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February 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

CONTRACTOR PROFILE

ACHIEVE BALANCE

Young loggers entering the harvesting business might do well to emulate veteran logging contractor Pierre Pelletier, who has made a conscious decision to keep his business at a manageable 75,000 cubic metre annual harvest level, and achieve some balance between his work and family life.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Do you own your logging business or does your logging business own you? This is often an important question in the minds of many logging contractors who spend countless hours away from home making sure the wheels don’t fall off their logging businesses—in most cases now on a year round basis— while back at home their wife and children hardly recognize them.

Quality of life is an issue that should concern the entire forest industry if aging loggers hope to some day transfer their businesses to their children, and if the industry hopes to attract more young people into this occupation—and attracting those young people is direly needed. According to the Ontario Forestry Association, post secondary institutions have seen a decline of almost 30 per cent in enrollment in forestry programs over the past five years.

Pierre Pelletier of Four K’s Logging:“The more equipment you have, the more you are tied down to your job.”

While he has spent his share of long hours in the bush, Nipigon, Ontario-area logger Pierre Pelletier has made a conscious choice to downsize his business to a manageable level to ensure that there is a balance between work, family and recreation in his life.

Pelletier has been logging for over 30 years and has owned Four K’s Logging for the past 20 years (Pelletier has four daughters whose first names all start with K, hence the company’s name). During that time, the company has taken many turns. It started with a single skidder, grew into a stump-to-dump contractor, took on a partnership with the Red Rock First Nation to help the community develop its own forestry venture, transformed itself into a chipping contractor in partnership with the band, and finally downsized and returned to the business of stump-to-dump contracting strictly for round wood.

“For a couple of years, we tried bigger volume and bigger manpower,” says Pelletier. “But that didn’t work for us. We just sold two-thirds of our equipment to get down to the size where we can control it without having to hire a foreman and a bunch of other people.”

While his company has harvested as much as 150,000 cubic metres per year, Pelletier is now aiming for an annual volume of about 75,000 cubic metres. At present, he is logging for Buchanan Lumber, with most of his logs slated for that company’s sawmill in Longlac, Ontario. Between 80 and 90 per cent of Pelletier’s annual cut is spruce and jackpine, averaging eight to 12 inches in diameter.

Pelletier is an avid hockey player, and enjoys spending time during the hot summer days along the shores of Lake Superior or on the many lakes in the surrounding area. “The more equipment you have, the more you are tied down to your job,” he says. “This way, we can still go out to camp in the summer rather than having to work on machinery.”

Pelletier is able to take this approach yet succeed in his business because he has learned how to focus on those aspects that are critical to the big picture in securing contracts with forestry companies, while downloading all the headaches of day-to-day harvesting, skidding, delimbing and slashing to reliable sub-contractors, some of whom he trained while working with the First Nations community.

This includes a manual harvesting and cable skidding contractor who salvages incidental birch veneer logs that are sold to Columbia Forest Products in Rutherglen, near North Bay.

Four K’s Logging has opened the doors to work for a number of owner/operators, such as this Hood slasher owner.

Pelletier focuses his efforts on management, road building, and log hauling. All other functions are contracted out. By focusing on these specific areas, the Company looks after the most critical aspects of the logging contract, which include maintaining good relations with clients, government agencies, and sub-contractors, ensuring that there is proper access to cutblocks, and controlling shipment of sorted product to the sawmills. Being able to offer his customers a service that is in short supply has created a steady stream of job opportunities.

“It’s not hard to find work because forestry companies are looking for somebody to do the whole job,” says Pelletier. “So being able to do that creates a fair number of opportunities to work. Also, everybody in Northern Ontario is struggling to find trucks right now. So with us owning our own trucks, we can move the volume that we cut.”

By contracting out the production stream from the stump to roadside, Pelletier has eliminated several challenges and potential headaches. He has reduced his payroll and administration, simply ensuring that his sub-contractors have the proper qualifications and training to meet regulations pertaining to worker’s compensation, safety, and environmental management training. Secondly, he has eliminated the cost of purchasing fuel and insurance for equipment working in that aspect of the business, as well as servicing costs related to that equipment.

While technology has advanced to the point where feller bunchers can now harvest twice as much volume as feller bunchers working 20 years ago, Pelletier says that logging costs overall are also a lot higher today than they were 20 years ago.

Finding work is generally not a problem. Making a living at it is another matter. That is why it is important to maintain control over some of the most costly aspects of the business. In Northern Ontario—where the best stands now tend to be located in more challenging terrain—keeping a close watch on road building costs is critical.

“We have probably one of the roughest areas to log in regards to roads,” says Pelletier. “It’s rocks and swamp and in some areas, there is no fill available. Once you start hauling fill, your chances of making money become a lot less.”

Four K’s Logging has a full-time, former Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) employee whose job is to scout out the most efficient and cost-effective road pattern. Their equipment on the roadbuildfroming side includes two 300 series Komatsu backhoes and two Caterpillar D7 crawler dozers.

A Timberjack feller buncher sub-contracted to work for Four K’s Logging. The company uses sub-contractors for harvesting, skidding, delimbing and slashing.

Pelletier notes that one of the areas that is much more challenging today than when he first started is the amount of paperwork, and it seems to be getting heavier all the time. He suspects that the volume of paperwork required may be one reason why there are a lot fewer smaller logging contractors offering their services these days.

Dealing with the bureaucracy has improved in some ways. The licensing procedure that used to require a trip to an MNR office in Sault Ste Marie or Toronto, and took a couple of months to complete, can often now be done much more quickly at the local MNR office. However, on the flip side, new environmental regulations like creeks being designated as heritage sites and a prohibition on disrupting the ground within 100 metres of those creeks has only added to the challenge of planning and building cost-effective roads.

In addition to maintaining control of the most critical aspects of his logging business, Pelletier says being flexible and working with reliable employees and subcontractors helps to make the business a lot less stressful. The company showed its flexibility 12 years ago when it agreed to work with the Red Rock First Nations community to help it establish and develop a forestry venture, as well as give some of its residents training in forestry jobs.

“We did several training programs with the First Nations and I’d say we trained about 50 people,” says Pelletier.

These were skidder operators, chipper operators, and truck drivers. When Four K’s Logging was working with the Red Rock First Nation, about 90 per cent of its employees were aboriginal. At its peak, the company was operating three 5000 series Peterson Pacific portable chippers to supply the Norampac containerboard plant in Red
Rock.

Eventually, the band decided it could manage the forestry venture on its own, and Pelletier made the transition from chipping to round wood harvesting.

In recognition for his effort and success in providing skills training and employment for members of the local First Nations community, Pelletier was awarded a First Nations Business Award.

Today, even though his business is no longer associated with the Red Rock First Nation, about 50 per cent of his employees are aboriginal. His delimber sub-contractor is also aboriginal and is one of the many people he trained while he was in partnership with the band. The effort he put into training forestry workers is now paying off in reliable employees and subcontractors. The company has very little turnover.

While it sub-contracts out the harvesting side, roadbuilding is an important area of focus for Four K’s Logging. The company has a full-time, former Ministry of Natural Resources employee who scouts out the most efficient and cost-effective road patterns.

Pelletier has shown that in terms of lifestyle, bigger is not always better, and it is often a question of where to put your emphasis as the owner. Finding good subcontractors to work in specific aspects of a forestry business—and supplementing that with good communication—can create the type of business environment that balances work, family, and recreation. It is also the type of business model that a young person interested in a logging career might find attractive.

“We’ve been lucky with the people we have working for us,” says Pelletier. “We seem to always get our quota volumes done. A company is only as good as the people who work for you.”

 

 

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