By Paul MacDonald
To say the last three years have been busy for B.C.’s Lizzie Bay Logging would be a vast understatement.
In that time, in addition to diligently carrying out active logging activities during COVID, the company has become joint owner of a custom sawmilling business, acquired a towboating company, and launched a concrete company—and started a tree services business (see sidebar story on page 13).
Based in the community of Pemberton, nestled at the foot of Mt. Currie, north of the resort town of Whistler, Lizzie Bay Logging—under the direction of owners Norm LeBlanc and Gord Menzel—has been actively diversifying its operations in recent years, both in the forest industry, and outside of the industry. It’s been a very busy time.
While things related to COVID have settled down quite a bit these days, Menzel recalls that they had strict protocols and procedures in place at their logging camp, right from the get-go—and that approach paid off.
“We were in camp when it first happened, and no one then really knew what was going on,” he recalls. When employees left camp, they pretty much only went home—and only home—to try and reduce the chance of contracting COVID, says Menzel. “We had a couple of close calls, but nothing that shut us down.”
“We kept things pretty tight at camp—we kept the camp pretty much to our employees. I think that was one of the reasons we got through without a shutdown,” added LeBlanc.
First and foremost, they were concerned about employee health and safety—that was their primary goal.
But any kind of disruption in camp could have easily had a ripple effect on overall operations, and possibly, the jobs of employees.
Lizzie Bay Logging faces a tight time window with transporting much of its wood. After harvesting, the wood is moved to Harrison Lake, where it is then towed out in booms to the Fraser River. They have a short time window when the water level in the lake and river is high enough to tow the timber.
“Any wood that we want to get out by Harrison Lake has to be moved before the river drops,” explains LeBlanc.
They start logging in the spring, and shoot for August to move the timber on Harrison Lake, to the Fraser. They will have blocks lined up for harvesting, and will start stockpiling wood, to keep things moving. “We want everything ready to go,” says Menzel. “We’ll move some 80,000 to 90,000 cubic metres out to the Fraser River, on Harrison Lake.”
After the summer, they move logging operations, and equipment, closer to Pemberton, where economics allow them to haul to Squamish, about 90 kilometres to the south.
As has been the case for a while, Lizzie Bay Logging works with a variety of brands and models of equipment to do their logging. They like to use different brands of equipment, as long as the equipment is a good fit for them.
“That’s still the case,” says LeBlanc. “We’re not 100 per cent tied to any one brand. We have good relationships with the equipment dealers.
“We look at it from the perspective of, is this the best machine for this job? And it may be a Tigercat, John Deere, Cat—or whatever. We believe that some manufacturers make a better loader or buncher than others, for example.”
It’s also about service, too, from the dealers, Menzel added—that’s whether the dealer is Finning (Cat), Brandt Tractor (John Deere) Inland Equipment (Tigercat) or Wajax (Hitachi).
That said, they are certainly fans of some types of equipment, with about half their equipment being Cat, another 35 per cent being Tigercat, and the balance being mostly John Deere, Hitachi, or Case.
There tends to be an equipment focus at their camp.
“We have three Cat 568s in camp, so we can easily stock parts for them,” says Menzel. They also have several Tigercat 855 and 890 machines, so there is commonality of parts there, as well.
“Being isolated at camp, when we discuss new machines, we try to keep the equipment line-up there that makes sense—that’s important to us,” Menzel noted. “A ‘black sheep’ kind of machine can cost a lot of money in the bush when you don’t have any parts around and reliable dealer support.”
In terms of equipment on the Tigercat side, Lizzie Bay has: a Tigercat 890 log loader, 890 processor, 855 processor, 870 buncher, 855 tilter chucker and a 630 skidder. For Cat equipment, they have two 568 road builders, a 568 log loader, a D8R dozer, a D6R dozer, a 730 rock truck, and two 725 rock trucks.
That commonality extends to their fleet of logging trucks and low-beds, which are all Kenworth T-800s, and the same with the fuel trucks with associated fuel company, AC Petroleum.
