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CONTRACTOR PROFILE

High growth operators

Ontario logging contractors Wyatt Pawluk and Darren Dumonski have made numerous equipment upgrades on their way to quickly growing their operation.

By Dave Lammers

Wyatt Pawluk

Wyatt Pawluk is known to just about every logger who pulls in to the Husky Station in Thunder Bay, Ontario on a busy Saturday morning. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Pawluk nods his head in response to a chorus of "Good mornin' Wyatt," as a procession of bush workers files into the restaurant for breakfast. Then, one-by-one, they pull out of the parking lot in their full size pick-ups muddied from a week in the woods.

Pawluk co-owns one of the fastest growing logging businesses in northwestern Ontario. At age 40, he and partner Darren Dumonski, 35, have gone from being operators for Dorion, Ontario-based Tri-Timber Contracting Inc three years ago to being owners of the company. They have more than doubled its size, as well as started another company that has grown to the same size as Tri-Timber.

"Yeah, we were pretty hungry,"Pawluk says with a smile, about the moves made since taking over Tri-Timber from his older brother, Jim, who was ready to retire in 1998. "We came in and were all set to go. It had to go up more rather than stay the same," adds Pawluk a former slasher owner/operator.

Darren Dumonski with Tri-Timber's Timberjack Buncher.  Over the past several years, Tri-Timber has more than doubled in size, growth that has been accompanied by numerous equipment upgrades.

Pawluk, who is general manager of Tri-Timber, immediately hired additional subcontractors to increase the harvest on the White River Forest, located 300 kilometres north of Sault Ste Marie on the north shore of Lake Superior. The company operates there as a third party on Domtar's licence. "The potential was there," says Pawluk. "The forest was never maximized. We could cut 240,000 metres a year and we were only doing about half that. Now we've got it up pretty close."

Tri-Timber has also made numerous equipment upgrades and purchased a maintenance garage in White River shortly after the company switched hands. It has gone from fixing machines "in a snowbank more or less" to a comprehensive maintenance approach. "Before it was just putting out the fires more or less.Now we're getting to where we've hired enough people that we've got our act together. We track all our equipment, the hours, the maintenance and everything," says Pawluk.

Tri-Timber has a total of 30 employees, including 18 direct employees, as well as owner/operators subcontracted for loading and hauling. When Pawluk and Dumonski bought the company, they inherited two Timberjack 618 feller bunchers, a 748G John Deere grapple skidder, three Hood slashers, a D6 dozer, a John Deere backhoe and one Western Star truck for hauling. The company also had two additional subcontracted skidder contractors in place.

Eager to grow, Tri-Timber added two Hood slashers for a total of five and a rubber-tired, Timberjack C90 delimber. The C90 has been an especially good purchase, according to Pawluk. "That brought production "Our 1995 Timberjack 618 is also a really nice machine," adds Pawluk. "What the guys like is the multifunction-it seems to be really balanced well. It has a four-pump system, whereas most of them now have one or two pumps, that's it."

Other equipment purchases include a new 330 Cat backhoe bought in 2000, and other used equipment including a D7 dozer to go along with the D6 and two John Deere 892 backhoes used for building approximately 100 kilometres of tertiary roads a year. The company also purchased a Volvo rock truck and now has two tandem Western Star trucks.

Pawluk and Dumonski have also formed a non-union company, Kabi Lake Forest Products, subcontracting all cutting and skidding, delimbing, slashing and topping further east on the north shore in the Wawa and Hornepayne areas.

Together, the two companies employ 70 workers-30 with Tri-Timber and 40 with Kabi Lake Products-harvesting a total of 450,000 metres a year.
Pawluk shakes his head at the thought that the pair has, in essence, quadrupled the output of his brother's previous business, albeit with two companies. Looking back, he admits they may have taken on too much at the start, with a good-sized debt load for much of the first three years. 

Poor managing added to Tri-Timber's troubles early on, Pawluk admits, pointing specifically to a lack of planning. "We've been caught with 50,000 cubic metres of inventory in the spring, which is detrimental to your cashflow," he says with a laugh.

"We were hot and cold. In the winter months we would really produce and the summer months were really iffy-the ground is really rocky, it's just a boulder patch, and the undercarriages on our bunchers only last around 4,000 hours," he says.

"You also end up with too good of drainage and the poplar, the aspen doesn't have the moisture content it needs-so you get a lot of rot in it and smaller diameters. In the winter you can get into those better areas and get in there a little cheaper."

Last year, the company was hurt by an early spring breakup which cut the hauling season short by more than a month. Tri-Timber usually sends approximately 100,000 cubic metres to Weyerhaeuser's OSB mill in Wawa every year. "Everybody got caught with wood last year-we got rain in February and we usually haul up to the first week of April-Weyerhaeuser had to purchase wood from another mill."

That was a turning point for the company and its new owners, says Pawluk, adding that Weyerhaeuser gave the young contractors some pointers. "They started saying we had to do business a different way. They made us keep track of our business. It's not like the old days where you cut some trees down and ship them in. right up," he says. "We don't do a lot of softwood, we're about 80 to 85 per cent hardwood and we don't really need a delimber. The tracked one we found was too slow-it took a lot to move it around. We went to a rubber tired one now and it seems a lot better.
"They wanted to know what we had for the next month. They've been doing a balancing act because people produce and then they don't produce. And now we're on a pretty steady stream."

Weyerhaeuser also challenged Pawluk and Dumonski to maximize their potential. "I didn't see much past Tri-Timber before," says Pawluk. "But now looking back, starting the other company was the natural way to go. The mills were needing that type of service and that's what we filled for them."
Pawluk is still getting used to his role as general manager in charge of hiring employees and subcontractors and handling union issues with Tri-Timber. Dumonski is site foreman in charge of all bush operations.

Getting the right people in place and trusting them to do the work has been essential to building a successful company, says Pawluk. "When you're used to doing everything yourselves as an owner/operator, it's hard to switch over," he says. "I used to do all the maintenance myself when we started."
Tri-Timber currently has three maintenance workers in the garage at White River. The cost of doing business is high in the remote north shore community of 1,000, Pawluk adds. Due to a lack of cell phone service in the area, the company relies on expensive satellite phones in the bush to communicate. "It's the middle of nowhere. Your parts are a day away all the time. You have to rely on getting it on the bus and getting it down to White River. It costs us lots of money every year to do that."

Tri-Timber has a house next door to the garage and both he and Dumonski travel home to their families in Dorion, approximately 80 kilometres east of Thunder Bay, on weekends.

Owning a logging contracting business is hard work, the two have learned. "We're used to 12 hour days. That's all we ever used to work. We have the guys in the shop at 6 am. They come in for direction and we get them out the door. I don't know if it's called work or not, butwe're still taking calls at 10 at night," says Pawluk.

The owners don't have any immediate plans to expand further, he says. "In the future I'd like to see us level off and do it easily, instead of it being a race and see how much we can do. It would be a lot easier on everybody, on the workers and on management too."

However, Pawluk admits he hasn't changed much since he borrowed his first $200,000 at age 24 to purchase a slasher and went on to buy three machines in his first four years. "I've always wanted to take on a lot-all my life I've been like that," he recalls.

"I think we took on a bit too much with Tri-Timber. If you can start small, it's a lot better. Get it under your belt and running right and carry on that way. Then, if you want to grow a little bit again, go ahead. I think that's a better route than taking everything that's handed to you.
"We've backed off a little bit," says Pawluk. He pauses, then smiles and adds: "But we've still got that fight in us."

 

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