June 2005 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Ramping Up Harvesting
British Columbia logging contractor Cortloch Industries—a company which ex-NHL player Geoff Courtnall is involved with—has ramped up its harvesting operations in a huge way in the last six months, and has taken on a lot more iron to do the job.
By Paul MacDonald
With change comes opportunity. That’s exactly what many coastal British Columbia logging contractors have found in recent years, as some of the major forest companies operating in this region have moved from running their own harvesting operations and shifted it to contractors.
Forest company TimberWest Forest Corporation is a case in point. Previously, 50 per cent of TimberWest’s logging on Vancouver Island was done by logging contractors. But in the past year—through a restructuring of its harvesting operations—the company now has all of its logging done by logging contractors on a competitive bid basis.
And seizing the opportunity presented by TimberWest was Victoria-based Cortloch Industries, which has taken over sizeable harvesting operations for the company. “It’s every small contractor’s dream,” says Gord Vaughan, operations manager for Cortloch Industries, of the work they have taken on. “Cortloch has gone from basically a mom and pop operation with a 60,000 to 100,000 cubic metre cut, plus some other small jobs, to 650,000 plus cubic metres, almost overnight.
“We’ve had a few growing pains, no doubt about that,” he adds.
Cortloch was set up several years ago when ex-NHL hockey player Geoff Courtnall and Dale Malloch—hence the Cortloch name—purchased Munn’s Lumber. Despite its name, Munn’s was a contracting operation, and had a cut in the Cowichan Woodlands operation of TimberWest.
Then TimberWest announced that it wanted to contract out all the logging with the Cowichan Woodlands and the neighbouring Honeymoon Bay operations. It was opportunity knocking for Cortloch.
The massive piece of work went out for bid this past fall, and Vaughan, who had worked with the Honeymoon Bay operation before, joined Cortloch in its effort to get the contract. Vaughan had helped the Honeymoon Bay operation with its transition from harvesting old growth to second growth, and was familiar with the timber, the terrain and the crews.
The process—from getting information from TimberWest on its requirements to putting together the bid to awarding the contract—took about three months. Bid packages went out to a number of interested contractors. TimberWest was looking for information on each of the contractors’ management teams, their past performance in important areas such as safety, quality and the environment—and that critical element: how much it would cost to do the work.
Once the contract was awarded, Cortloch had to hit the ground running. “It was no longer a job we were dreaming about getting—it was now here,” says Vaughan. On the management front, they have had to scale up everything from the payroll program to truck dispatching programs. “If we had a bit more time, we could have managed the need to ramp things up better,” says Vaughan. “But the contract was awarded, then there was Christmas, and then there was start day. It happened just that fast.”
To do all this additional logging, the company purchased much of the harvesting equipment from TimberWest. And there were a few pieces from what they bought—as well as from the iron they previously owned—that ended up in a Ritchie Bros auction, as they did an equipment cull. “It was a good opportunity for us to do a complete review of the equipment, what we needed, what kind of shape it was in, what was going to stay, and what was going to go,” says Vaughan.
About 40 pieces of equipment went, leaving them with about 300 pieces of equipment, from feller bunchers to pick-up trucks—everything that had a unit number. “Overall, we ended up with a pretty good set-up of equipment,” adds Vaughan.
That line-up includes five grapple yarders, both Madill and Cypress, and a variety of iron they use for road construction including some Hitachi, John Deere and Cat equipment. They have three feller bunchers and six processors. “We’ve got quite a mixed tool box in terms of equipment, but it allows us to utilize our employees and equipment well.”
On the processor side, they have: two Madill 2200B harvesters with HTH 624 Waratah processing heads; one Madill 2850 with an HTH 624 Waratah processing head; two Madill 3800Bs with HTH 624 Waratah processing heads; and one Madill 3800C with an HTH 624 Waratah processing head.
A Madill 3800C on the job for Cortloch Industries
With feller bunchers, Cortloch has: a Madill 2200B tilting carrier with a 22-inch Quadco 360 rotating hot saw head; a Madill 2250 tilting carrier with a 28-inch Quadco intermittent 360 rotating head; and a Tigercat 830, zero tail swing tilting carrier with a 23-inch Tigercat hot saw head.
While they have a lot of equipment now, Vaughan says they want to make sure that equipment is in good shape going forward. “The key pieces, the feller bunchers, the processors, have to be fresh. They need to be no more than 5,000- to 7,000-hour machines because they are key to the whole operation.”
