An Alberta First Nations band is working closely with forest company Al-Pac on a unique—and successful—mentoring approach with a contract logging venture.
By Tony Kryzanowski
When Bigstone Forestry Inc— a wholly-owned aboriginal logging company operating in northern Alberta—was launched several years ago, the 5,800 members of the Bigstone Cree Nation band were somewhat skeptical about the company’s chances for success. Over the years, band members had learned only too well to take a wait and see attitude regarding the launch of new business ventures. But three years later, Bigstone Forestry has become an unqualified success and is on the brink of further expansion. It currently provides 16 full-time jobs and that will increase to as many as 24 when it launches its second harvesting line.
Since inception, employees have earned $1.5 million in wages and benefits. The company’s debt to equity ratio is excellent, it has very low staff turnover and it has earned a reputation as one of Alberta Pacific Forest Products (Al-Pac) and Weyerhaeuser’s most dependable contractors working in the Wabasca area of the province. “It’s nice to see an aboriginal company doing well and to be a part of it,” says site supervisor Glen Gladu.
A 15-year veteran of the forest industry, Gladu has operated everything from chainsaws to feller bunchers, making him a natural choice for the highly responsible position of supervising site operations. “At first, not many people gave the company much of a chance. But now they are more and more interested in our operations,” he says. That’s reflected in the number of job applications the company receives regularly. With its success, Bigstone Forestry may in fact become the business model for other Bigstone Cree Nation ventures.
Although the logging business employs some members, the band council continues to wrestle with a challenge. They have a huge human resource—particularly young people—which has yet to be fully utilized in the midst of significant natural resources. The challenge is in bringing these elements together for the betterment of the community. So the band council is investigating the possibility of establishing a hardwood sawmill in the area. This would use the natural resource in its midst and create employment, with the potential to develop highly skilled labour.
Bigstone Forestry could serve as the template. Bigstone Forestry is a stump to roadside contractor, with an annual allowable cut of 220,000 cubic metres that requires delivery of cut-to-length (CTL) aspen to Al-Pac and tree length hardwood to Weyerhaeuser. While Bigstone Forestry’s ownership is a limited partnership structure—representing all the communities that comprise the Bigstone Cree nation— overall management policy is set by a board consisting of three band members, two members from Al-Pac, one member from Weyerhaeuser and a neutral chairperson. All earnings are paid in the form of dividends to the aboriginal limited partners of the company through two government-registered trusts, the Evergreen Society and the Elder’s Society.
The latter society directs where dividends should be allocated for the social economic benefit of the entire nation. The Bigstone Cree Nation consists of a number of smaller communities spread over a vast forested area that has been designated by the provincial government as part of Al-Pac’s and Weyerhaeuser’s forest management areas (FMAs). The Bigstone Forestry concept is the outcome of Al-Pac’s commitment to provide jobs and business opportunities for local aboriginal communities.
After reviewing a variety of possible programs with the Bigstone Cree Nation, Al-Pac realized it had a person on staff with experience managing joint ventures between resource companies and aboriginal communities. David Lloyd was brought into Bigstone Forestry from Al-Pac on a three-year secondment to manage the company’s day-to-day operations. As someone with both forestry and aboriginal joint venturing experience, he was able to staff the company so that it is fairly representative of the membership that makes up Bigstone Cree Nation. “This situation is unique in that an individual from forest company management has temporarily stepped in to run the day-to-day operations of a harvest contractor,” says Lloyd. He acknowledges that it took several months to earn the trust of his employees and the community as a whole.
The initial hurdle was convincing the community that the company would be able to meet its monthly payroll, and that as long as everyone pulled together to create a safe and productive work environment, the company had a solid future. Once that happened, band members warmed up to the idea of Bigstone Forestry becoming a responsible and dependable member of their community.
Lloyd uses positive reinforcement to keep employees focussed. “I keep reminding the employees that Bigstone Forestry is their company.” People are now much more comfortable with the operations because they have family and friends involved, says Lloyd. “The secret to our success is sticking to the business plan, and if changes are going to be made, incorporate them into the five-year business plan.” A key area for management is debt management, he adds. If not properly handled, it can have severe consequences.
Their approach is to manage debt in increments by setting realistic goals. One of the challenges company employees face daily is keeping their eyes and ears open to ensure that forestry operations do not infringe upon traditional practices such as hunting and trapping. Since the Bigstone Cree Nation is such a close-knit community, employees often hear about potential problems when forestry operations might impose on time-honoured trap lines and successful hunting areas. Being plugged into local knowledge about traditional practices, Bigstone Forestry has managed to avoid any potential confrontation with other forest stakeholders.
In fact, many local trappers and hunters stop by the logging camp on a regular basis to find out more about the company’s harvesting plans and to exchange information on their own operations. “In reality, the employees of this company have to go back to their community and face them,” says Lloyd. “They take a lot of pride in how they fell the wood and skid it to roadside. They are always keeping an eye out for trails.”
In addition to debt management, Lloyd says the second secret to the company’s success is its focus on training and developing multi-skilled employees. Due to the remote nature of logging operations, the company simply cannot afford to shut down a part of its operations simply because a key employee may be absent. Further to that, the company has to ensure that it has skilled and productive employees waiting in the wings to justify a $500,000 expense once it embarks on further expansion.
By providing an opportunity for individuals to learn new skill sets, the company’s overall turnover will remain low. At present, Bigstone Forestry owns a Tigercat 860 feller buncher, three John Deere skidders, as well as a Denharco DM 3500 delimber on a Caterpillar 320 carrier and a Risley Lim-mit delimber mounted on a John Deere 892 carrier. In preparation for its planned expansion to a second line, it has purchased a Denharco 4400 Xstream delimber mounted on a purpose-built John Deere 2054 carrier, built in Langley, BC.
The speed of the Denharco delimber and reach of the carrier has improved delimbing production between 40 to 50 per cent on tree-length stems. Bigstone Forestry has yet to try it on a CTL application, but expects that with what the package has demonstrated so far in terms of feed speed that it will address the company’s production concerns. Typically, processing is the weakest link in the CTL process. Lloyd says Bigstone Forestry purchased the purpose-built carrier to overcome specific challenges.
One is that due to environmental concerns, higher decking is required at roadside to minimize ground disturbance. The second is fuel consumption. “In terms of the carrier’s height, reach and fuel economy, it has met our expectations very well,” says Lloyd. The carrier burns about five gallons of fuel per hour, which is about a 50 per cent improvement over its older similar-sized carrier.
After 1,200 operational hours on the package, Bigstone Forestry has experienced minimal downtime but has made some improvements on the safety end. It has insisted on the installation of catwalks and steps on the operator’s side of the machine so that regular maintenance points on the carrier and delimbing attachment can be safely accessed. “With its elevated undercarriage, heavy plating and track power, this carrier also has the ability to work off road in a processing capacity,” says Lloyd. Furthermore, because of its heavier construction, the company expects to earn an extra year’s production out of it. Typically, Bigstone Forestry changes out equipment after three years.
The company is now investigating the purchase of a new feller buncher, which will complete the equipment complement required for a second line. Their training program depends heavily on mentoring and having a second feller buncher will make that task a lot easier to accomplish. There are some questions about Bigstone Forestry’s future now that Lloyd’s secondment is almost complete. He is about to embark on a new challenge, and a new manager will be hired.
However, both Bigstone Forestry and Al-Pac have put the necessary mentoring structure in place by continuing to allocate 20 per cent of Lloyd’s time to Bigstone Forestry, to help the new manager become established and to ensure that the forestry contractor continues to operate successfully.
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