Mark Elston followed his father into the timber industry back when business was booming. “When I started, you could really mess things up and still make good money,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore.”

Elston runs a lumber mill in Tillamook, Ore., for Hampton Affiliates. The company has spent millions on energy efficiency and technology upgrades that allow his mill to make the most out of every log. But despite those investments, the mill was on the ropes after the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2008.

Northwest lumber mills suffered a one-two punch in the wake of that collapse: First, they lost their home-building customers in the U.S. Then, log buyers in China drove up the cost of their feedstock logs.

Even after laying off workers and cutting operations, the mills were still limping along. They needed to make more money on their lumber to make up for the higher cost they were paying for logs. They also needed new customers.

The answer? Hampton started asking Chinese companies to buy lumber, too. Elston said it took another round of investments before Hampton had the expertise to cultivate a customer base in China and produce lumber those customers wanted to buy.

From Jefferson Public Radio: