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By Tony Kryzanowski
Maybe it’s the years they have invested into the logging business or a recent decision by one of the owners to donate a kidney to a logger friend that has helped to put a few things into perspective, but the current owners of Robill Contracting Ltd. bring a decidedly ‘enjoy the moment’ philosophy to their waning days in the cutblock these days.
Robill Contracting is owned by Russ McDonald and his cousins, Norm and Barry McDonald. Surrounded by family throughout their operations in central Alberta—with a couple of the owners seriously thinking of moving into retirement mode—their focus now is on running an efficient logging operation and passing on their considerable knowledge to younger family members. Their legacy is intact as a younger generation of McDonald’s is taking on more and more responsibility, with the goal of taking over the reins eventually.
“We’ve never been in it for the money,” says Russ. “It’s always been for the lifestyle, and that’s just the route we have chosen. We’ve been family oriented ever since the day the three of us took over. I just can’t see anyone operating without having family or even a partnership involved in this type of endeavor.”
The ownership group brings a wide variety of experiences and skills to the company which they are sharing with the younger generation. In addition to logging, Russ has worked in road construction, including the building of the Coquihalla Highway through southern B.C. Barry, an experienced truck driver, has the longest tenure with Robill Contracting, having joined the company right out of high school. Norm is a heavy duty mechanic with experience in road construction and the forest industry. So as logging goes, it’s a good combination for the requirements of operating an efficient business. For example, 90 per cent of their equipment repairs are handled in-house.
They became involved in the business through their twin-brother fathers, who originally started the logging business in 1983, working in the Merritt area of British Columbia. The McDonald brothers started out with two D4 Cats salvaging wood from areas like blowdowns for Weyerhaeuser.
That progressed to selective logging, where they harvested specific log diameters in Douglas fir stands, typically harvesting about 50 per cent from each block. The Cats also allowed them to perform some steep slope logging.
“Back in the early 1980s, there was a lot of selective logging in B.C.,” says Russ. “Every mill had a small contractor doing it. There were a lot of small contractors back then.”
Robill Contracting progressed into full mechanical logging, and when Weyerhaeuser shut its sawmill in Merritt, the company moved to Princeton, B.C. In 2001, they sold their Evergreen logging contract to another logger, and eventually resurfaced working for West Fraser Timber, operating as a full stump-to-dump logging business headquartered in Sundre, Alberta. They supply logs to West Fraser’s Sundre Forest Products’ dimension lumber sawmill, as well as their laminated veneer lumber (LVL) plant at Strachan.
“We moved our entire families to Alberta,” says Russ, adding that their main motivation was the trend in B.C. toward larger logging contractors. They signed on to harvest 125,000 cubic metres annually for West Fraser Timber, and although it was twice as much volume as they typically cut in B.C., it is still on the lower end compared to what is being harvested by many other Western Canadian loggers today. But that volume is an amount that the McDonald’s feel comfortable managing.
Their log diet consists of about 90 per cent lodgepole pine and 10 per cent spruce. Log diameters vary, as they can harvest anywhere from six trees to two trees per cubic metre. They have two sorts at roadside—a peeler sort of 17’ 3” logs for the LVL plant and a mixed sawlog sort in lengths from 8’ 6” to 16’ 6”.
Their equipment fleet consists of two John Deere 903K feller bunchers with full 360 degree rotating, 22” heads, which Russ says is a good match for their timber. They have two skidders—a John Deere 748 skidder and a Caterpillar 545 skidder. Their processing fleet consists of three John Deere 2154 carriers, two equipped with Waratah 622B processing heads and one with a Waratah 622C processing head. They have a Caterpillar 324 loader and a Caterpillar 320 loader.
Robill Contracting recently updated their fleet, with their most recent purchases being a John Deere 903K feller buncher replacing an older G model, and a new John Deere 2154 carrier with the new Waratah 622C processing head. They typically keep their logging equipment up to about 14,000 hours. Past experience and after-sales support are critical when they make purchasing decisions.
