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Developing a Niche
Twin Sisters Trucking Inc. adds long logs and poles
Jeff Engholm owns Whatcom County-based Twin Sisters Trucking Inc., a trucking firm that specializes in hauling long logs — destined to be poles — from the woods to the pole yard and hauling finished poles to their destinations.
“Hauling poles, especially the really big and long poles, is a lot of extra work and is not for everyone,” Jeff says, discussing his trade. “It’s the kind of niche market that allows a small business owner to succeed by setting himself apart by doing something a little different. I don’t know that I would still be in business if I hadn’t had the versatility hauling poles adds to my business. I guess the fact that I am still in business shows the value of not having tunnel vision, of making sure you do your best to serve as broad a part of the industry as you can and still stay within your business plan.”
Self Loader and Grandpa
Jeff attributes the fact that he is in the forest products industry to one of his childhood heroes — his grandfather. “When I was 14 years old, I would get up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and ride my bike seven miles each day just to ride in his truck,” Jeff remembers. “Grandpa Vic had a self-loader for years, and now my dad owns the business Grandpa started. I guess that’s ultimately what got me into the business.”
A lifelong resident of Whatcom County, Jeff went to work for Alpine H&S Logging, greasing trucks nights and weekends when he was sixteen. Upon graduation from Mt. Baker High School, he attended Bellingham Vocational Technical Institute’s Heavy Duty Diesel program, continued working at Alpine as a heavy duty mechanic, then went to work for Bakerview Equipment Rental under the tutelage of Del and Rick Bosman.
Moving into the Business
In 1995, the woods called again when Jeff had the chance to buy a self-loading truck from Brian and Steve Pederson of Pederson Brothers Trucking. “I started out hauling logs then decided to set my truck up to haul poles,” he comments. “I decided early on that I wanted my business to be as flexible as possible, so I went ahead and made the investment needed to install a three-stage reach and a stinger. Today, I can haul anything up to a 127’ pole.”
Jeff points out that hauling poles is a specialty niche requiring different skills and different equipment compared to hauling logs. “Especially in the woods, I’ll end up jockeying 100’ plus logs down roads originally designed for regular loads,” he comments. “Poles are high value products so a lot is lost if one is damaged banging against a stump or hitting a rock that wouldn’t even come into play for a typical load.”
Jeff points out, “Loading is sometimes an issue as well.” The problem comes from the fact that, especially for a load of long poles, the load must be balanced with some butt ends facing forward and some facing to the rear. “It can be tough on a small landing for a contractor to accommodate my needs, and of course, time is money so sometimes the contractor is reluctant to spend the extra time necessary to alternate butt ends and tops. Then it is my job to get the load properly onto the truck.”
Moving into a Niche Market
Despite the challenges of the job, Jeff says he is glad he made the decision to outfit his rig to accommodate poles and work on the specialized approaches necessary for hauling poles.
“Given the economy in recent years, I’m not sure I would still be in business today if I hadn’t done that,” he says. “When I started, there were lots of little guys in the business but since the late ‘90s, a shift has taken place as the bigger companies have begun taking on even small jobs to stay alive. The business has changed, and the ability to haul poles has become an important asset for me.”
Establishing himself in the business took a lot of time and effort, Jeff points out. “When you enter a niche market, you are competing with people who are established. I decided I didn’t want to be seen as a threat to anyone, so I went to guys who were already in the business and told them I would appreciate it if they would work with me when they needed back up to handle overflow times. I wanted to be an asset to them, not someone trying to take their business away.”
Playing Well with Others Pays Off
The result of his approach, Jeff says, is that men like Ron Moore who was hauling for Oeser in Bellingham and Dick Kemp who was a mainstay for J.H. Baxter (now Stella-Jones) in Arlington became friends and fellow haulers. “The good relationships I developed with those two and many others meant a lot to me in the early days.”
Jeff says he gradually built a reputation and began to haul regularly. “It wasn’t easy, I was in business for seven years before I was able to take my first vacation but I gradually began to see more stability in my business. Today I am regularly called on to transport poles up and down the coast and, sometimes, even to the Midwest.”
Trips to the Midwest are often last minute and rushed, Jeff says. “Storms come up out of nowhere and suddenly there is an emergency need for poles.” For example, tornado damage in Iowa last year required ten thousand poles be delivered on short notice. “The day before the storm, no one imagined we’d be gearing up the next day to run back east.”
Jeff believes in running good equipment. “Customers count on me so I have to come through and that means keeping my equipment up to date and well maintained,” he says.
Today Twin Sisters Trucking runs a Kenworth T800 truck purchased new in 2010 outfitted with a Capital Industries Olympic 10-ton self loader with a 25’ boom. A three-stage “reach” allows for adjusting the bunks on the trailer depending on the length of the poles to be hauled. A “stinger” extension on the trailer allows for additional length to haul the exceptionally long poles. “I chose both my truck and the loader because I knew I could count on the equipment,” he says.
Keys to Success
When asked how a young man might hope to succeed in today’s world, given circumstances similar to those Jeff found himself in when he began his own business, Jeff points to work ethic, imagination, and money management as keys.
“You have to try to do something different from everyone else, something to set yourself apart,” Jeff contends. “You can’t have tunnel vision. You have to look for opportunity.”
Next, Jeff says, “Money management is everything. You have to learn to operate your business within the resources available to you, and maybe even more important, when things are going well, you have to think about a future when things might not go quite as well. I see too many people get a pile of money in, spend it all, and then be unable to meet obligations in tough times.”
Lastly, when starting out, a strong work ethic is vital. “I worked for seven years before I took a real vacation,” he says. “If you are new and you want to succeed, you should plan on several years of working lots of days and long hours. The guy who will work when no one else wants to is more likely to succeed than someone who wants to pick and choose hours.”
When all is said and done, Jeff says, he has enjoyed his time in the forest products industry, and he enjoys giving back, including being president of the Deming Log Show more than once.
“This industry supported my grandpa and today, supports my dad, my brothers, and myself,” Jeff says. “It is a pleasure to give support back to the industry.”
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