By Heather Hudson
Fiercely independent, stubbornly determined and wildly successful are just a few ways to describe the husband-wife team of Joel St. Onge and Liz Bernier.
Their success in transforming their company, St. Onge Logging, from a two-person operation into a major regional supplier for lumber and wood chips has cost them almost everything multiple times. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Based in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, they have 53 employees and 14 subcontractors, own millions of dollars of equipment and are responsible for chipping almost 325,000 cubic metres a year and harvesting 100,000 cubic metres of hardwood and nearly 75,000 cubic metres of softwood.
To say they have a lot on their plate is an understatement. “Some days you feel like the plate’s so big, you need a bigger plate—but I’m afraid to grow it any bigger because my husband will pile more on to it,” said Bernier. “Joel is a go-getter and doesn’t like to sit still. If he can foresee it, he will do it.”
Originally from Quebec, Joel St. Onge migrated to Ontario to work as a contractor in the late-1990s. By 2001, feeling prepared to go into business for himself, he bought his first delimber.
“I was 18 years old and literally barefoot and pregnant,” recalls Bernier. “Joel was 23 and we both had nothing. We were starting from scratch.”
Despite his preference for independence, St. Onge saw the sense in subcontracting for another logging contractor to delimb his products. The arrangement ran its course by 2004 and the couple needed to decide what road to take next.
“Joel really wanted to run his own business without other contractors, so we took a risk and bought a feller buncher. At that time, when you owned your own feller buncher you became your own contractor with the mills.”
He quickly took on crew members and began skidding, delimbing, slashing and hauling out of the bush for the mills and ultimately bought three grapple skidders and two more delimbers. Business was booming and they felt secure.
Then the recession hit.
One by one, the mills went down and work dried up. St. Onge and Bernier quickly assessed their options. “We had to make a decision whether we want to go big and get into different types of logging or pack it up and call it a day because there was nothing else in our area.”
Terrified to lose the core group of employees they valued so much—“losing those men would have been catastrophic to our company; we knew we had to keep them to do whatever else we wanted to challenge ourselves with”—they continued to brainstorm ways to make it work, including expanding into the Thunder Bay and Armstrong areas. But when mills shut down across the province, it became clear their options were running out.
It was then that they found a four-leaf clover in the form of a Domtar pulp and paper mill. With its location in Dryden, the mill was looking to get into the chipping business and needed a contractor to grow with their operations. It would mean expanding significantly, taking on more risk.
“Joel and I sat together and decided it was the way to go. We were still pretty young at this time. We were definitely ready to put on our big boy pants and go further in this business,” said Bernier.
With a fresh contract with Domtar, they bought their first chipper in 2008. Within six months, demand was so high that they invested in another. By 2011, they had to buy their own hauling equipment to transport their product. With the recession in full swing, local truckers had retired, switched careers or headed west. St. Onge expanded once again.
“We transitioned into doing the trucking as well,” said Bernier. “We didn’t have much of a choice. It was go big or you go home. The days of having four or five little contractors get together were over. Mills only want to deal with one contractor. We were it.”
After purchasing a third chipper in 2013, St. Onge Logging continues to flourish in that business with Domtar. In their operations, they start from scratch—building roads, harvesting, skidding wood to their chippers and chipping in the bush or at roadside directly into the truck, which hauls woodchips into Domtar in a continual pattern.
Their geographic spread is large. “Sometimes we’re working 150 kilometres away from the mill, other times it’s 400 kilometres. It varies with the blocks and location where we’re getting set up and where the wood is. We get all our licences through the mill, so they decide where they want the wood from.”
In 2012, the logging business started to pick up in Ontario. Seeing another opportunity, St. Onge Logging began to expand into logging for EACOM’s Ear Falls location, and Weyerhaeuser in Kenora. “This work has mostly allowed us to use the logs more efficiently and diversify better in the blocks we’re working in. Not everything is going in the chipper anymore,” said Bernier.
To keep up with their extensive ongoing work, St. Onge Logging has invested in a good amount of equipment over the years. Their inventory includes:
Bernier says every purchase is considered carefully, but it’s the chippers that are most prized. “They’re what saved our business, what kept St. Onge Logging alive. If we weren’t able to diversify, we wouldn’t be standing here today. These machines are, at best, half-a-million dollars each, which was a huge investment.”