Overall, and depending on what is going on with the business, Lizzie Bay works to make one big equipment purchase a year. But it also keeps an eye out for any deals that may be in the offing, for heavy equipment.
“We’ve been able to pick up some good used equipment in the last few years, but I’d have to say that there have been slim pickings,” says LeBlanc. “Good used equipment is selling at a premium—no doubt about it.”
Rather than go the auction route for used equipment, they tend to keep the dealers in the know for what they are looking for, and the dealers contact them if they get some good used equipment coming in on a trade, for example.
“It has to be a good piece of equipment, otherwise we are just buying problems down the road,” says LeBlanc. “We have pretty good, late-model gear, and we want to keep it that way.”
Used iron has also proven to be a good option the last couple of years when manufacturers were having trouble shipping equipment to dealers. Even now, there are lengthy waits—as much as 14 months—for bunchers, or trucks. As a result, Lizzie Bay has purchased a bit more used equipment than usual over the last year. They are currently looking at getting newer equipment on the roadbuilding side. “It’s time,” says Menzel. “The lowest hours piece of equipment we have in roadbuilding is 10,000 hours.
“It’s important having our road construction completed on time as we have such a short time window for our logging,” he says.
When it comes to maintenance, as well as having a shop close to its operations at Harrison, Lizzie Bay has a shop adjacent to its office in the industrial park in Pemberton which looks after its heavy equipment and truck fleet. When things get busy, they also use JT Heavy Equipment Repair, also located in the industrial park.
Both its own shops and JT were busy in the last couple of years.
“We made a decision over the last two years, especially in 2021 because machines were harder to get, and good used iron was at an absolute premium, to do a lot of equipment rebuilds. The machines are still in good condition, and it saved us from having to rely on buying new equipment,” says LeBlanc.
Reflecting this, they put in six new engines and did seven undercarriages last year.
One of their bunchers got a new motor, a new undercarriage, and new pumps. At the end of that, that machine was on site, paid for, and ready to perform, vs. ordering a new machine, with its cost and uncertain delivery schedule.
“We needed equipment quick, and by investing money in a machine you already have, you can bring it up to a good standard,” says LeBlanc.
They have seven heavy duty mechanics at their own shop, and no doubt they have been very busy. They have a solid crew of mechanics—and LeBlanc and Menzel said they are fortunate, overall, to have a solid group of people working for them.
“I think we’ve done pretty well on the people side of things,” says Menzel. “Norm has been at this for so long, and has a good reputation. I think that people know it’s a good place to work, and we treat people well.” In the big picture, a company is only as good as its people, they both believe. LeBlanc set up Lizzie Bay Logging in 1983, and Menzel joined him in the business 18 years ago, and became a partner in the business seven years ago.
In recent years, rather than looking outside the region when they needed new employees, the company has hired local, and worked on developing their skills.
“Gord and his guys have done a really good job of bringing in young people and training—it’s been a challenge, but it’s been successful,” says LeBlanc. “We now have guys who are in their 20s and 30s. Ten years ago, we did not have anyone that young.”
They have also been actively working with local First Nations bands to hire employees—about 35 per cent of their employees are now First Nations members. “That has been huge for us,” says LeBlanc. “Like us, they are rooted in this community.”
Lizzie Bay is involved in a number of partnerships with First Nations Groups—and hopes to continue to grow that. They are involved in the Tsetspa7 First Nation logging partnership, with combined licences.
In addition to the expansions in other areas making good business sense, having other areas of work helps to keep their people employed, year ‘round.
On the construction side, the company recently completed building a new transfer station for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, and has had some large landscaping projects for some new high-end homes that have been built in the town. There has been a lot of development going on in the town over the last several years, which was perhaps helped along by COVID, and that has meant more work for Lizzie Bay Logging’s concrete arm, Pemberton Concrete Inc. The town is also a short drive from Whistler, which also helped development, since Whistler has some of the highest home prices, and rents, in the country.
“There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people with enough financial horsepower to buy or build in Pemberton,” says LeBlanc.
