By Heather Hudson
Henry Petkau is a man of modest dreams. When he started Henry’s Trucking in 1988, he figured he’d haul logs from the bush to sawmills and paper mills throughout northwestern Ontario, just the way his father did. Maybe he’d build some bush roads as part of the service.
Twenty years later, he’s the proud owner of a thriving forest harvesting and trucking operation, complete with high-tech equipment and 14 employees.
He credits his 25-year-old son Bob for the expansion that has taken production to a whole new level over the last few years. “Bob’s very interested in business and making this grow. Honestly, if it wasn’t for him, I probably would still be driving one truck up and down the road hauling wood,” said Henry.
The significant recent growth includes branching out into forest harvesting, investing in new technology and hiring three more full-time employees. All of which made Henry’s Trucking a prime candidate for funding from the Ontario government’s Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC).
In August 2018, the NOHFC extended $462,500 in loans and conditional grants to help defray the cost of the equipment Henry had purchased for his company’s expansion.
“I bought all this equipment in 2016 and then applied for funding. It took about a year-and-a-half to come through, but it definitely helped recoup some of those financial investments,” said Henry.
Trucking is in Henry’s blood. He rode along on long hauls with his father from the time he was a teenager. When he turned 18, he got his trucking licence and started driving himself. And by the time he was 21, he had started his own trucking business.
But when Henry married in 1990 and became a father in 1993, he started to look at his chosen career a little differently. The closest sawmill is a four-hour drive from his home in Emo, Ontario. In order to get the work done, he had to leave home Monday morning and not return until Friday night. “I didn’t think that was the best family life,” he said. “I was looking for something where I could be home more.”
He found a local contractor for whom he could haul logs out of the bush and to the mills, which allowed him to sleep in his own bed every night. However, he was always looking for the chance to get more involved in bush work.
In 2008, an opportunity came along that would make that happen. A buyer wanted wood cut from a 40-acre lot nearby and he bid on it. His brother Mel, also tired of hauling wood, offered to buy a skidder and help out. “I thought he was crazy. That one block wasn’t even quite one winter’s work, but he did it anyway and we haven’t run out of work since.”
From there, the brothers went from block to block, some as big as 160 acres, cutting trees and delivering it to local sawmills.
“There were times when we were looking at just finishing a block and wondering what we were going to do in two weeks without anything lined up. But always, before the two weeks were up, there was another job waiting for us. God was definitely looking after us,” said Henry.
Besides Mel’s skidder, Henry didn’t have equipment of his own, so he hired sub-contractors to do the bunching and delimbing. “As time went on, my brother bought a delimber himself and I bought a few more pieces of equipment and it gradually grew from there,” said Henry.
The next game changer came along in 2014: forest company Resolute Forest Products, with a number of sawmills throughout Ontario and Quebec, needed help cutting wood. “Instead of private wood, we moved to cutting Crown wood,” said Henry.
“The mill offered us a five-year contract harvesting 96,000 cubic metres a year, from stump to dump.”
The Crown land, which lies halfway between Thunder Bay and Fort Frances, Ontario, is heavily wooded with pine, spruce and poplar. Henry’s Trucking is assigned a block of land ranging from 40 to 150 hectares. From there, it’s up to them to build the roads, harvest the logs and deliver them to the mill. Some blocks take a month, others take up to four months, depending on the wood.
“The ground can be anything from nice and flat to extremely rugged with swamps and 30-foot rock cliffs,” explains Henry. “Some blocks can be extremely challenging. If an operator isn’t careful and alert, they could easily tumble head over heels.”
The company has a bush camp with five bungalows powered by generators for employees who don’t travel back to the town of Atikokan every day. The company keeps equipment in the bush, but they have a 40-acre yard and a shop at Henry’s homestead for fixing things that have broken down.
Henry’s Trucking is mostly a John Deere operation. “We’ve had a lot of success with Deere,” said Henry. The John Deere dealer in Ontario is Nortrax.
Their starting line-up includes:
They also have two Peterbilt trucks, pulp trailers and a Kenmore truck left to them by Henry’s brother Mel, who passed away last April.
After they signed the contract with Resolute, Henry’s Trucking replaced their delimbers and slashers with more sophisticated Southstar processors. “The process was new to us and new to our operators, so there was a lot of training and learning to be done,” said Henry. “The computer screens in the cabs can be difficult for a 55-year-old old guy who’s used to manual ways.”
Anticipating the learning curve and managing the huge financial commitment, they introduced one processor at a time. “The biggest challenge was production. We still have to produce so much wood to meet contracts and wood deliveries,” said Bob. “But it went better than we expected as far as production and downtime. Every day it gets a little bit better.”
They say the Southstar processors are largely responsible for their steadily increasing production. “Every year we seem to do a tad bit more, but the huge difference since the expansion is a lot more money stays in the company instead of hiring subcontractors,” said Henry.
“It was a pretty rough deal to make this big plunge into the water with those processors, but once I was in there and swimming, I thought this was something I should have done a few years earlier.”
Henry’s Trucking has taken on employees gradually over the years. They have two buncher operators, two skidder operators, two processor operators, one excavator operator, four truck drivers and a few part-time workers who do the safety program and mark out boundary lines in the blocks. “We couldn’t do what we do without our faithful employees,” said Henry.
“We’ve been fortunate because usually I have two of each type of operator. If I have an experienced buncher operator and someone without experience, I’ll get him to train the newer person. Same thing on other equipment.”
He points out that Bob has made a point to learn how to operate every piece of equipment they buy. “It’s important because it helps me understand what the guys are facing each day and it helps me train guys too,” said Bob.
“Since we got the bigger contract and expanded business, most of my days are spent running around doing a lot of mechanic work. I also do a bit of loading trucks and doing a lot of preparation ahead as far as planning the next cutting areas and blocks. We try to be ahead of the guys before they get to the next block.”
When asked about the future, Bob has the answers. “I wouldn’t say that growing constantly would be an ambition of ours. The size we’re at right now is pretty good. To get much bigger or smaller wouldn’t interest us.”
Henry is pleased and often amazed with how far they’ve come. “I’m totally on board with what I’m doing. What I really enjoy is working together.” He says his 15-year-old son Lenny runs just about every piece of equipment in the bush and he expects he’ll want to come on board in a few years, too.
For his part, Bob is practical and excited about the future. “What we’re doing right now is a lot of work but it’s manageable. Any logger would say there’s always change. Having to learn and adapt is probably one of the biggest parts of business. That’s why I’m open to further technology. It’s important to be open to other ways and to always be curious.”
Like father, like son.
On the Cover:
Tom Fisher Logging conducts selective harvesting in a forest that consists of several high-value wood species, which provides him with the opportunity to tap into a variety of markets for his wood products. Fisher very ably maintains good relations with inquisitive local cottage owners about the sound of logging equipment and resource road traffic as they enjoy their lake properties. (Cover shot of a Tigercat 822C feller buncher with a 22” hotsaw head by Tony Kryzanowski)
A win-win forest management plan
The First Nations-owned Agoke Development Corporation is working on a forest management plan that could revolutionize the economic structure of forest management in northwestern Ontario—and deliver benefits to First Nations communities and the forest industry.
Managing all the moving parts
Veteran Ontario logger Tom Fisher has plenty of experience at managing the many moving parts—including keeping local cottage owners in the know—that are involved in harvesting high value hardwood forests.
Bright future for fiberboard operation
With a steady source of residual wood supply from mill operations in the region, the MDF plant in Pembroke, Ontario is looking forward to a positive future under its new ownership, Roseburg Forest Products.
Taking their logging to a whole new level
Ontario’s Henry Petkau had modest goals when he started Henry’s Trucking—but with his son, Bob, joining the operation, they have now expanded, and added new Southstar processing equipment that has taken timber production to a whole new level.
Getting higher OSB production at High Prairie
With a $50 million capital investment, forest company Tolko Industries has re-opened and boosted the production capacity at its re-commissioned High Prairie oriented strand board plant in Alberta by 40 per cent.
Sorting it all out—log-wise
The Shoal Island logging sort in B.C. truly lives up to its name, doing upwards of up to 180 log sorts, but doing it all with the environment in mind.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from Alberta Innovates, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the Forest Machinery Connectivity project is a good investment in “What If” science.