June 2003 - Contractor Profile2
Gulbranson Logging draws on a variety of equipment, and strong family and employee ties, to meet the changing logging conditions—and nature of the business—in British Columbia.
By Jim Stirling
British Columbia’s forest industry is enduring unprecedented pressure, uncertainty and reform that threaten to rattle the industry’s foundations. But when Mel Gulbranson talks about his family and the employees that are the key to his log contracting business, the confidence in the future they provide helps allay the concerns. Just like they always have. Gulbranson Logging Ltd is based in Vanderhoof, at BC’s geographical heart. It was to Vanderhoof in 1966 that Mel’s dad, Orin, led the Gulbranson family, seeking new horizons. They were attracted by the availability of reasonably priced land. It was the incentive for a renewed start in a farming and ranching life-style.
The Gulbranson family came into the country—like the pioneers before them—with little but each other. The family sunk their collective souls into the Nechako River valley landscape. The hard work has paid off. Thirty-seven years later, the Gulbranson family still raise prime cattle and grow hay and grain crops in the valley. Their logging business, which began inadvertently through land clearing, has flourished. They have grown to become one of the BC interior’s largest and most successful logging contractors, measured by volumes harvested. “We bought our first forest machine in 1968,” recalls Mel Gulbranson. “It was a Timberjack 215 line skidder.”
The Gulbransons used it to move private wood for neighbouring farmers. A few loads here and there, to improve the land. Gradually, a Patrick loader was added and then a Cat. A logging truck followed, a practical necessity: a truck never seemed to be available when the Gulbransons needed it. Eight brothers and sisters helped their parents on the farm and in logging. The logging and farming enterprises were gradually divided and the present finds Mel and his family members centering on the logging business, while younger brother Emil and family concentrate on the farming activities.
Gulbranson Logging’s work history reflects the maturing of the sawmilling industry in the Nechako valley. “We hauled the first load of logs into L & M Lumber’s yard in 1969 and we became their prime contractor. As they’ve grown with quota and forest licences, so have we.” To the point of doing 160,000 cubic metres in annual volume. L & M and its adjacent sister mill, Nechako Lumber Co Ltd, are part of the Sinclar Group of lumber product manufacturers and brokers. “In the early 1990s, we developed a relationship with Dunkley Lumber,” says Gulbranson. Annual quota volumes range from 70,000 to 120,000 cubic metres. “We have done a lot of small business sales for them and L & M—which has less quota than it needs to run its mill—and we still do.”
Gulbranson Logging has aggressively pursued small business opportunities in every forest district from Burns Lake to Dawson Creek. They’ve delivered logs to every mill throughout the region at one time or other. Volumes harvested peaked at 565,000 cubic metres in 2000. They have dropped with the loss of a high lead cable contract and—in a sign of the times—a removal of L & M quota wood for reassignment to a First Nations group. The 2002/2003 volumes are in excess of 400,0000 cubic metres. And, in another telling indicator of what’s going on in the region, all but around 15,000 cubic metres of that volume was infected by the interior’s horrendous mountain pine beetle epidemic. “Most licensees have done a good job at targeting the green attack,” says Gulbranson.
Left behind, for the time being at least, are huge volumes of bug killed wood. How long the standing dead trees retain value depends on factors like location and growing site. Gulbranson observes a growing demand for dry pine for use in house log construction, but it typically requires larger piece sizes than offered by most pine in the Vanderhoof area. “We also do all the roadbuilding necessary with our contracts,” says Gulbranson. “And we’ve branched out to do work for the Ministry of Forests.” Last year, for example, Gulbranson Logging worked on a major re-alignment project for the mainline Kluskus Forest Service Road, south of Vanderhoof. The company is bonded to bid on mill and ministry road construction projects.
Gulbranson typically employs a mechanical log harvesting system with feller bunchers, grapple skidders to roadside, dangle head processors and butt ‘n top loaders for on-highway hauls. Gulbranson is a believer in dangle head processors. “I’ve always thought they were a better way to go. We’ve found that they’re quick in the smaller piece size wood and they can handle the larger wood.” He has a philosophy toward logging equipment that results in utilizing a variety of machines. “You have quality choices and you can buy where the best deal is. With feller bunchers, for example, in the early days you had one or two choices. Now, there are four or five product lines that are probably equally as good as each other.
A lot of the decisions on purchasing equipment comes down to the dealer and support offered.” It’s a similar story with excavators. “In my view, there are three or four right up there in quality. We’ve used Hitachi, Komatsu, Kobelco and had pretty good luck with all of them. That’s a plus,” says Gulbranson. “We find, too, that we don’t keep machinery too long beyond the warranty period. We try to keep machine hours and production up with a newer fleet.” That is complemented by a very good computerized maintenance program that faithfully adheres to a 250-hour check schedule. Preventative maintenance techniques like oil sampling can signal attention to areas for repairs prior to failure.
Gulbranson estimates the company has a fleet of 50 pieces of logging and road building equipment. It operates about 20 trucks, including dump trucks and low beds, about double that in pick-ups, and five mechanical service vehicles. “I suppose we’d have close to $10 million worth of equipment,” he adds. Gulbranson Logging maintains 50 to 70 full-time employees and in excess of 120 when subs are added at the peak of operations. “The big fluctuations in numbers makes it difficult to manage,” he says. Add in that the five or six logging sides operational in the average winter season dwindles to two in the summer and it red flags a major problem for Gulbranson. “One of the things that’s been frustrating for us for whatever reasons—the Forest Practices Code, bug wood, stumpage bingo—is the severe limits to the amount of summer work.” You get a good group of people together and the lack of work means you can lose some of them, says Gulbranson, with all the added implications that has for community stability in small forestry-reliant towns. “I’m really concerned in the future about how we’re going to attract young workers,” he says. “If I’m trying to encourage a young contractor, I’ll have to tell him he has to train and then he’ll only get about six or seven months of work split throughout the year. And when he does work, he’ll be going 14/15 hours a day, six days a week.”
The spectre of camp jobs increases as timber sources move further from towns. The capital investment in equipment required is fairly significant to get into even the bottom level of the business, while logging rates and margins are on a downward spiral. That’s the kind of job description likely to send aspiring young loggers screaming off in another direction. “Government needs to look at that. Big mill employers need to look at that,” says Gulbranson. “Sooner or later it will come back to haunt the industry. We have to make it a desirable employment industry. We have to attract new workers, but with our regulations and codes, we’re painting ourselves into a corner.”
Forestry reforms remain on the provincial Liberal government’s agenda. So far, Gulbranson maintains that basic regulations—including those that are supposed to speed up the harvesting process in bug wood—haven’t changed appreciably. “I can think of six or eight times where we’ve had to park equipment and send people home while waiting for permit approvals. Is that the government, the companies? I’m not pointing fingers, but delays remain.” The Gulbranson family connection remains a bulwark—a source of strength and comfort—amidst the challenging logistics and external factors directing the forest industry. All five of Mel’s sisters and their spouses are involved with Gulbranson Logging. “We have very strong family involvement, and that’s been a real asset to the company for two and three generations.”
Mix in the extended family of employees, some of whom have worked for Gulbranson Logging for 20 years, and the mantra is clear. “Our people are an integral part of the business.” That kind of tight, family-owned and operated focus should put Gulbranson Logging in a good position in the BC logging industry, which is likely to have more—rather than fewer—challenges in the future. “This industry will survive but it needs to be looked at. We as a company have good people and good organization and we’re certainly interested in increasing our volumes and looking at new opportunities and joint ventures under the right conditions,” he says. “We’re not going away.”
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