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The Right Equipment Ingredients
Logging contractor—and ex-hockey player—Wade Fournier brings all the right ingredients to the table, starting with a modern equipment fleet and unique skills, particularly experience operating tilter feller bunchers and knowing how to safely harvest timber on steeper ground.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The bottom line between working hard and hardly working among logging contractors today seems to revolve around what the contractor brings to the table regarding industry experience, unique skills, and cost competitiveness. It’s kept Promise Contracting Ltd. working when others have been let go.
Promise Contracting, owned by Wade Fournier and based in Hinton, Alberta, was among a handful of contractors kept on by West Fraser Timber when it decided to shut down its wood room in the pulp mill, thus requiring delivery of a lot less local fibre.
“It was very dramatic,” Fournier says, concerning the fallout from the decision by West Fraser Timber in spring 2003. It came at a critical time in the evolution of his business—a time when after about eight years of growth, the company had finally achieved the capability to offer complete stump-to-dump services. They were among the first laid off by the mill, with about 10 pieces of equipment sitting idle.
Given the industry turmoil across Canada over the past five years, it’s likely this scenario has been played out numerous times as mills look for ways to keep operating.
As bleak as this situation looked at the time, this is when Promise Contracting’s fortunes actually took a major turn for the better. West Fraser Timber announced its desire to sign contractors to ‘Evergreen’ contracts, which essentially amounted to a guaranteed five-year contract that was renewable as long as the contractor met his obligations. In the case of Promise Contracting, it also meant absorbing some of West Fraser’s existing unionized workers into their operation as part of the deal.
The two companies came to an agreement, and Promise Contracting was among the first logging contractors to sign an Evergreen contract with West Fraser Timber in Hinton. So in a matter of months, the company went from crisis to stability, at least with the assurance that they had regular work for five years and possibly beyond. For Fournier, who spent a year living the fast life in the East Coast Hockey League with the Louisiana Ice Gators in the mid-1990s, it was like signing a five-year contract with the top team in the league. He knows that as long as he keeps performing for West Fraser, the company won’t be put on waivers.
Both Promise Contracting owner Wade Fournier (left in photo) and his chief assistant and brother-in-law, Lyle Savidan, are definitely hands-on managers, with considerable experience operating all logging equipment.
“That Evergreen contract has helped us quite a bit,” says Fournier. “At least you have some security in knowing you are working for five years as long as you maintain your work, and they’re going to renew after five years.” At 38 years of age, Fournier knows he has a future in the industry. He says that greater security hasn’t really helped with the bank, however.
“It’s still hard to get financing for forestry equipment,” says Fournier. “We are still trying to work to stay afloat, even with a good contract. But it gives you a guaranteed volume.”
The company is harvesting about 280,000 cubic metres of sawlogs annually for West Fraser, focusing almost entirely on pine because of the threat posed by a potential mountain pine beetle infestation. The concept is to try to stay head of the pine beetle and to avoid what happened in the B.C. Interior. So far, the area has avoided any major infestations, limited typically to single trees or small patches at the present time. Because the focus is on pine, the diameters can be quite variable. This year, it has fluctuated from 6” to 15”, whereas in previous years it was primarily in the 15” to 16” diameter range.
Fournier says that West Fraser has been good to work for in terms of letting contractors know exactly where they will be working, and keeping them in a particular area for long stretches. This past logging season, Promise Contracting worked in a patch that was only a half hour from the mill, making for a highly favorable log haul distance.
Fournier brings all the right ingredients to the table, starting with a modern fleet and unique skills, particularly experience operating tilter feller bunchers and knowing how to safely harvest timber on steeper ground.
Although West Fraser Timber is working hard to keep one step ahead of the mountain pine beetle as it migrates to Alberta, Promise Contracting appreciates that the company isn’t moving them around a lot, which can be costly.
