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Tackling tough B.C. roadbuilding
Mark Ponting and his construction crews tackle building logging road in some of the toughest ground in the country, on the B.C. Coast, and they rely on their equipment dealers to help out in minimizing equipment downtime when they are “miles from nowhere”.
By Paul MacDonald
Mark Ponting and his crews build logging road in some of the most remote, toughest ground in the country: the B.C. Coast.
It takes a unique set of skills to take on building road in such challenging geography. Ponting is a veteran of coastal roadbuilding and is, in fact, a third generation roadbuilder on the B.C. Coast. His father and grandfather both built logging roads in this extremely rugged part of the country, in the midst of the Coast Mountains.
Before setting up his own company, Ponting Logging and Grade, Ponting worked building road for forest companies Interfor and Western Forest Products. To say he knows the B.C. coast well would be an extreme understatement.
Recently, he was operating two construction camps, one near Bella Bella, on the North Coast of the province, and the other at Ramsay Arm, across from Vancouver Island and closer to Ponting Logging and Grade’s base in Campbell River. “We’re just lining things up for the equipment barge, so we can move some of the equipment down from Bella Bella to do some work on it,” he says.
Ponting first set up business on his own 10 years ago. His equipment line-up was modest: he started out with two excavators and a rock drill. “We picked up a couple of pieces of roadbuilding equipment, lined up some work with Interfor, and it kind of grew from there,” he says.
While business went well, it wasn’t too long before the industry went into its now famous downturn. But they made it through, thanks to some very hard work, being resourceful, and the co-operation of suppliers, says Ponting. “There were some very tough times. Fortunately, we made it through and are doing well now.”
These days finds the company with a pretty full complement of equipment. They’ve bought four new excavators in the last five years alone. The line-up includes a John Deere 3754D Roadbuilder, a John Deere 3554 Roadbuilder, a Hitachi 450 Roadbuilder and a John Deere 240D Excavator. They also have a Hitachi ZX350 Excavator Drill, a John Deere 772BH Motor Grader, two Cat D300s, one Cat 250 Articulated Dump Truck and one M40 tank drill. They are in the process of building a third hydraulic drill, working with forest equipment manufacturer T-Mar Industries in Campbell River.
“I’ve had really good luck with the Deere equipment,” says Ponting. “It’s been dependable, durable equipment for me, and for the type of road work we do. I’ve always been kind of a Deere-Hitachi guy.”
By and large, they purchase their equipment new, though Ponting notes they keep an eye out for used rock trucks. “Rock trucks are very expensive, so we try to shop around for used trucks. If we see a good deal on one, we’ll pick it up.”
They are pretty well set up for equipment right now, though they will likely add another new excavator later this year, and are currently building the rock drill with T-Mar Industries.
“Last year, we built a Hitachi ZX350 hydraulic excavator into a drill, and mounted a hammer on it. It works well with the heavy rock work we do. It has so much more reach, and puts holes in the rock better than a conventional drill because it has greater reach. You can get at the rock from different angles.
“The new drill we are building with T-Mar is mounted on a rubber-tired Roc Champ carrier, so it can move around quickly, and do smaller projects that are some distance apart.”
All of that equipment was kept busy last year, and is even busier this year. “A good solid year for us is doing 24 kilometres of road,” explained Ponting. In 2012, though, they did over 30 kilometres of road. “It was really busy last year, and it looks like it is going to be even busier this year.”
The conditions they work in and the type of road they build is truly different from logging road built in other areas of the country, due to the rugged B.C. coast. “We probably do more of the larger rock type of road construction than most other contractors on the coast,” says Ponting. He talks of one road project that involved seven switchbacks within two kilometres, and the road grade being from 22 to 30 per cent. “It was heavy, tough ground with some big rock cuts,” says Ponting.
A recent project saw them building road into a valley bottom, again with seven switchbacks, though adverse this time, with 18 to 20 per cent grade. “There was some high value wood at the end, and the only way they can get access to it is to come over the top of the mountain and switchback down into this valley bottom.” Such projects are hardly for the faint of heart, and only a small number of companies on the B.C. coast could tackle them—or even be interested in taking them on.
