By Andrea Watts
“I swore I would retire when I was going back into a stand again,” Roger Smith says as we drive up the gravel road to a Rayonier jobsite—a jobsite he worked at in 1982 when he was a choker setter with NDC Timber.
Weathering the Decades
After 35 years in the logging industry with 25 years as the owner of R. L. Smith Logging, Roger Smith has seen it all: the downturns and good times of log prices and the change of forestland ownership from private companies to timber investment management organizations (TIMOs). And just as the industry has evolved, so has Roger, not only keeping his company viable, but also preparing the industry for the next generation of loggers.
Looking back during the recession that affected many logging companies (including his own), Roger recalls being plagued by “what ifs” regarding whether he should keep the business going or get out. His company survived with a combination of “parking a lot of iron and waiting it out” and his wife’s business sense. “Thank God my wife, Carmen, has always had a budget because you have to save for a rainy day.”
Even with the recent uptick of the market keeping everyone busy and allowing him to afford recent investments in new equipment, Roger isn’t taking the good times for granted.
“Right now everyone feels invincible,” he says, “but there’s going to be a downturn eventually.” That’s one of the reasons he is wary of growing larger, not only because that would mean laying off employees but also, “If you get too big, you lose quality control.”
Four Sides Stay Busy
Roger keeps four sides busy when possible. As before the recession, the work breakdown is still 95 percent for timber companies that include Port Blakely, Rayonier, Hancock Forest Management, and Anderson Middleton.
For the larger jobs that exceed his equipment portfolio, Roger brings in contractors, who are “treated just like they are one of ours.” Ken Thompson is one of his regular contractors who brings two processors and good operators to the job sites. Black Lake Timber handles the cutting, and they also provide a buncher when needed. Bill Grandorff has also logged and loaded off and on for Roger for the past 15 years.
Out on the Rayonier jobsite, Roger is there to observe and comment on logistics instead of setting chokers and pulling rigging as he did in the past. Skip Russell, 23-year veteran, is running a Doosan, one of the three that Roger purchased two years ago from Cascade Trader, working with Jim Wark. “I’ve bought a lot of equipment from him... definitely a top-notch salesman and really good guy,” Roger says.
Eight-year veteran Nick Morris runs a yoder, a Komatsu PC 300-7 LL, while Shane Schexnider, a member of Ken Thompson’s crew, operates the Doosan 225LL processor.
During a pause while chatting with the crew, Roger remarks that, “One thing you will notice; everyone you talk to will have a smile on their face, and that’s what I want to see.”
At a second Rayonier site, Roger’s older brothers, Guy and Gary, are among the crew. When asked how it feels to be taking orders from a younger brother, Guy laughs.
“There’s not too many orders to give because everyone knows their job,” says Roger.
Guy runs a Tigercat 855, and though he admits it costs more, “It’s sure a good piece of purpose-built equipment.” Gary is on a Tigercat 870C purchased in 2006, and when it comes to running the machine, Roger says, “He’s the best there is.” With all these industry veterans as part of his crew, Rogers says they are all top-notch operators and that in his company respect goes both ways.
On average, 50 loads a day are hauled off their job sites and to the mills. One of those haulers is Roger’s brother-in-law, Bruce Baker, who has been with the company since day one.
To continue to meet customer demand, the company recently purchased a Tigercat 855 with grapple saw and is taking delivery of an EMS winch system in a couple weeks. Steep slope logging is now on its list of services.
Commitment to Safety
In keeping with his commitment to keeping good trucks and drivers, Roger recently purchased a brand-new Peterbilt. Another new investment is the ACDAT system in his yarder, and Roger is interested in the safety feature, calling it “another set of eyes.”
The commitment that Roger and his crew have to maintaining a safe working environment is demonstrated in their safety record. We haven’t had a serious accident, and “knock on wood,” we won’t, he explains. His company participates in the L&I Logger Safety Initiative, and Roger also gives his crew a safety production bonus “We have such good people working … and they know how to do it safely.”
Not all of his crew is out on the jobsites. In the shop are mechanic Casey, who is currently going to mechanic school, and six-year truck driver veteran Carl.
In recent years, in addition to running his company, Roger has become more involved with networking and giving back to the industry.
“Ten years ago, I never thought I would have time for this,” Roger says of going to the conferences, but now he is an advocate for attending. “It’s how you get to know other people in the industry.” He also sees the networking as a way to survive downturns. “Everyone needs one another, that’s for sure.”
Fourteen years ago, once his two kids were out of school and he had more time, Roger started going to the Olympic Logging Congress. “I recommend all conferences. When you have a downturn, these people are your friends.” He serves on the Olympic Logging Conference Board, along with the Pacific Logging Congress Board, and he is also a member of the Washington Contract Loggers Credit Union board.
Reflecting upon his years in the industry, Roger credits Carmen for the company’s success. “If I didn’t have her, I don’t think we’d be near as big as we are [because of all the paperwork and accounting].” Carmen agrees. “We are a good team, married 34 years and in business 25, but our success is also due to Roger being both a good operator and businessman.”
The Next Phase
Although Roger isn’t ready to retire anytime soon, he cannot ignore the reality that he is entering the next phase of his business.
“If you don’t plan for a succession, then you have 30 people without jobs,” says Carmen.
Just as Roger came to own his business through a family connection, his nephew, Nathan Murray, is also now striking out on his own. For three years, Nathan managed the tower side and expressed an interest in purchasing it for his own business, Roosevelt Logging.
Christi, Nathan’s wife, says that they discussed starting their business and decided it was worth a try. For the past two years, Christi has shadowed Carmen to learn the business side. “I’m trying to learn and be a sponge in what I do,” she says.
Nathan and Roger will continue to work together, with Roger finding the work and contracting it out to Nathan.
“Truthfully, I think Roger will appreciate the phone call from Nate asking, ‘What shall I do?’” Carmen says. Roger says it’s bittersweet handing over his tower side. “It’s like losing your best friend.” But he recognizes the value of the contribution. “You got to help out the young guys coming in, or there won’t be new guys.”
On the Cover
Starks Timber Processing out of Puyallup, Washington, operating
one of its Tigercat LS855Cs on steep slopes.
Cedarland Forest Resources helps
private landowners find their niche.
The Reality of Steep Slope Logging
Starks Timber Processing discusses the need for safety when it comes logging
on steep slopes.
Transitioning to the Next Generation
After 35 years, R. L. Smith Logging has
seen is all. The next challenge will be passing the torch.
Wood Castle Fine Hardwood Furniture mills wood to guarantee supply.
Three Questions to Ask Before Buying a Log Loader
How to make the most of your next purchase.
Climbing Steep Slopes with the ClimbMAX
B.C.’s Tolko Industries is the first operation in North America to use a winch-assist forestry machine—the ClimbMAX steep slope harvester.
A look at processing heads.