“All of the equipment is built fairly well these days,” says Russ. “My personal preference in making a purchasing decision relates to the dealer. Where we live, there is only one company, in my opinion, that has made any investment into supporting forestry and that is Brandt.” Brandt Tractor is the Alberta dealer for John Deere.
Their log haul fleet consists of four Kenworth T800, eight axle trucks—two with Super B trailers and two with B-train trailers. As an experienced truck driver himself, Barry McDonald spearheaded Robill Contracting taking over its log loading and hauling about four years ago, and continues to supervise that part of the business today.
“We found that without taking on the log haul, we couldn’t control our deliveries and we couldn’t control our income very well,” says Russ, adding that taking control of this part of the operation has had a huge impact on their efficiency and cash flow predictability.
They have 18 employees, including their logging, log haul, and office staff. Russ McDonald’s son, Jordie, two nephews Brendon and Devon, father-in-law, Dennis Brigden, as well as his wife, Karen, and daughter-in-law, Amy, are all part of the business.
“The real advantage of having family members involved is that it is really hands on and if there is an issue, we all dive in to help each other,” says Russ. “If one of us isn’t here, another family member covers off for that person, and they all seem to have a little more vested interest in everything.”
Russ says that the owners have thought about ramping up production in winter, but it’s always a question of finding the right employees, which has never been easy. Most of their employees now are established, family people living in nearby Sundre, so the company has been successful producing a steady volume over the entire year with a stable workforce. He credits his son and nephews for attracting younger workers to the company. Growing up in Sundre, they and their circle of school friends have helped to make the case for the decent paycheque, stability and home life offered by the forestry sector as the hedge against the bigger paycheques, work away from home, and instability of the oilpatch.
“Most of our processor and skidder operators are younger guys right out of school,” says Russ.
Robill Contracting has a very good working relationship with West Fraser Timber, with a respectful understanding of what they will and will not do. For example, Robill Contracting has made it clear that it would prefer not to log on steep slopes. Because of the relationship they have with West Fraser and the experience they bring to the table, West Fraser makes every effort to assign Robill Contracting to areas that suit their fleet and desire to avoid steep slopes. This way, they are able to work exclusively with flat bottomed feller bunchers. Russ says that given the company’s experience, he knows that steep slope logging is more expensive.
Most of their logging takes place west of Rocky Mountain House in fairly flat to rolling terrain, and while they are able to avoid steep slopes, there is a lot of clay soil. This can be a big problem in wet conditions, especially with the log haul.
“Clay is a huge problem and it puts a lot of emphasis on where you put your roads,” says Russ. “That will make or break you. The approach is to seek higher ground with ditches and culverts to control the water. Access is everything.”
They are responsible for all their road building, which is somewhat unique with West Fraser in Alberta where, in most cases, the road building is a separate contract. However, Russ says they have proven that they are more than capable of handling it themselves, and having that control is a real advantage in both their logging and log haul operations.
Since they build their own roads, their roadbuilding equipment is a critical part of their fleet. It consists of a smaller Champion grader for block road maintenance. A Komatsu 220 backhoe works in tandem with the company’s Caterpillar D7R dozer to build roads and ditches, as well as install culverts as needed.
In terms of where they harvest their wood, West Fraser gives them plenty of advance notice, with one of the factors being the forest company’s ongoing commitment to the Alberta government’s mountain pine beetle control and prevention strategy.
“Over the last eight years, we have been directed to cut only over-mature pine,” says Russ. So far, that strategy seems to be working as there are no beetle infestation issues in the Rocky Mountain House and Sundre
commercial forest areas.
On the Cover:
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Major Saskatchewan sawmill upgrade
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B.C.’s Wadlegger Logging and Construction has truly found its niche on the mill side—producing large dimension Douglas fir product—and on the construction side, the company is moving into building more road, with the addition of a rock drill.
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B.C. Saw Filer’s Conference Preview
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Alberta’s Robill Contracting fully understands the value of prioritizing efficiency over volume—and when it comes to their logging operation, the focus is truly on the family.
New lathe linecuts a brighter future for plywood plant
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The Last Word
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