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Agents of change--in the bush

Martin Marsolais and Sons Ltd has a long history of being open to change on the logging equipment side, and it's a tradition that the B.C. company continues to this day, with the third generation of the Marsolais clan now out in the woods.

A Cat 535B skidder-just part of the heavily Cat equipment line-up at Martin Marsolais and Sons-hard at work in the B.C. Interior.

Logger Martin Marsolais has a history of adapting to change in the forest industry-and it goes back a long ways. Take power saws, for example. Many of Marsolais' logging colleagues dismissed what was then a new cutting technology. At the time-like Marsolais-they relied on one-man Swede saws to fall trees and buck to length.

"They thought power saws would never catch on and they said the new saws were a waste of time," says Marsolais. "For me, the first power saws were heavy, but I thought they were the way to go."

Marsolais, who has witnessed every conceivable change to the industry he first entered as a teenager, adds, "I've always liked new machines and technology. I've always been willing to give new ideas a chance."

And that's one of the main reasons why Martin Marsolais and Sons Ltd., founded in 1966, has become one of the busiest and most respected logging contractors in the Prince George, B.C., region. As one of two prime contractors for Lakeland Mills Ltd. and a contractor to private wood owners, Martin Marsolais and Sons Ltd. harvests about 200,000 cubic metres annually, with a heavy emphasis on Caterpillar equipment to get the job done.

Martin's son Calvin, who bought into the company in the 1990s with his brother Karrey, is equally enthusiastic about using new-and sometimes unlikely-types of equipment if it proves reliable. For example, the company was the first of its kind in Western Canada to purchase a knuckle boom stroker.

"Over the years we've gotten strange looks from colleagues about the equipment we've tried out, but if it improves our operation, then of course we're all for it," says Martin.

Martin and Calvin Marsolais also share another characteristic that has been equally instrumental in the company's success. "They are meticulous about their finances," says Jason Knutson, customer account manager for Cat dealer Finning's Prince George office. "They know where every last penny goes, and they know how much it costs to run each machine in their inventory, right down to cost-per-hour. They've got business smarts by the bucket load."

"It's another thing I picked up from dad," says Calvin. "He always stressed the importance of finances to me, even when I started out in the company as a high schooler making extra money during summer vacation."

Family businesses are common in the logging industry. Subtle touches mark the Marsolais operation as a family affair to guests: their tendency to holler to each other from their respective offices; their dogs barking happily in the background; Calvin's wife, Debbie, in the front office, lights up when talking about her children. Even the company's Christmas card exhibits a familial theme: it's a photo taken in 1960 of Martin's first piece of equipment, a Cat 933 front end loader, with Martin, 32 at the time, and a four-year-old Calvin standing on the treads.

"I've always liked new machines and technology," says Martin Marsolais. "I've always been willing to give new ideas a chance."

Dynasties get started in many colourful ways, but ironically Martin didn't set out to become a logging contractor, and he didn't come from a logging family. "My father did a lot of things, including working in the forest, but I chose this field simply because I wanted to make a living, and in 1947 there was a job opening," he says.

When he relocated to Prince George to work for one of the Sinclar mills, trees were still being felled with cross saws and skidded by horse. Of his Cat 933 purchase, he says, "Even back then, prices weren't cheap. The 933 did the job, but it needed a lot of improvement. From there I went with a 955 and then performed custom loading with a 977."

Martin doesn't dwell on the complexities of launching his business, but he does reveal some of his hard-driving work ethic when he says of his sons, "They began working with me early. At 14, Calvin was helping the buckers. They started the day early and came home late. It may have been a difficult way to learn, but that's what makes you a good man."

Innovations characterized Marsolais and Sons operations almost from its inception (see sidebar story on page 12), and from employing a dozen workers throughout the 1960s to the point that the company today uses about 30 people in the bush. Moreover, the company has adapted to industry changes including the Forest Practices Code, SAFE certification (which it obtained from the BC Forest Safety Council last year) and WorkSafe BC. Similarly, it has evolved to meet an ever-changing market, going from hand bucking to mechanical bucking, from landings to road side, and from long logs to precision bucking.
"Our phone rings 24/7," says Debbie. "My husband begins his day at 1:30 a.m., and he's happiest when the temperature is around –15 or –20 degrees C because the ground is completely frozen and easier to navigate. It's a tough life we've chosen, certainly not for the faint-hearted."

Pictured with a Cat 325B processor are three generations of the Marsolais Family: Martin on the right, son Calvin on the left and grandson Jayme in the middle.

The family's black lab cross, Ford, outfitted with his own safety vest, often accompanies Calvin into the bush.
After Calvin and Karrey bought into the business, the ties with Cat dealer Finning continued. "We tried other product lines over the years, but we mostly opt for Finning because of the support they offer," says Calvin. "If there's a problem in the field, they can help. And they offer financing. They're the closest thing around to a one-stop-equipment shop."

Calvin gives equal credit to Karrey, who left the business in 2004, for helping to grow Martin Marsolais and Sons Ltd. to its current capacity and, equally important, to navigate the numerous downturns and cutbacks that have plagued the industry.
"In the past, the busiest day we ever had was hauling 53 five-axle loads out of the bush, but today we routinely haul between 21 and 35 seven-axle loads daily, depending on the season," says Calvin.

Helping to fulfill the daily duties at the operation is Calvin's son Jayme, 22, who works the butt 'n top for his father. He's the third generation of the Marsolais clan, which is coming into its own with Calvin steering the company steadily into the 21st century.
But it seems like the company won't let Martin go. "We still view Martin as the boss," says Debbie. "He still comes in every day to lighten our load, and he has a wealth of practical experience that we all rely on."

For his part, Martin pays little attention to protocol or the passing years. To him, work is perpetual, and so are new business opportunities. "Put it this way, I don't feel good lying around doing nothing-I never have," he says. "Working hard has been such a big part of my life that it's second nature. And even though the market isn't so hot right now, I still love the industry. Always will."

This is an edited version of a story that appeared in Cat dealer Finning Equipment's publication, Tracks & Treads. It is reprinted with permission.

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March Logging and Sawmilling Journal

Spotlight
With the drop in demand for lumber in the United States, efforts to develop a larger market in China for Canadian lumber have been ramped up, and a B.C. First Nations band recently set up a representative office in China to tap into this potentially huge market.

Third generation logger
Martin Marsolais and Sons Ltd has a long history of being open to change on the logging equipment side, and it's a tradition that the company continues to this day, with the third generation of the Marsolais clan now out in the woods.

Biomass generating big time energy
With the start-up of a new $84
million biomass power plant at the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill in Fort Frances, Ontario, forest slash that had been previously burned in the bush is now being ground up by local contractors and transported to the power plant.

Pinnacle of success
In the face of an industry downturn,
Pinnacle Pellet Inc. is charting its own path, with a very successful business strategy that includes a new $20 million wood pellet plant in B.C.

Engineered wood expansion
Louisiana-Pacific is positioned well for the future with the start-up of its new $140 million Laminated Strand Lumber operation.

Saw Filer's Show

Alberta forestry show adds construction sector
The Northern Alberta Forestry Show is working to add value by including the construction sector in the show, being held May 8 in Grande Prairie.

The Last Word
Jim Stirling notes that as if the forest industry doesn't have enough concerns, a familiar problem--the lack of progress in negotiations with First Nations groups--is seething just below the surface, threatening to explode.