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July August 2006 - The
Logging and Sawmilling Journal
LOGGING BEGINS AT 50
Though he had been in the bush all of his working life, Quebec’s Jean-Guy Robichaud really wanted to run his own harvesting operation and achieved that—at the age of 50.
By Martine Frigon
Being a contractor in the forest industry is tough enough, so when someone decides to enter the business—with new equipment— at the not-so-young age of 50, well, he has to be very motivated. That’s the story for Jean-Guy Robichaud, of St. Perpétue, a small Quebec village located near the Maine border.
Robichaud started his forestry career at age 16, working in northern Maine for 30 years. He performed various tasks during those years, from working as a logger at the beginning to owning a skidder in his final years in the US state.
While satisfied with the work conditions of the American companies, Robichaud wanted to fulfil his big dream of having his own feller buncher.
The dream came true eight years ago, when Robichaud was in his early fifties. The timing was convenient because Robichaud’s two sons, Joël and Jonathan, were old enough to enter the job market, and joined up with their father. So in 1998, Robichaud bought a Timberjack 608S with a Waratah 762C head, and entered the world of heavy equipment contractors.
Although Robichaud was highly motivated, the start-up did not go easily. “Using my newly-purchased equipment, I started to work for a local sawmill. Being an owner of a machine like that was quite new for my family and for me, too. We had no idea how to estimate maintenance costs or how to charge prices that would give us some profitability,” explains Robichaud.
The sawmill owner, who had subcontracted with the Robichauds, had never negotiated such a service contract. “This was a first experience for all of us.”
The Robichaud logging operation is a family business with, left to right, Jonathan, Claudette, Jean-Guy, and Joël Robichaud all participating. The operation contracts to Gérard Crête Inc, running a Valmet 860 forwarder and a Timberjack 608 with a Waratah 762C head.
The association with that local sawmill lasted three years, but “things didn’t improve for us over the years,” Robichaud adds. “One day, we had the opportunity to switch to Gérard Crête Inc, and we haven’t had any regrets since.” That switch happened five years ago, and the business relationship with the company has remained excellent, Robichaud says.
Founded in 1949, Gérard Crête Inc is one of the largest wood companies in Quebec. Kruger Inc has a partnership with the company, which has three locations: mills in La Tuque and St Roch de Mékinac, and Produits forestiers P Proulx, in St Charles sur le Richelieu.
The Robichauds work to supply the La Tuque sawmill, which is in the Haute Mauricie region, from woodlots located about 100 kilometres away. “We work mainly around Rivière-aux-rats, Matawin and Beauce Lake with five other owneroperators,” Robichaud says.
Joël and Jonathan Robichaud operate the feller buncher, while Jean-Guy Robichaud is in charge of maintaining the mobile unit and keeping track of replacement parts. Two other operators operate the Valmet 860 forwarder, bought 18 months ago.
“My dad is also in charge of public relations,” says a joking Joël Robichaud. “He spends a lot of time talking with other contractors about just about anything.”
They divide up their work hours to operate the feller buncher, since it runs 24 hours a day, from Monday to Friday. “We each work 12 hours daily, one of us on the night shift and the other on the day shift, beginning at 5:00 in the morning.
We switch every week so there’s never the same person on the graveyard shift,” explains Jonathan Robichaud.
According to Jean-Guy Robichaud, the decision to work for Gérard Crête was a very good business move. “We don’t have any expenses. The company pays for accommodation and meals, and for transportation of our equipment.” Even fuel on site, negotiated between Petro-Canada and Gérard Crête Inc, is available at less than the current market price.
Every year, the Robichauds strip down their Timberjack 608 and its Waratah head to keep it in top shape. In the shop (left) are Joël, Jonathan, and Jean-Guy Robichaud.
And fuel is one of the biggest expenses in the company’s budget. Its Timberjack 608 goes through 400 litres of diesel per 12-hour workshift while the forwarder requires 200 litres. “It is quite important for us to take advantage of cheaper prices,” Robichaud confirms.
Business expenses and revenues are significant and Claudette, Robichaud’s wife, keeps track of them by doing the bookkeeping. “We produce on average 50,000 cubic metres over 10 months of operation annually,” she says.
Claudette found ways to ensure financial stability year-round, even when activities come to a halt during the spring because of the thaw. “I decided to pay our Valmet 860 forwarder in 10 payments instead of 12, even though the payments are higher, because they’re stretched over 10 months. So when we’re not operating, we have no payments to make.”
While revenue may be reasonably good, expenses eat away a huge chunk of it. They buy 90,000 litres of diesel alone for their 10-month operation, plus maintenance expenses, which are between $50,000 and $60,000 per year. “On top of all those charges, we have to take wages into account,” she adds.
Preventative maintenance is a must and “the key to our long-term success,” says Jonathan. Major modifications were made in recent years to the feller buncher and even the engine was changed over, with the goal of optimizing its performance and extending its life expectancy.
Since Quebec weather does not allow forest activities from mid-March until the end of April because of the muddy ground, that’s the time of year when the Robichauds are specialists in machinery mechanics. “Every year, we take our Timberjack 608 and its head apart,” explains Jonathan.
“The equipment now has 32,000 hours on it and we want to keep it in good shape until 60,000 hours before we have to change it,” adds Joël. “The big issue here is preventative maintenance.”
Since they do all of their own repairs, the Robichauds inquired about their Timberjack’s mechanical specifications as soon as they bought it. “We have to save on manpower because the hourly rate in garages is more than $80. If we didn’t do it ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to make a go of it in business, because our costs would be too high,” says Jonathan.
In the spring of 2003, Robichaud’s sons changed the engine completely, at a cost of $25,000, installing a Cummins 8.3. “The original Cummins engine had 170 horsepower and we changed it for the more powerful Cummins, with 260 horsepower. This new one now has 10,500 hours on it and it can work perfectly well for another two years,” says Joël.
Other major parts were also changed out. The bearings were replaced last year, and the hydraulic pumps and pull chains were just changed. “We change the hydraulic pumps every four years. This spring, it cost $17,000,” Jonathan adds.
According to Jean-Guy Robichaud and his family, the coming years will be fruitful for their business. “We will be working in areas where the wood will be better year by year, in areas where it’s more bushy. Good times are ahead.”