Photo by Sandi Zepp
By Andrea Watts
On a Weyerhaeuser tree farm in northern Grays Harbor County, Adam Zepp is the lone operator in the sale area. Each tree that he falls with the Tigercat feller buncher is deliberately laid out to maximize efficiency for the operator who will shovel log the trees to the landing.
Having worked in the logging industry for over a decade in all positions on the landing, Adam knows the role of every operator, and this experience influences how he approaches his job. It’s an approach that Wes Tracy, a harvest manager for Weyerhaeuser, appreciates. “Zepp is unique in terms of outlook and setting it up for the loggers who come after,” says Wes. “He sets the whole site up for success, and it’s up to us to execute on that.”
It’s in the Blood
At 34 years old and owner of Fuller Creek Enterprises LLC, Adam is one of the younger members in the logging industry, but he’s no newcomer; he is the third generation of Zepps to find employment in the woods. In the ‘50s, his grandpa Boyd started a logging company that became a family affair. Adam’s grandma Wilma drove the log truck while Boyd drove the team of horses. In the subsequent decades, their company rode out many ups and downs in the timber industry.
Following Mount Saint Helens’ eruption in 1980, Boyd was contracted to clean up the debris in the streams and rivers. He then transitioned to buying state timber sales and began logging for the Jorgensen family in Lewis county. According to grandma, says Adam, when grandpa passed away in 1993, he employed about 150 people, which included contractor trucks and hand fallers. Among the employees were Adam’s five uncles and father, nearly all of whom leveraged their experience into starting their own companies. Over the course of his career in the timber industry, Boyd’s equipment portfolio reflected the technological change that was occurring: he started with horses and purchased one of the first roto-saws, which was a predecessor of the hot saw used today.
Witnessing a hot saw in action decided Adam’s future career choice. “I saw my first hot saw in action at the age of 12 being ran by Tony White, who at the time was working for Terry Akins, and I was hooked,” Adam says. “I told myself that I was going to own one someday.”
At the time, Adam’s father Albert had his own logging company, but in 2000, he began chipping and grinding hybrid poplar trees. During the mid-90s, a number of landowners in the area, including Albert, had planted hybrid poplar in anticipation of a future market.
“I was bummed to see dad get out of logging, but it was a move that paid off well for dad and our family,” Adam says. “It also gave my brothers and me a chance to work for him at a young age because the work was classified as ag.”
Adam learned to run his first feller buncher, a Morbark three-wheeler with a shear head. His father later bought an older Timbco, also with a shear head. “Dad always said that if I could make anything older look good while running it, then I would appreciate the new stuff,” explains Adam. “I can’t argue that statement.” He credits his dad for being very patient and willing to teach Adam and his brothers about life and work.
After high school, Adam attended two years of Centralia Community College. Yet he wanted to work in the woods, and summers were spent working for his dad’s company. Alvin Gay, a family friend, saw Adam’s drive to become a feller buncher operator. Alvin introduced Adam to Craig Chambers and Bob Tomatich, with Cosmopolis-based Mountain Pacific Enterprises, who were looking for someone to help on weekends.
“I showed up out in the woods near Humptulips and talked with Craig for a while and then he watched me run the machine for about 45 minutes,” Adam says. “I remember thinking that I had finally done it and if he didn’t like what he saw, at least I had finally run a hot saw.”
Adam passed the interview since Craig said to call him next week for work on the next weekend. After finally graduating college, Adam went to work full time in the forestry industry. He worked for a number of outfits in Grays Harbor County, including Pete Muller Logging, Black Lake Timber, and R. L. Smith Logging. Of his nearly four years working with Roger Smith, Adam shares that “working for Roger was great.”
Although Adam learned to operate all the equipment on the job site, he preferred the hot saw. He returned to Mountain Pacific Enterprises to be their feller buncher and then began to seriously consider starting his own business. Roger and Carmen helped Adam develop a budget, and Bruce Valentine with Black Lake Timber provided advice regarding how to get started, After considering all the information, I felt pretty good that my dad and I were within dollars for what Bruce, Roger, and Carmen said it would take to run a contact cutting company, Adam says.
