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A Start up in a Down Economy
Being new to the business, Robert doesn’t have a lot of equipment. A few of his essentials include a Madill 071 yarder, a Cat 330 Loader, a Cat 240 with Waratah 620 processor and a Linkbelt 3400.
By Robert Bruce
Not many people would choose to start a new business during an economic downturn — especially if their chosen industry happened to be logging. But Robert Howell is not your average entrepreneur.
Robert and his wife Tracy are part of the new generation of logging families. They both grew up in and around the logging industry and were personally aware of the difficulties involved. Robert’s father was a logger, and according to Tracy, it was always feast or famine while he was growing up.
Always Moving Forward
“But that’s not the direction he wanted to go,” Tracy says. “He’s not about going backwards. He always makes sure that when he puts a bid in, he’s going to make money — maybe not a lot, but enough to keep going. Our main goal is to stay busy and keep the guys that we have busy because they have families to take care of too. This is our way of life so it’s very important.”
Robert’s explanation as to why he went in to logging as opposed to getting a steady job in heating and air conditioning (which is what he got his degree in) is pretty simple. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to log (especially with the yarders). I like to have a lot going on, and I’d get kind of bored with just a small operation like my dad had.”
Robert’s company has been up and running for only about six years, and those have been some of the toughest around what with roller-coaster prices and demand. His main key to success has been his customer base, which is fairly diversified as far as size is concerned and also nicely loyal and reliable.
“I’ve been able to have a few people that recognize what I do and know I’m a hard worker,” he says. “I’ve been able to perform for those people — whether it be people I’ve worked with or worked alongside, or timber companies, or private landowners, and my name has just kind of gotten out there and we haven’t had hardly any downtime at all.”
Even more fortunate for him and his crew, he says that for the last two years he’s been able to find all his work within a half hour travel from downtown Cottage Grove.
“I have a few companies that I work for every year, and they provide four to five months of work. The rest of it — call it luck or just being in the right place at the right time — has just been there when we needed it.”
Top Notch Work
He admits that luck alone isn’t enough to win business on a continuing basis. “We make sure we do an excellent job. There’s always room for improvement, and I always try to take a little bit from each person and put it all together and make my own sort of plan. I’m not as fast as I would like to be, but we do a very good job and all of our customers are very happy.”
Most of the work he and his crew run into is smaller-diameter clear cutting, but on a recent job for Fruit Growers Supply Company he was brought in to pull out some old growth timber. “We were excited about doing old growth,” he says, “up until the point that we started logging that is.”
About half the clear cut is old growth. “It had never been cut; it was over-ripe and not producing, so we’re taking it all off so the owner can start over.”
The main problem was that the old growth wood was located way down in a draw on the other side of a slope some half mile away from the closest practical landing. “We’re talking logs 5 to 6 feet in diameter, and we’re hanging out a little over 3,000 feet and skying everything over a ridge. We had to put in a new skyline on the yarder just for the job, and then we made real sure the hook tender had everything tied back. On other jobs we can typically do around 30 to 40 loads a day, but on this one the logs are so big we can only get three-log loads and it takes so long to bring them in we are down to about 7 or 8 loads a day.”
Reliable Used Equipment
Along with the good fortune of being able to keep his crews working steadily, Robert has also taken the path of running with mostly used equipment and then keeping what he has in service for as long as possible.
Robert doesn’t have a huge pile of iron, but as he says, “I have enough to throw at a job to get it done.”
His equipment list includes a Madill 071 yarder with an Eagle 4 carriage, a Cat 330 log loader, a Cat 240 with a Waratah 620 processor head, a Cat 325 shovel logger, a TD-15 dozer, a Cat D5 dozer, and a Linkbelt 3400 that he keeps around as a spare. He recently added a Bowman skycar and a John Deere 370 with a Waratah 624 head. “I won’t have anything other than a Waratah,” he says.
“When the going gets tough, you put your head down and drive forward,” he says. “I run this older equipment and everything’s paid off. I don’t owe a dime on anything. At the same time, I’m learning for myself that running this older equipment means you have downtime, and the downtime is what kills you. If you have a newer piece of equipment, you don’t have any downtime. It’s a fine line between getting too big too fast and being comfortable and being able to take care of yourself in a bad situation.”
That seems like pretty sound wisdom from a guy who has only been running his own show for less than a decade. “I am the next generation of this industry,” he says. “I’m starting off young enough and in a tight enough situation as far as the economy goes that when things get better I think I’m going to have an upper hand on dealing with problems.”
Trying to Find the Young Crew
“When I started out on my own, for a long time I was the youngest guy on the crew — most of them had more experience than I do.”
Like most other company owners, he hasn’t seen that many other 20-somethings coming along interested in working in logging, and that concerns him. “The youngest guy we have on our crew right now is 25. The guy pulling rigging is 33, and he’s at the age where he’s going to want to be in a seat. These are my key guys in the brush. I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with that yet, but it’s going to be tough if we don’t start seeing more kids right out of high school like it used to be.”
Despite the market uncertainties, the long hours, and the many challenges of running a company, Robert says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I am very happy where I am,” he says. “I love what I’m doing. I like the people we get to work with. The people in this industry are good people. They are hard workers.”
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