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Family Support Behind the Success
Steve Wills Logging & Trucking
By Mary Bullwinkel
The lack of rainfall this winter in northern California brings both a blessing and a curse. A longer logging season but more worries about worsening drought conditions.
For Steve Wills Logging & Trucking, a family-owned Humboldt County, Calif., company of almost 100 employees, it meant having three yarders working in January this year, when during years of normal rainfall, the season would have ended in mid-November.
Then and Now
In 1983, Steve Will got started with the purchase of one logging truck and today is the proud owner of three yarders, two grapple cats, two line cats, and approximately 40 trucks.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family, my employees, and some very special work relationships I’ve had along the way,” says Will.
One such relationship was with another local Humboldt County logger, Stanwood “Woody” Murphy. “He was logging in Dinsmore, Calif.,” Will says, “and I went to work hauling the logs.” The job allowed him to buy several more logging trucks and establish Steve Wills Trucking as a growing business.
The original 1964 Kenworth truck Will purchased 31 years ago is still part of his fleet, although it doesn’t see regular action. Today the Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks bearing the Steve Wills name on the door are hauling both forest products and dairy products. The move to diversify and start hauling dairy products was made in 2005 to keep his crews working.
“The logging season was getting shorter and shorter,” Will says, “and that business decision has contributed to the success of this company today.” That decision also helped Will survive the down times during the cyclical nature of logging.
Expanding the Business
Will expanded his early trucking business into logging in 1989 with the purchase of a Washington 88 yarder, still being used today, although it has been converted to a Washington 1088 yarder. He also purchased a new Hitachi delimber and a Hitachi log loader to get started in the logging business.
Will uses a Hitachi EX 300 log loader in his northern California logging operations. Will comments, “It’s a good machine. It’s fast and doesn’t burn much fuel. Work it hard for a nine-hour day, and it will only burn 40 to 45 gallons of fuel.”
The one drawback to using Hitachi equipment is a lack of dealer representation in the area where he logs. Will says, “They are good pieces of equipment, [but] it didn’t take me long to understand that repairs are expensive when there is no local representation.”
On the other hand, the Caterpillar representation has always been top notch, and Will is pleased with the operational output of both his grapple and line Cats. A D7G line Cat with a winch is used on jobs to remove logs from the creek zone. “The line Cat is used for all the creek zones, because you can’t get close enough to them, so you have to winch them out (with less environmental impact),” he says.
Will has used the D7G line Cat for the past 17 years and a D6 grapple Cat since 2002. “We’ve had a lot of luck with both, and not many breakdowns,” Will says. The D6 grapple Cat does double duty at some logging sites, being used to lessen the environmental impacts of the operations. It takes landing slash and places it along skid trails. “They call it tractor packing of skid trails. So when it rains, it doesn’t hit the dirt, it hits the brush. It reduces runoff and is less damaging.”
Family Has His Back
From a young age, Steve Will knew he wanted to work in the timber industry. He will tell you that despite the ups and downs, he is living a dream that he had the day he graduated from Fortuna High School, in the community he and his family still call home. He was working for the Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) in nearby Scotia, Calif., and told his fellow graduates that it was his plan to be logging and trucking for PALCO in ten years. It was closer to 15 years later, but a dream come true none-the-less.
When Will quit his job at PALCO to buy his first truck, his coworkers told him he “had rocks in his head.” Several years later, however, he was able to buy ten new Kenworth trucks and expand his fleet. “I was 27 years old, $2 million in debt, and didn’t know any different,” Will says.
Without family involvement and support, Will said he would not be where he is today. Wife Chris is not only his partner in life (they’ve been married for almost 24 years), but his business partner as well. Father Conrad “Connie” Will has been there since the business was established, and his involvement is also crucial, according to Will. Other family members fill various positions within the company, including General Manager and nephew Jason Medina.
Loyalty to the Crew
He also expressed his appreciation to his employees, many who have been with the company through good times and bad times. “I’ve got a lot of people who have worked for me for a long, long time, and without them this company wouldn’t survive.”
Several employees have worked there for more than 20 years, and there are a few multi-generation employees, a father, son, and now grandson who are part of the team.
Will explains why good employees are critically important. “I’ve always tried to explain to the guys, ‘I get the jobs, but it’s up to you to make them work and do a good job, so people keep hiring you back.’ [I tell them] if you leave their place in a mess, they’re not going to have us back.”
Like many in the logging business, Will sees a problem with a lack of younger people entering the workforce. “When I was in school, you went to work in the woods because that’s where you made the money. Now you can go to work boxing groceries and make as much money…and you’re not in the rain, the dust, or the heat.”
Add to that a relatively short logging season, and that also causes problems. “Trying to keep a workforce together is getting harder and harder,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to raise a family when working from mid-May maybe June to October, maybe November.”
Great Story to Tell
Will remains cautiously optimistic about the future but believes that greater public education is necessary. He gets frustrated when he talks about the public’s misconceptions about logging and said the solution is to “tell our story as often as possible to whoever will listen. “Equipment and logging practices have improved over the years. We’ve learned better ways…and it keeps getting better and better.”
As one example of first-hand education, Will says he took a friend to one of his logging operations and explained firsthand how trees grow back and that reforestation is required as part of a timber harvest plan in California. “It changed his whole perception.”
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