The company’s fleet includes a newer John Deere 909J tilter feller buncher, an 853J flat bottom feller buncher, and two older Timberjack model 850s. They have three John Deere 748G skidders, as well as a Caterpillar 527 tracked skidder. Processors include four John Deere 2054 carriers. Three are equipped with Waratah 622B processor heads and one with a Waratah 620. To load logs, they have a Cat 325B loader and a Madill 2850C loader. For road building, the company has a Caterpiller D6D dozer and a D7R dozer. Promise Contracting owns two logging trucks and sub-contracts another seven.
The company’s newer John Deere tilter isn’t Fournier’s first experience using this technology. Previously, he has owned and operated three Risley tilter feller bunchers.
“The tilter and the tracked skidder give us the capability to get into some steep areas where some other contractors aren’t set up for,” says Fournier. “That is kind of what has helped us out in our cut blocks. We went with the tilter because a lot of our blocks are between 10 and 20 per cent slope, and up to 50 per cent in some cases. We were hurting our little bunchers too much trying to harvest that wood so we opted for the tilter.”
Fournier has enough experience to know that he can’t throw just anyone at the controls of the tilter, because it takes a certain amount of skill and knowledge to safely harvest wood on steep slopes and it takes a careful operator to keep it working.
Given the family’s experience in logging, the owners and workers at Promise Contracting are keenly aware of how to maintain consistent production. The operation employs both Waratah 622B and 620 models in its processor fleet.
“You’ve got more maintenance with a tilter with hoses, grease nipples and pins,” he says. “If you are not a high maintenance, immaculate, kind of clean guy, then you just don’t run that buncher. I only keep one guy on that buncher and that is my uncle.”
Not only is the Cat 527 tracked skidder a good match working with the tilter feller buncher—it also works well skidding logs in soft ground, which is another value added benefit that Promise Contracting can offer to their client.
“From where I grew up in the wet belt and steep slopes, this is a really easy forest management area to work in,” says Fournier. “It is generally flat with rolling hills. We have done a considerable amount of steep stuff for the mill, which had been left in the past, because we’re familiar with it.”
Speaking of experience behind the controls, Promise Contracting is a lot more than a one-man show. Despite Fournier’s ownership, it’s more accurate to call it a family business with roots all the way back to northern Saskatchewan and more recently, north central B.C.
“Everybody in my family, on both the maternal and paternal side grew up in logging,” says Fournier. While many family members now call Hinton home, it was only hockey and happenstance that brought Fournier there. Their family roots are actually in Keithley Creek, B.C., where starting about 50 years ago, his dad and grandfather operated a logging camp about an hour-and-a-half out of Williams Lake, working for the Jacobson brothers.
A number of family members work at Promise Contracting today, including his father, Alfred Fournier, who maintains the trucks, looks after the low bedding, “and fills in here and there for whatever we need from time to time.” Wade’s chief assistant in the harvesting operation is brother-in-law, Lyle Savidan, who manages the skidding operation and helps to maintain production when Fournier is away. His mother, Carol Fournier, and wife, Krista Fournier, run the office. His uncle, Glen Colebank, who worked as a foreman for Wade’s dad and grandfather when they operated in B.C.’s Cariboo Country and who also employed Wade for a time, operates and maintains the feller bunchers.
“At 14 years old, I went to school full-time for eight months, and did four months hand falling, hand bucking and line skidding full time,” says Fournier. “I progressed to D6 grapple skidders, started delimbing on night shift for my uncle, building a little road and then operating fork loaders. I’ve learned every phase just by spending time in it between hockey, school and logging.”
He landed in Hinton in 1998 after concluding his semi-professional hockey career and deciding to take a job operating a delimber. Even when he was playing hockey, Fournier was still logging in the off season. That was the beginning of Promise Contracting working toward full stump-to-dump services. At present, the company has grown to 20 employees and operating about 10 months a year.
While Fournier has people he depends upon in his logging business, he is definitely a hands-on owner. That includes flagging retention blocks, laying out all roads, as well as operating all the equipment that he owns at different times, as needed. Like a good hockey player, he is able to imagine the play unfolding before it happens based on his experience, so that is yet another reason why he’s managed to maintain company performance and earn the trust of West Fraser Timber with a long term contract.