Noting the limited selection of chippers on the market, Bernier says they look for ones that are easiest to maintain. “The Peterson 5000G model is more of a mechanical model instead of electronic. Being out in the forest, it’s what you want.”
Their recently purchased John Deere 648L skidder caused a bit of controversy around the camp when it arrived for a test drive with a joystick instead of a steering wheel. Everybody from St. Onge himself to several operators balked at the idea of a joystick. After a short trial, they all changed their tunes.
“It’s so operator friendly,” said Bernier. “All of them love it. It took them not even a week to change their mind. It’s ergonomically a lot friendlier. By eliminating the steering wheel, you have twice as much room in the cab and the seat oscillates around so you’re not constantly straining yourself.
“Out of all the logging equipment I’ve ever seen, the grapple skidder is the hardest on a man’s body. It’s physically demanding, and the joystick has literally cut that in half.”
St. Onge Logging employs five mechanics to work on rotation in the bush with the operators. “It saves time, money and effort to do maintenance out in the bush. All of our mechanics are mobile and set up properly out there,” said Bernier.
They run a number of bush camps and Bernier says Joel is the lead person for all the operations, making sure everything from mechanics to logging operations are running smoothly. He’s out in the bush as much as the employees “putting his 120,000 per cent into it all the time.”
Bernier used to join them in the field but with an expanded business, she’s had to manage the books, human resources and customer service, not to mention their two daughters, ages 15 and 8.
Bernier says the time for growth has come to an end for now—they’re looking to run a sustainable business well into the future. To do that, she expects they’ll need to manage and upgrade their equipment and train younger employees to join the company. In fact, investing in the future of the industry has become a pet project.
“Nobody’s willing to train so much anymore. Younger generations are not as interested in logging or forestry as we’d like, so we’ve got to bring more awareness to the industry.”
St. Onge Logging is trying to do its part by advertising directly to youth and going into high schools and technical schools to talk about opportunities in the industry.
“We want to keep this going, not just for our business but for forestry, which is a viable industry. We’ll lose it if people aren’t interested.”
On the Cover:
While others shy away from oilpatch logging, Alberta's JD Haggart Contracting pursues this business for one simple reason—it pays better and they have the experience to be able to mobilize quickly when an opportunity comes their way. They also have the equipment to deliver the wood, including two John Deere 2154 processor carriers, both equipped with Waratah heads. Read all about the operation beginning on page 10 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski)
Balancing out the forestry workplace
There’s a movement underway to encourage more women to work in the forest industry, and it’s getting some solid traction from forest company Tolko Industries—and full support from women who are now working in the industry.
Ability and availability = logging success
Alberta logging contractor JD Haggart—managed by the husband and wife team of Dave and Roxanne Haggart—know that ability and availability are keys to logging success, especially in oilpatch logging.
Front end focus following mill fire
Saskatchewan’s NorSask Forest Products is bouncing back from a fire that hit its sawmill earlier this year, and has invested $21 million on a major front end redesign following the fire.
Bringing on the next generation...
Nova Scotia’s Sebastien Pouliot knew he wanted to be a logger at a very young age—and he’s now successfully ushering in a new generation of equipment operators, through a training program.
Salvage logging in B.C.—but this time it's for burned wood
Forest companies and logging contractors are getting ready to go into salvage mode big-time to tackle the burned timber from the worst fire season B.C. has ever seen. It’s been estimated that about 53 million cubic metres of timber has been burned, about four times the provincial allowable annual cut.
Paul Hargrave and his son, Scott, have a passion for sawmilling—and for race cars, too, since they have a combination sawmill/speedway operation on B.C.’s Vancouver Island.
Team logging effort
The husband and wife team that manages Ontario’s St. Onge logging has been successful in directing their operations through the industry’s rocky times—and now has a very successful chipping operation, and recently started logging for EACOM and Weyerhaeuser.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture.
The Last Word
Jim Stirling on B.C.’s wildest wildfire season, and looking at how to prevent a repeat performance.