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Planting of ArborGen's 10 billionth seedling an encouraging symbol

Nov. 16, 2011
Charleston Post and Courier
By John McDermott
The world's growing appetite for wood and wood byproducts has a leafy new symbol: a young Southern red oak that was planted west of Summerville early Tuesday.

The tree was placed in a freshly dug hole in the ground next to the future headquarters of ArborGen, marking the 10 billionth seedling to spring from the locally based biotechnology business.

Barbara Wells, president and chief executive of the company, called the milestone a "powerful demonstration of how our products are helping to meet the challenges facing the global commercial forestry industry."

ArborGen supplies thousands of commercial landowners with "purpose-grown" trees that eventually are sold off to various business, such as lumber companies and paper makers. The firm's researchers are seeking ways to develop disease-resistant pine and hardwood seedlings that can be raised and harvested faster.

Despite taking a hit from the widespread construction slump, sales are increasing, Wells said.

"That says something about our business," she said.

One potentially promising area for ArborGen is the growing demand for wood pellets from the renewable energy industry, particularly in Europe. In response, the firm is researching eucalyptus tree seedlings that could provide feedstock for alternative generating plants abroad.

"There are mandates in Europe for renewable energy, both for producing heat and electric power, so that business is continuing to develop," Wells said.

Also, she said, ArborGen plans to revisit plans to sell some of its stock in an initial public offering.

"The idea is to take it public still," Wells said.

The company axed its original IPO that was to raise up to $106 million earlier this year because of unfavorable market conditions, including the emerging debt crisis in Greece.

"Fortunately we have very committed shareholders ... They opted to continue to fund the company and not take it public at the wrong time." Wells said.

In addition, ArborGen hopes to complete its move into its new corporate headquarters and nursery operation in Pine Hill Business Campus off U.S. Highway 17A in January.

The company was formed in early 2000, but its roots go back decades. It was created when the long-running research programs of three forest-product giants were combined: Westvaco Corp., now MeadWestvaco; International Paper Co.; and Rubicon Ltd. of New Zealand.

The companies remain the top shareholders in the Summerville-based business.

With operations in four countries and annual sales of more than 275 million trees, ArborGen describes itself as is the world's largest commercial provider of tree seedlings. The bulk of its handiwork -- more than 250 million future trees -- are planted in forests around the Southeast.

The seedlings ArborGen now offers are developed through conventional breeding methods, but the company also is working on genetically altered versions that are not yet approved for commercial sales, officials said.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.

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