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Log hauling pioneer
B.C.’s Shelley Stewart is kind of a pioneer in the forest industry; having started a successful log hauling operation that now has eight trucks, she’s helping break the gender barrier in the industry.
By Paul MacDonald
Logging and log hauling is a guy’s game—or at least it used to be. Gradually, though, more women are getting involved in the front lines of managing trucking operations in the forest industry.
Shelley Stewart, of Merritt, B.C., would never look at herself this way, but she is kind of a pioneer in women getting involved in the industry—she’s now been at it for 10 years with husband, Rob Stewart, in SRS Trucking. And they’ve built the company from a single truck to eight logging trucks.
Shelley kind of knew what she wanted to do from a very young age. Her dad, Marvin Alexander, has been a skidderman for more than 30 years in the Nicola Valley around Merritt, about 270 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.
“When I was little, I told my dad that when I grew up, I was going to buy a logging truck, so he and I could go to work together every day,” she says. “I didn’t know then that skidders and logging trucks don’t work side by side,” she says, with a laugh.
It’s kind of funny how a comment from an eight-year-old can work out, she says. “Now one of our trucks hauls from the logging contractor that my dad skids for. My dad is so proud when he sees one of my trucks pulling up to the loader.” She credits her Dad, and her Mom, Charleen, as being a big part of the success of the company, through their support and encouragement.
Shelley, 29, is a member of the Upper Nicola Indian Band, and is also a role model for First Nations folks. She was selected as the recipient of the Youth Business Award by All Nations Trust Company in 2012. She also received a Young Entrepreneur of the Year award from the B.C. Achievement Foundation.
Despite the awards, Shelley is quick to point out that SRS Trucking is a truly a joint effort, with husband, Rob, being an instrumental and essential part of the business.
Rob working as a bush mechanic in B.C.’s Central Interior, and staying in camps around Mackenzie, was part of the reason in setting up SRS Trucking. The idea was that he could spend more time at home, on their acreage, and shop, just east of Merritt.
Both were extremely young when they set up the company, in 2003—Shelley was just 19-years-old, and Rob was 21.
Their first job was hauling wood out of the McGillivray Fire, which consumed 11,000-plus hectares in the Chase area, northwest of Kamloops. “There was an opportunity there, and we bought a truck, and that was our first job, hauling logs into the Interfor mill at Adams Lake,” says Shelley.
They got their second truck in 2007, and have gradually added to the fleet since then; they now have eight trucks. They have four trucks with quad axle trailers, one with a haystack trailer, and three with B-trains.
All of the trucks are Western Stars. Shelley noted they had a positive experience with James Western Star Trucks in Kamloops early on, and James Western Star has continued to give SRS Trucking great service.
“We have a good relationship with their shop, too,” says Rob. “If we have a problem, it’s not a matter of booking a repair time for next week—the shop foreman tells us to bring the truck over, and they will squeeze us in.”
They have their own 60’ by 40’ shop on their acreage, where Rob does a lot of work on the trailers, and the non-warranty repairs, like brakes. Rob does a combination of repairs and driving, serving as a relief driver for anyone going on holidays.
“I’ve been around equipment pretty much all my life,” says Rob. An uncle ran one of the large ranches in the Merritt area. “I worked with him on farm equipment,” he says.
It’s a fairly clear division of responsibilities with SRS, with Rob taking care of maintenance, and the drivers, and Shelley handling the business affairs, the budgeting, payroll and, importantly, safety. The operation is SAFE certified. “The certification is a lot of work, and paper, and it’s time consuming, but it’s not hard,” she says.
Shelley is a master at spreadsheets and Excel. “Rob and I work together. We sit down and look at the business and the bills, to figure out why this happened or that happened. I think we’re a great team. Rob is on top of the trucks and hauling, and I’m on top of the paperwork and financials.”
The company received initial funding from First Nations Agricultural Lending Association. Shelley prepared a professional business plan, outlining the business opportunity, and the potential revenues. The FNAL funding really made the business possible, she said. “I was 19 then, and it wasn’t like I had bad credit—I just had no credit. I mean, you can get a VISA card, but you can’t buy a truck with that.
“First Nations Agricultural Lending could see what I was trying to accomplish, and what Rob and I wanted to do. They could see that we were both driven, and serious. It wasn’t like I want to buy a logging truck today, and be a ballerina tomorrow,” she says.
She emphasized that there are a number of programs that are out there for people starting out in business.
“There are some really fantastic programs out there for aboriginal people, for women, and youth. For the person who is going out and looking for business funding, it is out there.”
But getting funding, she says, is just the beginning. Anyone starting a business has to expect to work hard.
Shelley, who grew up on a reserve, believes there are opportunities out there for First Nations folks. “It’s no secret that unemployment on reserves is high,” she says. “But anything is possible if you go out there and work for it. But you have to work for it—no one is going to hand it to you.”