The fact that Ponting was essentially brought up in the roadbuilding business, and has decades of experience, all help in successfully completing such demanding jobs. But he is quick to point out the company’s success is also due to his wife, Nancy, who runs the office, looks after their health and safety program, co-ordinates supplies for the camps, and gets much-needed equipment parts into the camps by boat or plane.
“Also, I think we’ve got some of the best people in the industry running equipment for us, and that’s what has helped keep us going and built our reputation. We’re pretty selective about the operators we hire.”
With the forest industry ramping up, and Alberta’s oil patch beckoning, demand is high for good equipment operators. Ponting works hard to make sure his 20 employees, as much as possible, are happy. Though they had the recent road project up the coast at Bella Bella, he notes they try to stay close to home.
“We try to work in areas like Bute and Toba Inlet, which are only an hour or so away from home by boat or 30 minutes by float plane. It’s easier to get crews in and out. We try to look after our people.”
Many of their employees have been in logging for decades, but he noted they are working to get younger guys in, as well.
Working in such tough conditions, their equipment, especially the excavators, have to be up for the task. “The excavators are moving a lot of big boulders, so we are using those machines to their maximum capabilities,” says Ponting. “With that kind of wear and tear, we don’t get the hours that you would get doing normal construction work in town. This kind of work takes its toll on equipment.” Reflecting that, they look to get about 6,000 hours out of their excavators.
He finds that buying new equipment is the best approach. “When we first started out, I tried working with some older equipment, and I just found that we were spending a lot of time doing maintenance.”
He also wants his employees to be working with reasonably current equipment. “I think part of keeping good people is that you want to give them good equipment to run. Guys can get discouraged with older equipment, when you have a lot of downtime.”
Each of the camps has a service truck, with a parts trailer that is stocked up with everyday equipment needs. They have a welder mechanic, and are looking to add to that with another mechanic.
While they have a small office/shop in Campbell River, Ponting notes that they often rely on dealers, such as Deere dealer Brandt Tractor, which has a location in Campbell River, for their maintenance needs. “We’ll have equipment that will come in for line boring or undercarriage work, and we’ll take it to the dealer, and get the servicing and any other work done at the same time.”
Ponting notes that they can have very tight timelines for getting maintenance work done, since they are trying to maximize equipment up-time. “And the fact that we are always barging equipment in to road construction sites is a factor. We’re always trying to work around that.”
Ponting noted they are usually working “miles from nowhere”, so they rely on the dealers to help out in minimizing equipment downtime. “Some of the newer equipment has pretty complex technology these days, so it’s not like it used to be, where you could tackle things with a ball peen hammer and roll of binder twine,” he says. “With one piece of equipment we have, they can diagnose it right from the dealership in Campbell River, so that way the mechanic can come out with the right part, and switch it out.
“Service is big for us; in this kind of work, you have to have good parts and service availability or you’re done.”
Their 12-man float camp comes in very handy, if not being essential, on the B.C. Coast. “Most of our work is up or down inlets, along the coast.” The length of the jobs depends on how much road they have to build, and the severity of the terrain. “It all depends,” says Ponting. “We had one job that involved building 12 kilometres of road and we did that in three months. But if it’s extreme roadbuilding, it could take three or four months to build three kilometres of road.”
With things being so busy these days, Ponting has to divide his time between the different camps, and the base in Campbell River. He does not get much time to do what he likes best: being in the cab on an excavator. “I like to go out on site and run equipment myself, but there are so many other things that need to be done that I don’t get much chance to do that.”
With the costal forest industry being so busy these days, he says their main challenge is managing the work they have ahead of them. In addition to the family help he gets from wife Nancy, there are also their three sons, Cody, Tyler, Cory and a nephew, Ian, who are in the picture. So there is now a fourth generation of Ponting family roadbuilders on the B.C. Coast.
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