I’ve learned before to help guide others.
P&PC: Are there any projects that you have worked on that are particularly memorable for you?
KP: There are projects that are memorable because they didn’t go the way you wanted them to. You hold on to those because the failures often stick with you even more than the successes, but in a good way too, because you learn so much from them.
As a project engineer, I was developing projects where we were installing new assets. But our process for managing the change was not always optimal. Things like making sure that we had all the documentation and all the spare parts to be able to maintain and operate the new asset could sometimes be missed. So, we would be operating a piece of new equipment without having all of the information in the right places.
I was a part of a lot of these projects where I knew there was a gap. When I became an engineering manager, I said we have got to change this. So, we came up with a temporary process. It wasn’t permanent but it was a process that we could use within the boundaries that we had set to bring in some support. And we completed documentation for about 100 projects. We cleaned up that backlog and got all of the documentation for maintenance and operations. It felt like a huge win.
In my current role I continue to work with maintenance and reliability to come up with sustainable processes. We’re working with software and building tools that will help us to do that. We’re also incorporating this need into discussions about our organizational structure. So, I was able to take something that I couldn’t do anything about, to something I could improve in my current role, that will benefit future projects.
P&PC: What is it that you love the most about your job today?
KP: My favourite part is the people. Since the time I started in the industry, I’ve never had anybody say that they don’t have time to help me or answer my questions. I’ve never had somebody say that what I brought to the table wasn’t of any value. There’s so much opportunity to be a part of things because of the people. It’s been really great to be at Canfor Pulp, but I have noticed this in other parts of our industry as well.
P&PC: What has your experience been like as a woman in this industry?
KP: I think engineers are a bit unique that way. There is such a team focus on problem-solving that you may not notice or get wrapped up in the bias around you. So, I focussed on the job that I had to do and on contributing to my team.
For me, I think it was interesting when I became a part of Canfor’s Diversity Council. I was a new leader at the time and it was such a growth experience for me. I was able to see that my contribution to the Diversity Council wasn’t about somebody helping me, because I was doing quite well. It was really about what I could do for other people and how I might be able to help other people, whether they were other women or minorities that were maybe having issues.
I became excited about the opportunities to just support other people and help create a better work environment by having that awareness. I really could engage and start to grow and learn myself, about ways that maybe even I was preventing other people from having a fulfilling experience at the workplace. And that’s where I became a bigger advocate for inclusion.
It’s really not about white men creating a better environment for women and minorities. It’s about absolutely all of us creating that environment for everyone. And I think that that was the learning curve for me.
There’s lots of room for me to improve. It’s really easy to just jump into the culture that’s there sometimes. Especially, because I grew up in Prince George, and in pulp and paper. So, I asked myself what I could do to contribute to an environment that is all-inclusive.
P&PC: What advice would you give to somebody, especially a woman, who’s thinking about a career in pulp and paper?
KP: I will give the same advice that I got, which was to focus on the work, focus on your contribution. There are many other things that can distract you from the work and contribution, no matter who you are. So, it is important to not let them get in your way. I think everybody has a valuable contribution that they can make and if they are focused on that, they will find job satisfaction and the highest level of success. You will succeed if you’re doing what you love to the best of your ability.
P&PC: What is exciting to you about your future in this industry?
KP: What I am really focused on right now and believe will add the most value is how we spend capital. We’ve got mills that are over 50 years old. And we have these wonderful opportunities to bring in expertise and really evaluate our impacts on the environment and on our communities. So, I think about strategically being able to marry the reinvestment into the mills on infrastructure, with the initiatives around efficiency, decarbonization and reducing our emissions.
What I’m seeing strategically is how many synergies there are between reinvesting in infrastructure and running efficiently, as well as reducing our impact on the environment.
So, I’m thinking about how to build our capital plans and maintenance plans moving forward so that we can maximize Canfor’s investment.
It is about working towards manufacturing excellence. I look at the enormous effort that people put in. Over the past few years, our performance hasn’t matched that effort and I hate to see that. So, I feel incredibly engaged and committed to manufacturing excellence, because it gives us this opportunity to match effort and results. We can create the structure, the systems and the processes to get the best results from our people’s effort.