FPAC Guest Blog - Mona Chapates, Tolko #Takeyourplace

Mona Chapates
September 23, 2019

I’ve never been asked to write a blog before, and to be honest I googled “how to write a blog” to know where to begin. I’m grateful for this opportunity to share some aspects of my journey which have been impactful in my career, in hopes that it might create a positive impact for someone else. While I’ve been reflecting on key moments over the years, recently I found myself struggling to see the significance of my story. It was when I went back to my early career, that I realized that those learnings and lessons at that time in my career have continued to play a role in my success. I started out my career stacking lumber, and am currently the Production Manager at Tolko Industries, Athabasca Division in Slave Lake, AB. Here are some of key defining moments on the path from start to present.

Show up, and make a difference. This is a concept that I learned quite early on in my career…in fact on my first day in forest products. I remember my first day at the sawmill quite vividly. It was 18 years ago in Ear Falls, Ontario a small town where a job with a competitive wages and benefits was a limited resource. At 22, I was grateful to have this opportunity, especially getting hired without experience. On my first shift, a night shift…I filled carts with 2 x 4’s consecutively for 8 hours. I went home, in tears thinking that there’s no way I could do this. I remember the thought that giving up and walking away from this scaring me more, and I decided that I would show up the next day. I had to at least try. I couldn’t live with the thought of giving up this incredible livelihood opportunity. I’m grateful that I did…because the decision that I made to show up is one that I’ve continued to make daily for 18 years. The thing about showing up is that you consciously choose to be present and work to make a difference. Unlike celebrating successes, while rewarding, they are often quick-win’s and short lived. The learning process, though painful at times, has consistently yielded much more rewarding and long-term benefits. It isn’t easy to try and fail, or to realize that you’re wrong about something, but the willingness to acknowledge it and change is one of the best ways to make a difference at work.

Go for it. Even when the odds seem stacked against, I recommend trying anyways. My 3rd year at the sawmill, a position was posted for Production Coordinator – Planer. In 2004, it seemed unlikely that a 25 year old girl with 3 years mill experience would be considered in the mix, especially when there were others with a lot more years of experience. Despite this, I had developed confidence in my abilities in the weeks and months that followed that first shift pulling lumber where I thought I’d never make it. My efforts had paid off, and in the 3 years that followed, I had become trained on every piece of equipment within the mill. This included the sawmill where I had spent the last year working as a relief sawmill supervisor, or “CRO” (continuous relief operator). I was proud of myself for this accomplishment, and it had developed my confidence and the motivation to keep developing my skills.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll get everything that you go after…but you’ll never know if you don’t try. In many circumstance, I know that I seemed the unlikely choice. It was less about the chances of me failing, and more about the realization that my chances would have be zero had I didn’t try. It’s been less about what people have to say, and more about me setting out to achieve the goals that I set out for myself. I’d also be naïve if I didn’t acknowledge that there have been those in my career who had a significant impact by choosing to make what they believe to be the right decisions VS. the popular one. I believe the most instrumental person was the Planer Superintendent who took a chance on me and offered me that job as a shift supervisor. His name is Kelvin Kostyniuk, and I’m regretful that we lost touch when I left Ontario. I have tremendous gratitude for him and the role he played in the success achieved in my career. I don’t believe I would be where I am today without him.

The next 18 months went by smoothly with my transition into a leadership role accompanied with record Safety, Quality and Production results. It’s easy to show up and go for it when things are going well. I loved my job! Staying positive in challenging times I learned is easier when things are going well. Over the course of the next year and a half, the US tariffs on the mill’s exported product was affecting its sustainably from a financial standpoint. I remember making the decision at this point that I couldn’t control the circumstances but that it was it was my decision on what my next steps would be. Rather than to focus on the uncertainty or entertain the “unfairness” of the situation, it became much more about what I was going to do about it. And I’m grateful for this realization, because I don’t think I would have left everything familiar to move to Slave Lake, Alberta which I’ve now called home for the last 13 years.

It was scary to leave home and a good job, however subsequently after moving to Alberta I had some time to get established in Slave Lake and look at available employment, being on maternity leave for a few more months. When it was time to return to work, I was fortunate to get a job at the local veneer mill where I worked for about 6 months. That’s when I saw the posting: “Production Team Leader” position for Tolko Industries, Athabasca Division where construction was nearly complete.

This for me was another one of those “go for it” situations…though it seemed a bit of a stretch even to me. I had no experience making OSB, but I was willing to learn. I did have a foundation of 5 years leadership experience in a supervisory role, why not? I used the time after I submitted my application to educate myself as much as possible with the manufacturing process and busied my mind with preparing myself for a potential interview. Getting that phone call in April 2007 and being offered the first Production Team Leader role at Tolko Athabasca is one of my milestone achievements that I’m both proud of and grateful for.

I was employed with Tolko for 3 years in which time I learned a lot. Back to my point that learning is not easy at times. Commissioning a plant is a very complex process. Supervising a complex manufacturing process without previous experience on the equipment is daunting, I learned to rely on those around me and worked to help the team make collective, calculated decisions. I learned that turbulent markets can affect even the most world class, cutting edge, technologically advanced facilities. I remember the sinking feeling the day that the CEO announced the plant’s curtailment.

Coming back to Tolko 6 years later was something I would have said unlikely when the plant closed in 2008 and my employment ended in 2009. I loved the people…but I had been personally invested and it was seemed like such a loss. I had a fairly smooth transition in the oilfield for the next five years, working at a small oilfield distribution supply branch and a pump jack services company. Fast forward 4 years, I was instantly drawn to the thought and prospect of going back to Tolko! Returning in July 2013 as the Area Lead for the Woodroom and Logyard, I learned a lot in the 4 years that followed and have worked with so many great people. I am grateful for the skills I further developed which helped me to prepare for my current role. I’ve been in this role for just over 2 years now and quite frankly it has been the most challenging role in my career. Having said that, it’s been the most rewarding and I am grateful for those to believe in me, and have invested in me.

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t personally invested in the desire to be a part of our facility achieving work class results. I’m fortunate to work for a company that is guided by values which align with my leadership brand. Safety, Respect, Progressiveness, Integrity, Open Communication, and Profit. I believe my part in this is in continuing to make the choice to show up, do my best, add value where I can, be open to continue the learning and change process (which includes continuing to own my mistakes along the way and learn from them). This is the best way that I know how to add value towards the bigger picture, and to make each day count.

These learning (showing up, going for it, not being defined by circumstances) are points that continue to guide me daily. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that external factors are unpredictable and uncontrollable. It becomes that much more important to collectively remain focused on what can be controlled vs. what we have no control over. In times of uncertainty some advice which I highly value is that when the path is unclear, represent your leadership brand. Be your authentic self, this you have control over no matter what.

I believe that the biggest opportunity you can give yourself is the courage to try. I believe that failure is not the opposite of success, but rather part of it. If you aren’t willing to experience the failure part, you rob yourself of the opportunity to experience success. I truly believe that by continuously working to become the best version of ourselves, that we show up and have the most positive impact on our families, friends, workplaces and communities. It starts with you!!

For more information contact:
Kerry Patterson-Baker
Vice President, Communications and Public Affairs
Follow FPAC on Twitter: @FPAC_APFC
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