The bunchers and processors are generally working double-shifts, operating 19 to 20 hours a day. The ground they are working in on Vancouver Island is typical steep slope, which takes a toll on equipment. The timber is also good-sized. The average size in the second growth timber is about one cubic metre per stem, and this year’s plan calls for them to be harvesting about 75 per cent second growth and 25 per cent old growth.
Taking on all that equipment also meant they had to step things up considerably on the maintenance front. Cortloch essentially went from running a shop with two mechanics, to running two shops with a dozen mechanics.
Like the other contractors who took over company logging operations on the BC Coast, Cortloch has made some changes, especially in terms of setting up shift schedules that offer the most productivity. The agreement with TimberWest calls for Cortloch to log seven days a week. Under company operations, crews had been working a Monday to Friday, five-day work week, with anything beyond that on overtime. So there was definitely a transition that had to be made there. And from Cortloch’s perspective, they had to make sure they got maximum equipment utilization, with minimum overtime.
“Any kind of new schedule you come up with is going to have an impact, but we tried to minimize the impact it would have on employees,” explains Vaughan. “It was quite a challenge.”
They moved to a 11.5 hour work day, with four days on, four days off.
These kinds of changes, and the underlying move to contracting out, come directly from the recommendations of Don Munroe, who was appointed mediator/arbitrator by the BC government at the request of both coastal forest companies and the union, formerly the IWA, now the United Steelworkers of America. In his recommendations, Munro provided companies with the ability to contract out harvesting activities to stump-to-dump contractors, such as Cortloch. And the flexibility that the contractors bring with them, such as different shifts, are considered key to making coastal logging viable and profitable.
“It’s been hard to make the adjustments and for people to get their head around the changes,” admits Vaughan. “There have been issues, but overall the guys have responded well, and it’s worked out pretty good.
“Traditionally, the contractor sector is thinking outside of the box, trying new things. Contractors have come up with pretty creative ways to get the wood in the water. And we have to continue to think that way, or we’re kind of doomed as a coastal industry.”
While the industry is starting to address the challenges, there is more to come, Vaughan says. “Let’s not kid ourselves, the expectation is for continued cost reductions. We are going to have to keep finding different, better ways to get our logs in the water.”
And there is no one magic solution to achieving cost savings. “There’s very little low-hanging fruit. We’ve sort of picked those ones off. From here on, it’s how far outside the box can you think.”
Coastal loggers need to look for better, stronger and more agile harvesting equipment—and it may be out there already. “The wood is getting smaller and we need to take notes from back east and Europe on how they manage small second and third growth. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel—they have been doing it successfully for many years.”
The challenge is making sure one can achieve economies of scale when using one type of equipment for old growth, and another for second growth. That should be less of a problem for Cortloch with the TimberWest volume it has now.
Vaughan adds that the perception of employees to their employer needs to change, as well. The employer is no longer a corporate giant with its head offices in Vancouver or Toronto—it’s the guy who is sometimes sitting across the lunch table from them. In this case, that happens to be Geoff Courtnall.
“We’re trying to lose the big company atmosphere because it doesn’t fit with the small company that we are. We want everyone to know that every little thing counts, right down to the nuts and bolts.”
While Courtnall still has to spend time in the Victoria office, he has made a point of getting out in the bush to meet the crews. He explains to them why he thinks the expanded operation can succeed, and that the crews are a big part of that success. Courtnall is a local boy, having grown up in nearby Youbou. His father worked at the sawmill in that community. “Geoff is a hard-working guy and he’s committed to learning the business,” says Vaughan.
Courtnall played on a number of NHL teams, notably the 1987-88 Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton Oilers, and draws on that experience when he talks to the crews.
“Geoff relates it back to sports, and there are lots of similarities,” says Vaughan. “When you are building a work team or a hockey team, it all has to fit together and you need to communicate.”
In spite of the tremendous pace of the last six months—from preparing a very detailed bid to seeing that executed on the ground—Vaughan says the venture has been exhilarating. “At this point, we’re pretty much on track with our plan. There haven’t been a lot of surprises.”
The biggest unknown, he says, were the crews. Vaughan subscribes to the theory that you can have all the equipment you want, but you need to have the right people operating that equipment, and they have to buy into the goals of the overall operation, for it to be a success. “The crews have been very supportive through the transition,” he notes. “We have productivity and safety expectations that are quite strong, and so far we have met them all.”
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