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March 2004

CONTRACTOR PROFILE 2

Ponsse Equipment Team Pays Off

New Brunswick woodlot operator and contractor Gilbert Levesque has found the purchase of a Ponsse Ergo harvester and Buffalo forwarder is paying off both for working on his woodlot and in doing contract work on other woodlots.

By George Fullerton

Gilbert Levesque had a successful career, building one of the largest bakeries in the Maritime provinces in Grand Falls in northwest New Brunswick, employing more than 170 workers. When he retired in 2000, Levesque decided to spend some quality time playing and working on his woodlots. Levesque has maintained a passion for the forest. That passion began in his younger years, and continued through his business career when he purchased the odd woodlot and hired local contractors to harvest from time to time. Following the sale of his bakery business in 2000, Levesque teamed up with David Lewis, a forest technician, who was looking for a fresh opportunity after serving for five years as manager of the Carleton-Victoria Forest Products Marketing Board.

The Buffalo forwarder and the Ergo harvester team allow the Levesque operation to economically harvest high volumes of low-value wood from thinnings.

Lewis saw a tremendous opportunity for silviculture investments on the 5,000 acres of G A Levesque woodlands, especially in the tolerant hardwood stands, which if managed well could pay a handsome dividend in a decade or two. There is good demand for high quality hardwoods in northwest New Brunswick and Maine, with mills paying top dollar. Through 2001 to 2002, Lewis hired local skidder crews, and with close supervision developed them into skilled partial cut crews to carry out silviculture treatments on tolerant hardwood and mixedwood stands. “Gilbert is a serious businessman,” says Lewis. “It didn’t take him long to understand that investing in some careful logging practices and attention to proper crown release of high quality hardwoods would return a very good dividend.”

As the G A Levesque crew’s reputation for high quality silviculture work grew, woodlot owners in the Grand Falls region began requesting similar work. In short time, G A Levesque began providing specialty harvest service to woodlot owners as well as some deer yard work for Nexfor Fraser. As the demand for quality silviculture grew, Levesque and Lewis began to toy with the idea of investing in some serious iron: a cut-to-length harvester and forwarder to handle the increased demands. In addition to four operators, the crew has a dedicated foreman, Luc Levesque, who can also fill in on either the harvester or forwarder. Luc also handles bar straightening, chain filing, hose fabrication and oversees the operation and maintenance of machines.

 David Lewis (left) and harvester operator Yvon LeClair. The roomy cabs on both the Ergo harvester and Buffalo forwarder provide excellent operator comfort.

The six-wheeled Ergo and the eight-wheeled Buffalo forwarder both feature 240 hp Mercedes engines, which are smooth running, quiet and fuel efficient. Hydrostatic drives and braking provide smooth and secure traction delivery. Ponsse’s Opticontrol computer system controls all machine hydraulics and drive controls. The harvester crane is located over the bogie drives on the Ergo, which gives good stability. The boom features a double extension, which allows for a very compact harvester base, with a 33-foot reach. Levesque’s Ergo is equipped with a H73 model head, which is the highest capacity head available from Ponsse. The base of the crane tilts hydraulically, which provides additional working stability and operator comfort.

Lewis said they have been impressed with the unit’s operating ability on slopes, explaining that the harvester took on some slopes where they would not have been able to operate with conventional skidder crews. Lewis said that the machine’s Windows-based computer is easily programmed, performs very reliably and can provide an accurate daily printout of harvested wood. The computer’s colour display monitor is well placed, easy for the operator to read, but does not interfere with the operator’s view of the harvester head. The roomy cabs on both machines provide excellent operator comfort and allow the option for a trainer to observe trainees while they are harvesting.

The cab has an arched front window that allows good visibility of tree tops, a definite requirement to allow the operator to make good harvest decisions in thinnings. G A Levesque takes advantage of the roomy cab, inviting woodlot owner clients to join the operator to see how the machine works. At the same time, they receive an explanation of the silviculture theory behind the thinning or harvest operation. “Having the woodlot owner see the harvester operate, and providing them with an explanation of the harvesting decisions, gives them confidence that we are doing the highest quality, most efficient work,” says Lewis. “Sometimes, woodlot owners are not sure they want to have big machines on their property.

The brief time spent in the harvester reassures them that it will do a good job and leave their woodlot intact. “We find that those happy woodlot owners become our best advertisement, and they will tell friends and neighbors about the harvester and the good job it does.” G A Levesque takes a professional approach with its woodlot owner clients, providing them with a detailed woodlot management plan that illustrates the condition of stands, silviculture prescriptions and a timetable for activities. “We take pictures of the stands on the woodlot, simple shots with a 35mm camera, which provide a basic representation of the stand,” explains Lewis. “The photos give the owner a physical image to go with the written description. They provide an excellent perspective that land owners can relate to, generally more readily than the written description, cruise data or aerial photos.”

The management plan is personally delivered with detailed explanations by either Lewis or Levesque, but in some cases it’s done as a team effort. The management plan includes a detailed offer to contract harvesting and silviculture work. In addition to explaining to the woodlot owner how harvest operations will proceed, Lewis also takes the additional step of talking to neighbours adjoining the client’s woodlot, to explain how and when harvest will occur, so that they understand what’s happening. “People appreciate an up-front and frank explanation about what will be going on—they don’t like surprises.”

This pro-active approach with the neighbourhood wins respect and, occasionally, the opportunity to work on neighbouring woodlots. Levesque admits that when he started his trip to see the Ponsse factory, he was not convinced that he should purchase the Ponsse team. He explained that he allowed himself to be wooed to go on the trip by ALPA’s Serge Landry. “Serge insisted that we should go see Ponsse and the offer presented itself as an attractive opportunity to visit Finland for a holiday and get a good look at their forestry operations.” Levesque and Lewis came away from Finland convinced that Ponsse offered a top notch harvesting team, which would work very well in their operations. “ALPA gave us confidence that they would support us with service, training and parts,” Levesque said. “They have been very good.” If something breaks and they need a technician, the service people are quick to come on the phone and offer troubleshooting advice.

 And if it is required, ALPA will send a service person right away from Edmunston, Fredericton or their headquarters in Balmoral. “We know that they will have someone working on the machine within a few hours if it is something we cannot handle ourselves.” ALPA’s Serge Landry explained that the dealer provides technical support to new customers on delivery, which includes a general maintenance review, and operator training, to get them familiar with the new machine and computer system. ALPA keeps in close touch with customers in the first months as the operators gain familiarity.

Technicians will do follow-up visits and review machine operations, and show advanced computer parameters. Landry said that the sequential visits allow both contractors and operators to grow into their machine, rather than overloading them with information at the start, which can leave them confused and agitated. ALPA expects to take delivery of a mobile Ponsse training simulator, which will be offered to customers throughout its sales region. As for Levesque and Lewis, they expect that ALPA and its Ponsse team are now the key to keeping the business on a winning footing and building a profitable future.

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