But it is kind of a double-edged sword, in that it has also driven home prices and rents up in the area. Any employees the company has hired from outside the area have found it a real challenge to find affordable housing. Hence hiring local makes even further sense.
The last few years have been a busy time for LeBlanc and Menzel—but they credit the people they are involved with, and their employees, for the success of the different operations. “You can’t do it all—we’re lucky that we have good partners and good employees,” says Menzel.
And, as that old saying goes, the two partners are glad that their business eggs are not all in one basket. “It was very tough in the forest industry in 2008 and 2009,” says LeBlanc. “I think a big reason why we pulled through then was we had diversified into other businesses.” And it has continued along that path.
“I think that diversification is a pretty healthy strategy—it’s working for us,” says LeBlanc.
As noted, Lizzie Bay Logging has been busy over the last several years, setting up new companies, doing a joint venture, and acquisitions.
On the forest industry side, they have set up a joint venture with a custom sawmill just down Highway 99, in Squamish, B.C., Van Urban Timber.
“That was a big move,” says Lizzie Bay co-owner Norm LeBlanc. “But it’s worked out well for us. We have our own timber, and we’ve been able to generate more value out of that timber, milling it with Van Urban. It’s turned out be to be a good fit.” The partnership helps Van Urban meet its need for logs, which had been a struggle at times.
Van Urban was founded in 2009 by Eric Savics and Danny Hagge in Vancouver. The company set up new operations in Squamish in 2015.
Working with Van Urban, Lizzie Bay is now able to decide whether to take their logs to the market, or direct them to Van Urban, to achieve the greatest revenue. Menzel noted that Van Urban is all about added value—they are not producing commodity products. They’re turning out post and beam products, for example—there’s nothing remotely comparable to a 2 by 4 coming out of the operation. Van Urban’s main piece of equipment is a Wood-Mizer WM1000—the first WM1000 to operate in Canada.
Lizzie Bay had its own small sawmill in Pemberton, which has been merged with Van Urban Timber.
They also set up Pemberton Concrete Inc. three years ago, a full service ready mix concrete and construction aggregate business. The company supplies both residential and commercial customers and projects of all different sizes.
The move was significant for Lizzie Bay since it involved the purchase of a large number of pieces of equipment specifically for use in a concrete operation. The company employs a variety of Mormak Equipment, as well as Hitachi and Cat mobile equipment.
They also purchased a tugboat company, Gravity Towing, which operates on Harrison Lake, and had done work for Lizzie Bay for many years.
And they have also set up a tree falling business, Cloudraker Tree Service, as well. It does a variety of complex jobs, from single stem helicopter logging operations, falling, removal of residential danger trees, maintenance of transmission lines and distribution power line right of way. It has done work as part of the clearing for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
On the Cover:
The last several years have been busy for B.C.’s Lizzie Bay Logging. In that time, in addition to diligently carrying out active logging activities during COVID, the company has become joint owner of a custom sawmilling business, acquired a towboating company, launched a concrete company—and started a tree services business. Read all about the company’s successful diversification beginning on page 12 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Lizzie Bay Logging)
Filling the need for fallers
There’s a shortage of certified fallers in B.C.—but fallers in training like Melie de Jonge are helping to fill that need, with the help of veteran faller—and certified instructor—Richard Butler.
Playing defense in forestry game
Veteran B.C. logger Clint Carlson is playing defense to weather today’s skewed business environment in the forest industry.
B.C.’s Lizzie Bay Logging is still very focused on logging, but is also finding success in diversifying its business.
Solid formula for sawmill survival
Strong faith, no debt and diversification have all helped Mardis Forest Products survive in turbulent times.
Pivoting to pre-finished products
Ontario’s Muskoka Timber Mills has made a successful market pivot to custom, pre-finished wood products, rebuilding after a devastating mill fire.
Tapping into an under-utilized fibre resource
A Haida-owned company in B.C. is working with under-utilized fibre, harvested sustainably, along with a custom sawmill operation, to produce value added wood products.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, is a story from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC).
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski notes that West Fraser Timber is investing in the future as Canadian softwood lumber producers face a tough year ahead, after some pretty flush times during COVID.