By George Fullerton
James and Susan Willis manage J.A. Willis Contracting with ambition, strict business acumen, with a focus on efficient and productive equipment and highly motivated operators—it’s a powerful formula.
While in high school, James worked planting trees for J.D. Irving and decided that his future career would be working in forestry. He attended New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) in Miramichi, New Brunswick, and graduated from the mechanized harvest operator program, and began operating harvesting gear for Irving.
Looking for a bit of adventure, he headed west in 2008 and discovered an opportunity to become a contractor around Fort St. John, British Columbia, operating on small salvage harvest blocks.
For gear, James made a deal on a Tigercat harvester for sale in Sussex, New Brunswick, and had it shipped across country to him.
“I had experience with the Tigercat 845 and Log Max heads, so I was determined that was what I would start my own business with,” he recalls. “The one in Sussex was the only one I could find in Canada, so I bought it and had it floated out.”
Since it was difficult to obtain good trucking service in Fort St. John, James purchased a used Kenworth tractor along with a log trailer, which he put to work hauling from his own operations. He also invested in a float which went to work moving his own gear, as well as hiring out to other contractors.
While in Fort St. John, James met Susan who was working summers for forest company Canfor, while she was enrolled at Lakehead University. A relationship developed and they married and, consequently, became business partners.
Susan became a full time employee for Canfor following her graduation with a Bachelor of Science in Forestry, and also moonlighted providing office support for J.A. Willis Contracting.
In 2016, when James and Susan decided to return to New Brunswick, they loaded up the Tigercat, this time on their own float, and shipped it back to New Brunswick.
“That machine is so much a part of me,” explains James. “It has 70,000 hours on it and I still look at it and realize it is still a highly productive machine and anything can be rebuilt, and I know it will perform.”
His confidence in the Tigercat led him to upgrade the harvesting head from a Log Max 9000 to a brand new Log Max 6000V head and the new Log Mate 510 computer.
“We are very pleased with the new head, he says. “It has vastly improved saw power and a beefed up frame that allows it to perform well in any type of wood.”
James explained that stands he works in are typically mixed. He pointed out that while they may be in a softwood stand which might be predominately studwood and pulpwood grade trees, the harvest operation will very consistently encounter a component of big rough hardwood to harvest and process as well.
“You need a head that can handle anything—and this 6000V can handle everything we see, very comfortably.”
The new head also came with the Logmate 510 computer which James contends gives his operation an advantage.
“I think Log Max is the best all round head, whether harvesting or processing behind a buncher,” he says. “It can grab stems effectively and handle any size. If our buncher is felling hardwoods with big crotches that will challenge the processor, the buncher operator will cut off one side of the crotch so the processor can handle them. It takes the buncher a little time, but it makes the other processes so much more efficient.”
The Log Mate 510 is very sensitive and very accurate, he added. “It will very accurately merchandize every log to the mill spec. I will walk past a roadside pile of studwood and notice sticks that I think are below spec, but when I put a tape to them, they are in the spec.”
Getting the highest value logs from a tree is very important for him as a contractor since the price of studwood is about double the price for pulpwood. “Making sure all the studwood gets into the studwood mill is also very important for my woodlot owner clients. I want to be sure they also get all the value possible from their harvest—and the Logmate does that job so well.”
When researching the new Log Max 6000V head, James also gave considerable study to evaluating continuous rotators, to understand if it would make his operation more productive.
Log Max promotes the Rotobec continuous rotator as an option to go with their processing heads.
James ordered the Rotobec rotator with the head, and again says it makes his operation more efficient and profitable. “I figure the rotator paid for itself in just a matter of months.”
James says that rotating a conventional head to its max will inevitably put stretch on the hydraulic hoses supplying the head. The repeated stretching ultimately results in blown hoses.
“It not only costs to build and install a new hose, it also means we lose two or three hours of valuable production time,” he explained. “With the rotator, we avoid both those costs.”
Todd McLaughlin operates the Tigercat with the new Log Max head, and he admires the rotator for the reliability (fewer broken hoses) and for the agility it adds to the harvester.
“The rotator allows me to easily reach around a stem to fell it in the most efficient way. With a conventional set-up, I may have to reposition the harvester to place the head where I want it and that takes time and that impacts our production,” explained McLaughlin.
There is a division of responsibilities at J.A. Willis Contracting. Susan handles the payroll, Work Safe, and a whole lot of other paperwork.
“There is no way I could manage the woods side of the business without Susan working really hard on the office side. The business is definitely a team effort,” stated James.
Susan combines business chores with managing eighteen-month-old Erin and three–year-old James, and holding down a steady job outside the family home.
“We fit in the business work after the kids are in bed,” says Susan.
In addition to the Tigercat 845, the Willis operation purchased a John Deere 1510 forwarder to get started in New Brunswick. Since then, they have added a John Deere 753 with a 6000B Log Max head, a Ponsse Buffalo King forwarder, a John Deere buncher with Deere head, a Tigercat 860 buncher with Tigercat head, a John Deere 2154D loader, a Komastsu 61EX dozer and a new Peterbilt truck with BWS quad trailer.
The equipment line-up also includes four-door pickup trucks for crew to commute to the jobsite. The operation is primarily a single shift operation with operators putting in 10 hours in their seat, and a couple more hours on maintenance. The John Deere harvester and the Ponsse forwarder also do a night shift. The night shift fits the operator’s nocturnal preference for working, and adds production to the operation.
James pointed out that using bunchers ahead of the harvesters processing the wood makes the operation more effective, especially in stands where the piece size is small.
In the past, James had contracted bunchers, but found it difficult to get the kind of results he was looking for, so they bought their own buncher and ensured the operator bunched the trees (sort, species, etc.) so the processors could work productively, and the forwarders as well.
“We also work the harvesters as individual tree harvesters,” he says. “It just depends on what the landowner wants to see. We can maintain high quality natural regeneration with the bunchers in certain stand types. We assess every harvest block individually, and consult the owner and plan the harvest and equipment choice, and work to meet their expectations.”
James said he did not want to get into trucking, but it is so difficult to find and keep truckers, that he went out and bought his own truck. “We also do our own floating, so I will put the truck on the float when required.
“As a small business we need to move wood to maintain cash flow,” he noted. “I hire trucks to get the trucking capacity we want, but trucks are not always available. We have a couple of really good truckers, and we want to keep them.
“I look for used log trailers, because I feel they are a better deal,” he added. “I can take a used trailer and sandblast and paint it, re-wire and fix up the suspension, and I have an economically priced trailer compared to buying new.”
They have their own loader, so they have no centre mount loader trailers, and look to hire trucks with no loaders. “With no centre mount loader, we get more payload into the mill with each load.
“It’s very hard to find really good drivers with woods experience, but it is extremely hard to find good woods drivers with loader experience. Loaders on trailers also adds a whole lot more maintenance and repair to trucking, and they are a large capital cost.”
Having their own loader gives them flexibility. “I use the John Deere loader for other work, for example. I will unload the forwarders if I am at roadside, and often I will unload forwarders right on to trucks if things line up just right.
“Sometimes the loader will sit for a number of hours, and I will think that it is a cost, but when I evaluate the complete picture, the loader offers good value to the operation,” he says. “Similarly, the dozer may sit around for weeks and not move, and I look at it and wonder why I have it. And then I will use it to fix the road so wood can move, and the alternative would have been to shut down trucks, maybe for days, while I waited for a contracted dozer to show up to do the work.”
They have a large repair shop at their home in Newmarket, north of Fredericton. The shop allows them to do repair work on their equipment, as required.
“I get Brandt in Fredericton to handle a lot of repairs and overhaul work. I have found they provide very good service, and have very knowledgeable mechanics.”
The Willis’s work primarily on private woodlots, but have also done specialized harvest and silviculture work on the Acadia Research Forest (Natural Resources Canada). Willis also contracts for J.D. Irving as a “Flex Contractor”, on an as- needed basis.
“We do a good deal of clearcut harvesting, but we also do a lot of partial cut and a lot of harvesting which protects the natural regeneration,” says James. “Other contractors will say you can’t make any money doing thinning, and I say all I have to do is price the job correctly. If an owner or a manager wants a specific kind of harvest that has significant operational challenges, then we are going to work out a price where they get the results they want and I get paid for the exceptional service I provide them.”
On the Cover:
James and Susan Willis manage J.A. Willis Contracting with ambition, strict business acumen, with a focus on efficient and productive equipment and highly motivated operators—it’s a powerful formula. Part of their core equipment is a Tigercat 845 harvester James first started using in B.C.—and continues to use in the logging operation they now run in New Brunswick, which now has a staggering 70,000 hours on it. The Willis logging operation also includes some recently acquired equipment such as the new Peterbilt truck with BWS quad trailer pictured on the cover. Read all about the Willis operation beginning on page 18 of this issue (Cover photo by George Fullerton).
B.C. hard hit by mill closures, curtailments
British Columbia—particular the Interior of the province—has been hit hard by sawmill closures and curtailments, and it is having a definite, and big, ripple effect on the logging sector, says the new general manager of the Interior Logging Association, Todd Chamberlain.
First Nations keeping the wood flow happening
First Nations and Métis communities are playing a key role in keeping the wood flow happening at Tolko Industries’ OSB plant in High Prairie Alberta, with a First Nations corporation managing all the log yard activities at the operation.
Opting for off-species
New Brunswick’s Tony Boyd took a somewhat circuitous route to sawmilling, via the trades and logging, but he’s now established a solid business producing custom wood products from a variety of off-species in the region.
A logging package that delivers
James Willis has logged in the West and East, working with the same dependable, productive Tigercat 845 buncher, though these days he has a new Log Max 6000V head, and opted for the Rotobec continuous rotator, a package that delivers the goods.
Taking care of business
B.C.’s Homalco First Nation is looking to build up its forestry operations, to make optimum use of their logging equipment—and to continue to grow its business and provide jobs and training for the band’s members.
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
Canada’s softwood lumber negotiating strategy is hurting, not helping, forestry workers, says Tony Kryzanowski.