The hard work has paid off, and SRS has seen a lot of expansion in the last three years.
“I know the economy overall was bad, and the industry was not doing great, but the Nicola Valley did pretty well; the mills around here kept going, so we saw the opportunity, and kept buying trucks,” says Rob.
“As Rob says, there is no reward in having no risk, so we just went for it,” adds Shelley.
Rob is keen on expanding the business, says Shelley. “Rob definitely pushes, and I will sit down and crunch the numbers, and work the budget. I’m very conservative when I’m planning the budget, and Rob is more of a risk taker, and he looks for different areas of expansion. So I’m always looking at how the different areas of expansion he comes up with will work for us.”
Shelley came to the business world at a young age; as a teenager, she ran a cow-calf operation. She later studied accounting at Thomson River University, in Kamloops.
SRS Trucking mostly hauls for contactors to two different operations around the Merritt area: the Aspen Planers mill, and the Tolko mill. They occasionally haul into the Interfor mill at Adams Lake and the Weyerhaeuser mill at Princeton, as well.
The big challenge for SRS Trucking, as it is for a lot of the forest industry, is finding qualified drivers, who are competent and able to drive on bush roads. “Finding drivers is probably the hardest thing in our industry right now—finding people who can do the job safely. Driving in the bush is a lot different than driving up and down the Coquihalla Highway,” says Shelley.
Some drivers can do the work, but not in a safe way, which means that SRS Trucking is not interested in their services, she says. “We’ve had our fair share of problem drivers, but you just try to weed them out and keep on moving.”
They have a few drivers in their 50s now, but the majority are 30 or under. “It’s kind of neat to have a young crew; they won’t be retiring anytime soon,” says Shelley with a laugh. “But we try to treat them well, and hopefully they will stay.”
“I think we have a good group of guys, and that’s key,” she added. “They are proud of what they do, and they should be. They’ve been in some sticky situations. There is a lot more to driving a logging truck than just sitting in a cab and driving. And driving in B.C. is different. You have to make it up and down the mountain every day.”
SRS Trucking gets most of its drivers through word-of-mouth—both Shelley and Rob feel that poaching drivers from other companies is not the way to go.
“That is a no-win approach,” says Shelley. “We live in a small town, and it’s better to work with people than to work against them. I think everyone has been pretty fair to us, and we want to send that same vibe out there.” She added that sometimes drivers just want to move on to another trucking company for various reasons, though.
“If someone wants to work for us, we’ll sit down and talk with them, and Rob will get a feel for the kind of driver they are, and take them out for a drive.”
One of the things they look for in drivers is how they care for their trucks and trailers. They don’t need to be sparkling clean, but they like them to take reasonable care of the trucks. “It’s nice if they treat it as if it’s like their truck,” she says.
Drivers are paid commission on the gross earnings of their truck, so it’s in their best interest to help keep them in good shape. “If they are hard on the trucks, and the trucks break down, it’s money out of our pocket—but it’s money out of their pocket, too. If their truck is not moving, they are not making money.”
Generally, they replace trucks around the 3 ½ to 4 year mark. Though Rob notes they still have a 2006 Western Star, the first brand new truck they bought. “It’s kind of the truck we built the company on, so it’s hard to let it go.” he says. “We just rebuilt the engine on it, and then we did the tranny at break-up, so it’s going to be around for a while.”
Both Shelley and Rob say they feel fortunate that they have been able to be successful with their trucking business. But they don’t take it for granted and continue to take care of the details—such as nailing down cycle times.
“We’ve kept busy, but it’s important who you haul for, and when you get on a haul, to know what the cycle time is. You can get a couple of weeks into a haul, and find out the haul is half-an hour extra, and it’s a three-haul day, then your guys are working an hour-and-a-half free every day and they’re not happy—and we’re not happy because our trucks are working for free.”
They’d like to get further involved in the industry, on the logging end. But it has to be the right opportunity. “It’s a hard thing to jump into,” says Shelley. “We’ve got 10 years of hauling experience, but we don’t have any logging experience. It’s hard to get your foot in the door, but once we’re able to do it, I think there will be opportunity for us to expand.”
“As Rob says, there is no reward, if you don’t take a risk. You have to put yourself out there—and that’s kind of what we do.”
And as for being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Shelley says it really has not been an issue.
“I’ve had guys phone up looking for driving work, and they’ll be a little surprised. But they think it’s great.”
In the end, hauling logs is not about gender, or being First Nations, says Shelley. “It’s all about doing the work—and that’s what we do.”
Rob and Shelley Stewart (above) of SRS Trucking of Merritt, B.C. SRS Trucking started out with one truck in 2003, and they have gradually added to the fleet since then, and now have eight trucks: four trucks with quad axle trailers, one with a haystack trailer, and three with B-trains.
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