Making the Leap
In 2014, Adam took a leap of faith into self-employment, but it was a family decision. He and his fiancée, now wife, Rachel had talked about her wanting to stay home with their two daughters. “I told her I knew how to make it happen, but she might not see me a lot,” says Adam.
The inspiration for the name he choose for his company was familial inspired. “Where I live [ in the Elma area] Fuller Hill is the hill I live on and Fuller Creek runs right through the middle of my dad’s property and borders ours,” says Adam. “My grandma Wilma’s maiden name was Fuller, and the Fuller’s homesteaded the hill.”
For his feller buncher purchase, Adam went to Modern Machinery in Rochester where he worked with Jim Stevens, who also sold equipment to Grandpa Boyd, Albert, and Adam’s uncles. Jim got Adam in the seat of a Komatsu XT 450L-2. Of the experience, Adam reflects upon it fondly. “It was good working with Jim, because there was a family tie,” Adam says. “Jim is a dying breed in salesman as far as I’m concerned, he makes things happen, and if he says he has it taken care of it is taken care of. You just don’t find that much anymore in most people. I owe a lot to that man for being willing to put the trust in me to make those rental purchase option payments in the beginning.”
The first six months in business found Adam contracting for Don Painter Logging out of Eatonville and Grose Construction out of Morton. He then settled in with Brintech Logging out of Mossyrock. “Buying the equipment is the easy part,” he explains. “You have to have the work, and this is a tough industry to get into.” Much of the work Adam did for the first four years of his self-employment involved staying out of town in a motel, which he disliked because it meant being away from his family.
On the advice of several contract loggers, Adam reached out to the Weyerhaeuser office in Aberdeen and asked if they were looking for contract cutters. “It was a move that has paid off well in the sense that all my work is within an hour of my house now for the most part, and I am very thankful for that”, Adam says. “They like what I do, and I try really hard to keep them in wood to log.”
After two Komatsu bunchers, Adam decided to get back into a Tigercat. “I started on a hot saw with a Tigercat and am very partial to them,” he says. “I very much appreciated my relationship with Modern Machinery, but the Tigercat bunchers are much more suited for the Northwest terrain and are more purpose built for the logging industry.”
In 2018, Adam purchased a Tigercat LX 830D from Triad Machinery. “It was a game changer for my small company, the Tigercat bunchers go everywhere with ease, and they hold up to whatever comes their way,” explains Adam. “I’ve been impressed with them. Tigercat stands behind their product, I can call the local Tigercat representatives or even email Grant Somerville, who is the president of the company, and he will get back to me within the days. You won’t get that with many other companies. They care about their customers, and they want their equipment to be the best.”
As a contract cutter, Adam is usually on the job for 12 hours, and he enjoys the solitude and independence. “I like being out in the woods by myself,” he says. “I enjoy being my own boss. It’s simple when you’re small you can adjust easier.” To move his buncher between jobs, he contracts with Brumfield Construction.
Although he may be alone on the job site, Adam doesn’t run the company solo. “Everything I’m doing business wise wouldn’t be possible without Rachel,” he explains. “She’s my rock to lean on, picks me up when I fall, and does the books. She’s a very patient woman.” A father of three girls, Adam wants to provide the same experience for them to get behind the wheel. He’s looking to buy a mid-size excavator to see if one of them is interested in learning how to operate it. And it’s this type of experience that is needed to attract the next generation into the woods. In an industry where the majority of the workers are in their 50s and 60s, Adam is aware of the need to bring in younger employees, such as himself, and the challenges of doing this.
“There is not a lot of room for error [in our profession], yet when bringing new people on, people need to learn patience,” he says. And for young people looking to gain experience, Adam advises, “keep asking questions and eventually they will throw you in the seat. They are willing to share. I was able to learn from a lot of good operators.”
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