By Jan Jackson
SAINT MARIES, IDAHO – Brothers Chad and Bret Nelson found their way into the logging business even though they didn’t grow up in a logging family. Today, as Nelson Brothers Timber Management, they contract cut, stay on top of the latest equipment, hire contract truckers, and work alongside their two crews to produce 90 to100 loads per week.
St. Maries (pronounced St. Marys by the locals) is a timber basket town of about 2,500 people in northern Idaho’s St. Joe River Valley. Surrounded by stands of Grand fir, Doug fir, Western cedar, and larch, Nelson Brothers is an hour and one-half east of Spokane, Washington, and three hours northwest of Missoula, Montana.
When asked if they had any problems running the company as siblings, they answered a resounding no. Chad, the elder, oversees bunching and skidding operations, and Bret supervises processing, loading, and dealing with truckers. Chad’s wife, Reva, does the bookkeeping. They are proud of being able to listen to each other’s point of view, take it into consideration, and then go with the best idea for the company.
Chad and Bret are believers in making use of the newest and latest technology. When they are making a decision about buying new equipment, they also get input from their experienced employees.
“We hire guys who are very good loggers and have been in the industry a long time,” said Chad, “so when we go to buy a new piece of equipment, we get their opinion on what they want.”
The company’s newest machine is a Tigercat LSX870D shovel with a Tigercat BG13 grapple. They went with the Tigercat “because it was exceptionally stable on steep ground,” said Chad. Bret, Chad, and the employee who operates it, were all in agreement on the decision.
“We want to be on the cutting edge, and it makes a double win for us and our crew,” said Chad. “Our employees work their tails off for us, and we understand that’s why we’re making it. “We also rely heavily on Tigercat and Papé Machinery dealers in Spokane and Torgerson out of Missoula,” said Chad.
Carl Duer, a Papé territory manager, recently arranged for a demo of a John Deere skidder when the company briefly needed one. “Carl has been with us from the beginning, and even knowing that we probably weren’t ready to buy it, he wanted us to run it and see its capabilities,” said Chad. “He knows it’s not going to be an instant sell, but it helped us out, and he’s in it for the long run. We are lucky to work with so many people who have so much more experience running equipment than we do.”
The company does felling with a TimberPro 755D with a Quadco 24B hot saw and a Tigercat LS855E with a Tigercat 5195 directional felling head. Skidding and shoveling are done with a John Deere 748L2 skidder, a Tigercat 880D logger, and the new Tigercat LSX870D shovel. Processing the trees is done by a John Deere 2656G with a Waratah 623C head and a Link-Belt 290 with a Waratah 623C. For loading the company has a Doosan DX300LL with a Pierce grapple. A subcontractor, Tony Appel, also does loading with his John Deere 2656G loader. Nelson Bros. also has a Falcon winch assist and a John Deere 772D motor grader.
Chad normally operates the TimberPro, and Bret usually runs the Tigercat 880D. Six other employees operate equipment.
Chad, 42, began working in a logging company shop when he was a high school sophomore. In more than 20 years with the company he learned to drive trucks and then logging equipment. He has operated a buncher or harvester for the last 15 years, and now it’s his niche.
Bret, 36, began working in the same logging company shop but shortly changed direction and went to work for a tire company. After a work injury, he went back to the logging company.
“I worked with Chad for another five years or so, then went to work for a gentleman who was phasing his way out of logging, and that’s where I had the opportunity to start buying his equipment,” said Bret.
“When I was a kid,” said Bret, “I always told myself I wanted to own my own business and thought someday I would. Actually, Chad was working on going into business for himself, too, I just beat him to the punch. It was like, I want to bring my brother on board because I can’t do this without him. So I asked Chad if he’d be interested in starting a logging company with me and he was like, ‘Yeah, for sure. Let’s do it.’ We are extra lucky, too, because Dad works with us as one of our contract truckers.”
The Nelsons have had no employee turnover since they started their business. They attribute the success in retaining employees to the fact that they work as part of the crew rather than just supervise from the inside of an office or pickup truck. In addition, they do their best to treat employees how they would want to be treated. Employee benefits include health insurance, a retirement plan with a 3 percent match, and a company pickup truck.
“We used to be able to work close to town,” said Bret. “We logged it all close to St. Maries 10, 15 to 20 years, and now we’re working deeper into the forest. The trees close to us now are either on state or U.S. Forest Service land or on a Potlatch second growth plantation that won’t be ready to long for another 15 or 20 years.”
Nelson Brothers supplies logs to PotlatchDeltic, Idaho Forest Group, ALTA, Idaho Cedar, Stella Jones, Stimson, and Clearwater Fiber.
Chad and Bret are both active in several trade organizations. They are members of the American Loggers Council, Chad is a board member for the Intermountain Logging Conference, and Bret is a board member of the Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho and also serves on the safety committee.
They also work closely with the University of Idaho-Moscow associate program and the St. Maries High School biennial career day. “We believe the future of the industry is in the hands of the youth,” said Reva. “We bring in our own equipment and let the kids get hands-on time to see what running equipment is all about.”
“It takes all hands-on deck to keep the industry alive and sustainable,” added Reva. “We want to do our part to show that the industry can be a good career choice. We share a lot of photos and videos on social media as part of this mission.”
Nelson Brothers loggers participate in an annual safety class that’s mandatory for every Idaho logger. The company has a written safety plan, and it provides map coordinates for every job to the Idaho Safety Commission in order to arrange a helicopter transport in case of an injured worker.
Chad and Bret want to keep the size of their business as it is now, continue to help with their trade associations and the University of Idaho, and try to set aside more free time for family.
Bret said, “We get a lot of people who ask, ‘With so few people, how are you doing that much volume?’ It comes down to using the latest technology and having really good employees. We want to control and manage what we have, and with two owners, I think we’re at that point now.”
“The hard part is to manage the work so we have time for the family,” added Bret. “Before we started this business, I would say we were all about hunting and fishing, but we don’t have much time for that anymore. Chad and Reva, have an identical set of five-year old twins, and my wife, Kelci, and I have a 16-, 10-, and three-year-old. The older two are old enough so we do a lot of high school and middle school ball, horses and the state fair. Chad and I are also members of the Elks Benevolent Protection Orders, the St Joe River Boat Club, and the St. Joe Snow Riders. We all enjoy the great outdoors.
Weekends are full, noted Bret. “I get up super early on Saturdays and Sundays and weld this or that or go get the oils, and Chad and I meet and get our pricing for our next strip. We do that early in the mornings or late in the afternoons because during the day we are busy with our families.”
The brothers have an answer when people ask them how they make their success look so easy. “Well, there’s two of us to begin with,” said Chad. “That’s a big help, having two bosses. You take care of this, and I’ll take care of that, ready, go! But, it isn’t easy. We just work hard to make it look like it is.”
ON THE COVER
Cat 568LL forest machine loads a truck at a landing. Pihl Logging has seven loaders in all: three Cat machines, three Doosans, and one Prentice.
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Firewood production aids Pihl Logging when wet ground slows work; investment in Tajfun firewood processor pays off.
Believers in New Technology
Nelson Brothers Timber Management chooses a Tigercat LSX870D shovel for its stability in steep terrain.